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Bulb Forcing 101: How to get Spring Blooms in the Dead of Winter

Hyacinths potted up and in bloom
Hyacinths potted up and in bloom


You’re going to do WHAT to that poor, defenseless bulb?! Getting past its dreadful name, bulb forcing isn’t so bad. In truth, bulb forcing is relatively cheap, easy, and certainly rewarding. A preview of spring in the dead of winter is one of the greatest gifts a gardener can give themselves. Instead of “forcing” bulbs, I prefer to think of it as “tricking them into bloom.” And hey, why not play a little prank once in a while on our plant friends. We’ve certainly had a few played on us! (Who hasn’t planted a new purchase expecting one color bloom and gotten something completely different? I’m still trying to find a place to move the lavender azalea planted among my salmon ones. Some color combinations just don’t work…)

Getting back to tricking your bulbs… Who loves a good trick more than kids? This is one of the best ways to get a child involved in gardening and I highly recommend it for an at-home, rainy day activity.


Daffodils on their way to blooming in mid-winter
Daffodils on their way to blooming in mid-winter


Here are the basics and a few extra tips I’ve learned from past experiments:


1. Bulb Selection. You don’t need to buy any specific variety or kinds. You can just set aside a few bulbs from those that you bought for outside plantings. After they are done livening up your winter, you can plant them outside after the last frost to return with your other bulbs annually.

One word note of caution:  indoor bulbs can sometimes give off potent smells. Some people love them, some don’t — paperwhites and hyacinth are especially notorious in the love/hate category. Experiment a bit, and you’ll soon learn which scents are to your tastes and which are just too overpowering for inside your home.

2. Timing. Keep in mind that bulbs bloom about 3-4 weeks after they’re removed from cold storage, which lasts about 12 weeks. So if you want blooms for a specific occasion, you need to pot up the bulbs about 16 weeks in advance of the event.

3. Bulb Planting. Regular bulbs should be planted in soil, but at a shallower depth than you would outside. The top of the bulb should be even with the soil line and there needs to be about 2? of soil below the bulbs for root development. The container should have drainage holes. Because it will be inside your house and no one likes a leaky mess on their furniture, I recommended lining the bottom of the pot with scrap landscape fabric and placing the pot on a good-sized saucer filled with a layer of pebbles. Place the bulbs pointy side up and with the “flat” side towards the outside of the pot and as tight as you like. Crowding them actually makes a nicer visual effect than spacing them out. It also helps the foliage from growing out too much and flopping over. Water in well and weekly thereafter.

Cold storage in the vegetable bin
Cold storage in the vegetable bin

4. Cold Storage/Removal for Flowering. Place the potted-up bulbs in cold storage for about 12 weeks. Cold storage should be roughly 40-50 degrees and no light – perhaps your basement, garage, or the

crisper drawer in your refrigerator. Different bulbs have different cold cycle times but most are between 12-16 weeks. (At the full 16 weeks, tulips need the most time.) Mark your calendars so that you don’t forgot about them.

When you first remove them from storage place them in indirect light and away from a heat source to prevent legginess. After 2 weeks, when they’ve sprouted and several inches high, move them to a sunny, warm window. Once a flowerhead/bud starts to develop, you can then move it to your desired location with indirect sunlight to prolong the bloom life. Keep moist during this entire time out of cold storage. Enjoy!

By Kathy Jentz

Kathy Jentz is Editor of Washington Gardener Magazine, the only gardening publication published specifically for the local metro area — zones 6-7 — Washington DC and its suburbs.  The magazine, written entirely by local area gardeners, is published four times per year. To subscribe to the magazine: click on the “subscribe” link at WashingtonGardener.com.

Photo credits:  Hyacinths by  Elizabeth Licata, Daffodils and cold storage by Kathy Jentz, Paperwhites by Susan Harris.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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