Forcing Bulbs – It’s Easier Than You Think

Forced Narcissus

For starters, “forcing” is a misnomer because it sounds too much like work. We’re just tricking the bulbs into thinking winter is over quite a bit sooner than it is. Forcing is an easy sleight of hand that offers the soul-restoring scents and colors of spring at a time of year when spirits sorely need reviving. But you need to plant now, in autumn, to enjoy the results when the snow flies! Although we usually think of forcing Daffodils, Hyacinths, and Tulips, many of the smaller bulbs are also extremely easy and gratifying to force: Crocus, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Scilla, Dwarf Irises, and Anemones also will give great results.

Forced bulbs can be divided into two groups: those that require a chilling period and those that don’t. When bulbs do need chilling, what they actually require is many weeks less than typical northern winters. (See the list at the end of this post for details.)

In a nutshell, here’s what you do . . .

 Force Bulbs That Need Chilling

covering-bulbs-copy

Pot the bulbs in any well-draining potting mix, water them, and set them aside in a cool but not freezing dark spot for the required minimum time (see below), then bring them into warmth and light in the house. The bulbs think spring has arrived and quickly sprout and flower. It’s that easy — the bulbs do most of the work.

This is a great project to do with young children, if you want to invite the kids or grandkids to participate. The actual planting is a little messy, so it’s a good idea to spread some newspapers to catch any spilled soil, gather all your pots in one spot, and do all the planting at one time.

Containers and Potting Mix

Bulb containers with moistened potting mix
Bulb containers with moistened potting mix

You can use any pot you like to hold bulbs you want to force, as long as it allows room for root growth — about 3-4” of space below the bulbs. This is a great opportunity to showcase flea market finds and tag sale treasures, or your favorite terra cotta pots. If you choose a pot without a drainage hole in the bottom, you’ll have to water your bulbs carefully, because bulbs that sit in soggy potting mix soon will rot. Consider using a ceramic or terra cotta pot if you’re forcing tall Daffodils or Tulips. These flowers can be top-heavy when in full bloom and may topple if grown in lightweight plastic pots.

We recommend that you plant bulbs in a soilless potting mix (available at garden centers and hardware stores). A soilless mix holds moisture but allows excess water to drain away readily.

Potting the Bulbs

covering-bulbs-1-copy

To pot the bulbs, begin by placing potting mix in a plastic tub or bucket. Slowly add water and stir until the mix is moist but not soggy. This is an ideal job for a very young assistant, if you’d like to invite a child or grandchild to join the fun. Add the moistened mix to the container until the pot is about three-quarters full. Set the bulbs root-side down on top of the mix (or on their sides if you can’t tell which end is up, as with Anemone blanda). Space the bulbs much more closely than you would in the garden – they should almost touch. Then add more mix. Cover small bulbs completely with a ½” layer of mix; cover larger bulbs up to their necks, leaving the tips of the bulbs exposed. Water thoroughly after potting.

Chilling the Bulbs

Bulbs in bags in Mary Valente refrigerator door; Tulips; Daffodils; Narcissus; Hyacinth; bulb forcing
You can keep bulbs cool in a refrigerator, but only if there is no fresh fruit stored inside. The ethylene gas released by fruit during its natural ripening process will interfere with flower development. Better to store bulbs in an extra refrigerator, if you happen to have one.

To force cold-hardy bulbs into bloom, you must first encourage them to produce new roots by keeping them cool and moist for a period of time that varies by type of bulb (see listing below). The ideal rooting temperature also varies, but most bulbs flower best if stored at 40-60°F for the first 3-4 weeks after potting, then at 32-40° for the balance of the cooling period – a shift that mimics the drop in soil temperature outdoors as fall turns to winter.

The easiest way to chill bulbs is to put them outdoors and let nature do the rest. To insulate the bulbs from rapid changes in air temperature and from freezing cold, bury the pots in a pile of dry leaves held in place by a plastic tarp or in a pile of mulch, such as bark or wood chip, and cover the pile to prevent formation of a frozen crust. You also can chill bulbs in a cold frame if you’re lucky enough to have one; a cold basement; or an unheated garage (provided the temperature doesn’t fall below freezing). If you choose to chill bulbs in the refrigerator, be certain there is no fresh fruit stored inside. Fruit releases ethylene gas as a natural part of its natural ripening process, and the ethylene will interfere with flower development. In locations other than a refrigerator, it may be difficult to arrange for the ideal shift in temperature described above. Fortunately, most bulbs haven’t read the manuals, and they will root beautifully if the temperature does not stray too far above or below 40°F during the rooting time. Professional growers fill huge walk-in coolers with potted bulbs and control the temperatures precisely. Using an old refrigerator in a basement can deliver great results without ever touching the temperature controls.

The possible downside to outside storage has four little legs. If mice or other rodents have access to your bulbs, they will devour all but the varieties that are poisonous or distasteful to them (such as Narcissus, more commonly known as Daffodils). Protect potted bulbs with steel mesh, such as hardware cloth.

Please note that moisture is as important as temperature in the successful chilling of bulbs. Check the potting mix in the pots every few weeks and water thoroughly when the surface is dry to the touch.

Toward the end of the recommended rooting time, begin checking the pots for signs that the bulbs have rooted. If you see fleshy white roots poking through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots, the bulbs are usually ready to bloom. If you don’t see roots, give the bulbs more time in cold storage. Don’t judge readiness by the appearance of shoots from the tops of the bulbs; without roots, the bulbs won’t flower properly.

Once the bulbs have rooted, you don’t have to bring them out of the cold immediately. Most will tolerate extra chilling time, allowing you to orchestrate a succession of winter bloom.

