In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Forced spring-blooming bulbs always brighten my spirit when I display them indoors during the dead of winter.

Buy Extra Bulbs for Forcing

Garden centers should be fully stocked with spring-blooming bulbs by the end of this month. I always look forward to their arrival, and I always buy some extras to pot up and force into early bloom. Forcing bulbs is easy; it just takes a little advance planning. Here's what I do:

Choose Healthy-looking Bulbs
The first step is to purchase fresh bulbs. Always look for bulbs that are firm, uniform in size, and free of mold, deep cuts, and soft spots. If you shop early, you'll get the pick of the crop. Tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and narcissus all perform reliably when forced. If you're experienced or have a sense of adventure, you might try forcing a few of the more difficult and exacting bulbs, including snowdrops, winter aconite, and fritillaria.

Once you've chosen your bulbs, gather together some decorative pots. Almost any pot will do, providing there's enough room for roots to develop. I use pots that are at least 6 inches deep. Pots with drainage holes and saucers are safest to use because they make it hard to drown the roots.

Ordinary potting soil retains moisture and provides air spaces for good root formation. You can buy it ready-made or mix your own. My recipe is one part peat moss, one part perlite, and one-half part sand. The sand adds enough weight to anchor the container and keep top-heavy bulbs, such as daffodils, from tipping over when in full bloom.

When you plant the bulbs, put them high in the pot and space them closely. I fill the pot three quarters full of potting mix, set the bulbs close together on top of the mix, and then add more mix to cover them. Spacing the bulbs 1 to 2 inches apart makes a good show of color, and the close spacing doesn't seem to bother them. I like to mix different kinds bulbs in one pot, but planting a single type, such as grape hyacinths, will produce a strong sweep of color that could be used as an accent in a collection of foliage houseplants.

Give Them a Chill
Your newly potted bulbs will need about three months in cold, moist conditions in order to develop healthy roots. The simplest way to accomplish this is to place the pots outdoors in a sheltered spot and cover them with a pile of leaves. A south or west exposure might allow sunshine to reach the pots and heat them up too much, so I set mine in a group next to the north wall of my house. Tossing about a foot of dried leaves on top helps insulate them from the cold. I check periodically to make sure the soil remains moist but not soggy. I also mark my calendar so I'll know when to bring the containers in out of the cold.

Check Their Progress
When your bulbs have chilled for about three months, start checking their progress as indicated by their root growth. Don't be misled into thinking they're ready to be taken out of the cold by a shoot poking up through the potting mix. To be sure, lift each pot and look at the bottom. If you see plump, white roots poking through the drainage holes, the bulbs are ready to come in out of the cold. The timing varies from one kind of bulb to another; some bulbs need just three months of chilling, while others may require four months.

When your bulbs are ready, bring them into a bright room. They need the light so their leaves and flower stems will grow short and sturdy. Weak light will produce tall and lanky flower stems that are likely to flop over. If you bring only a few containers in at a time, waiting 7 to 10 days before bringing in a few more, you'll have bulbs at varying stages of development. This will provide you with a steady display of blooms for several months.

Forcing seems to shorten the bloom time of most bulbs. For example, indoors grape hyacinths remain fragrant and lovely for about a week. Outdoors, they last two to three weeks. I think the difference has to do with warm indoor temperatures. You can prolong their indoor bloom by placing them in a cool place overnight and bringing them back into a bright room during the day.

Forced bulbs can be planted outdoors, but forcing takes a lot out of the bulbs and they never seem to perform well for me in the garden. I prefer to toss the bulbs and start all over with fresh bulbs each autumn.


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