Seven Tips & Tricks for Forcing Bulbs Indoors
Spring is a notorious tease. As February gives way to March, the daffodils in the South are beginning to show their color, but more days than not, the temperature is still below 40, and my recent trip to Boston reminded me that my friends in the Northeast still have a good bit of winter to slog through.
So it has been a particular joy in these late winter days to get to know my new friend Susan Lyell Young, aka The Bulb Lady, of Restoration Rose Farm, a Nashville-based small business focused on cultivating heirloom roses and bringing cold-treated heirloom bulbs to your home so you can create indoor spring gardens. If you've ever coveted those perfect antique bowls of blooming muscari you see posted on Instagram or wonder how your favorite British tastemaker gets hyacinths to bloom in Victorian bulb vases indoors in February, Susan is your girl.
Below are a few tips for planning your own indoor bulb garden for next year. I say "next year" because it takes a lot of time and planning since coaxing spring bulbs to bloom indoors in winter requires the gardener to simulate and condense winter conditions starting in October. Or, if you're lazy (like me), Susan is happy to cold treat your bulbs for you. And if you're still lazier (like me), Susan can create living bulb gardens or provide fresh cuts for those of us living in the Southeast. Here are some recommendations Susan and I pulled together to get you on your way to a house filled with spring blooms.
Don't Be Afraid. Bulbs Have Everything They Need to Grow: Yes it's daunting to look at a brown & knobby bulb when it arrives from the nursery and to imagine that anyone can coax magnificent spring blooms from its depths, but Susan assures us that we all can. Bulbs need no fertilizer, no pruning, no fussing. They need cold, then water and light. With minimal attention, they will do their thing regardless of how talented you are as a gardener.
Narcissus & Amaryllis Bulbs Are Most User-Friendly: If you want to achieve those stunning Christmas blooms, order up narcissus & amaryllis blooms in September, which require no cold-treatment. The amaryllis bulbs Susan offers are 36-38+ cm in circumference - only 2% of the bulbs sold in the world are this size, and though it sounds gimmicky, it's true "the bigger the bulb, the bigger the bloom! She also offers exhibition size paperwhite bulbs that produce more flower stems and more flowers per stem. So get on her mailing list now so you're first in line for the good stuff. When you get your bulbs in fall, place them in soil or loose rocks (or colored marbles) in water around September and place in the dark until they show signs of rooting, then move to the light and wait about 4-6 weeks for blooms. And if you stagger start dates throughout the fall, you can have blooms from November through March! (that's why I thought a primer on bulbs would be helpful now, when the planning begins!)
Muscari, Tulip, Hyacinth and Daffodils Require Cold Treatment: When your bulbs arrive from the bulb catalogue or from Susan, you will need to chill them in a dark, dry cold place for a period of many weeks, depending on the bulb. For example, muscari need 9-10 weeks of chilling and 2 weeks of rooting in the dark, while miniature daffodils need up to 18 weeks of chilling in order to coax indoors. So...while Susan is right that anyone can cold-force bulbs, my problem is patience. I love instant-gratification, and preparing dozens of bulbs in a dark, dry refrigerated situation knowing I'll have to wait 20 weeks to see any benefits of my labor, well, I guess I'm not that virtuous. So, I order bulbs from Susan, she cold treats them for me, then I plop them atop my Reed Smythe bulb vases and watch them go.
All Bulbs are Not Created Equal: Bulb quality matters, and heirloom bulbs, those that have been cultivated from bulbs that date prior to the 1950s, are often the most unique and most beautiful, that have stood the test of time and give us a connection to the past. Look for heirloom quality bulbs in your search. Again, size matters. Bulbs offered as "landscape" bulbs are smaller and don't do well for forcing. Buy the largest bulbs you can afford.
There's a Hack for Everything: If you don't have the time to cold treat, but you want the effect of a beautiful indoor bulb garden in your favorite vessel, go to your local nursery in spring and buy a few bulbs (muscari, daffs, hyacinth, tulips) potted in loose soil in plastic containers. Remove the bulbs from the soil and group together in a bowl or other container, fill in the soil to hold your bulbs in place, cover with sheet moss and lightly water (do not saturate). Indoor gardens usually last for a week or two. The colder the room, the longer the bloom. This you can do now and through April as the nurseries are stocking blooming bulbs through early spring. If you are in Nashville, Susan offers started bulbs in 6 packs ready to arrange in your favorite vessel.
And if you want to simulate forced bulbs in Victorian forcing-bulb vases (I do this all the time with hyacinth as in the photograph above), remove the rooted bulb from the soil, wash the soil from the white roots, trim the roots with scissors as needed, fill your vase with water, insert roots into vase, and voila! Looks like you've done it the hard way! And how pretty do those vases look lined up across a window to catch the late winter light?
Have Fun: Gardening, like yoga or giving someone a hug, is meant to bring the heart rate down and to usher in joy. So don't stress out. Let your creativity flow. Enjoy.