Bringing the Bulbs into Bloom

Forced bulbs under lights
Forced bulbs under grow lights. A sunny window also provides adequate light for bulb forcing.

When the bulbs have rooted, bring the pots out of cold storage and set them in a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperature stays below 65°F). Bright light will help keep the leaves and flower stems compact; in weak light, they tend to flop. You’re likely to find that the bulbs have produced white shoots during cold storage. Sunlight quickly turns them green.

Keep a close eye on the moisture needs of the bulbs as they send up leaves and flower stems. Initially, the bulbs probably won’t need to be watered more frequently than once a week (if that much), but by the time they bloom, you may need to water them every day or two.

Most bulbs will bloom 2-5 weeks after they come out of the cold, heralding spring with their bright colors and sweet fragrances. Duration of bloom varies with the type of bulb and the variety but is generally shorter than you’d expect of bulbs in the garden. Warm temperatures and low humidity indoors speed the decline of the flowers. Shifting the pots out of direct sunlight and moving them to a cool room at night helps prolong bloom.

When the blooms fade, we usually recommend that you toss the bulbs on the compost pile. If you keep them in a sunny window and continue to water them, forced bulbs can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years. Tulips rarely bloom again, but Daffodils, Crocus, and Grape Hyacinth are more likely to be worth the effort of planting.

Forcing Hyacinths Without Soil

The whiskery white roots of some Hyacinth bulbs appeared in just 24 hours.
The whiskery white roots of some Hyacinth bulbs appeared  just 24 hours after they were removed from cooling and were set atop glass gems with water below.

Hyacinths can be forced in pebbles and water, or in glass jars. They still require a cool rooting period if forced this way. Special forcing glasses, in use since Victorian days, are shaped like an hourglass and keep the bottom of the bulb dry—only the bulb’s roots reach down into the water. If you are using pebbles in another type of container, place a 2-3” layer of pebbles, such as pea stone, marble chips, or river rocks, in the bottom of the bowl or pot. Set the bulbs on top of the pebbles then fill with more pebbles, leaving the top 1/3 of the bulbs exposed. Add enough water to create a reservoir for the roots, but be sure the bases of the bulbs stay above water level. If they sit in water, the bulbs will rot. Then place the container in a dark, cool area (40-50°F) for 4-8 weeks. Check the water level occasionally and add more water as necessary, keeping the water level below the bottom of the bulb. When roots have developed and leaves begin to grow, it’s time to move the bulb into a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperatures stay below 65°F). Bulbs forced in water can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years – if ever.

Recommended Cooling Period

Professionals often recommend very lengthy cold periods, but we’ve had good results at home using the minimums listed here. Remember that bulbs can keep chilling for longer than the minimum. Please note that Tulips do require the longest period to flower successfully.

hydroponic-tulips-in-bloom-feb-20-copy

Recommended Rooting Times for Cold-Hardy Bulbs

  • Anemone (Windflower), 8-10 weeks
  • Chionodoxa (Glories of the Snow), 10-12 weeks
  • Crocus (Spring-blooming Crocus), 8-10 weeks
  • Galanthus (Snowdrops), 10-12 weeks
  • Hyacinthus (Hyacinth), 12-14 weeks
  • Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata and other spring-blooming bulbous species), 10-12 weeks
  • Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), 8-10 weeks
  • Muscari (Grape Hyacinth, to keep the leaves shorter, store cool and dry for 6-8 weeks, then give 2 weeks of cool rooting time)
  • Trumpet Daffodils, 14-16 weeks
  • Large-Cupped Daffodils, 15-17 weeks
  • Small-Cupped Daffodils, 16-18 weeks
  • Double-Flowered Daffodils, 16-18 weeks
  • Split-Corona Daffodils, 14-16 weeks
  • Narcissus (Triandrus), 16-17 weeks
  • Narcissus (Cyclamineus), 14-15 weeks
  • Narcissus (Jonquilla), 15-16 weeks
  • Narcissus (Tazetta), 14-15 weeks
  • Narcissus (Miniature), 14-16 weeks
  • Scilla (Squill), 10-12 weeks
  • Tulipa (Tulip), 14-16 weeks
Cape Primrose 'Grape Ice'

Our Staff Favorites for Holiday Gifting (and Receiving!)

Each year, we ask a handful of our staff members to choose their favorite gifts from among our holiday offerings. Some select classic, tried-and-true treasures including our bestselling Canella Berry Wreath or Basket, premium Amaryllis, or fragrant Lily-of-the-Valley. Others cannot resist the lure of the new, and they select one of the season’s latest discoveries. We hope some of these favorites help you select some of your own for giving and receiving. If you have questions or could use some assistance with your shopping, email us at [email protected], phone 1-800-411-6159, or opt into live chat on our website. Order soon. Supplies of some of these gifts are limited.

Read some of the reasons these are our favorites:

Tiny Trumpets Bulb Collection
Tiny Trumpets Bulb Collection

NEW! Tiny Trumpets Bulb Collection
“I am so excited, I cannot wait to see this bloom in my house! What a treat to see my favorite colors blooming together while winter weather is knocking at my window.”
Alyson

Canella Berry Table Basket
Canella Berry Table Basket

Canella Berry Table Basket
“I received it about a week before Christmas last year, watered as instructed and placed it on a corner end table in my living room. The fresh scent filled the room but was not overbearing. I left it out until March. Still not losing any of its fresh scent, I did not toss it out but put in it on a tray in a hall walk-in closet and cannot believe that after almost a year, it still has its fresh scent. I open that closet everyday just to smell it. I LOVE THIS THING.”
Donna

Amaryllis 'Aphrodite'
Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’

Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’
“This Amaryllis is a beauty; and the name speaks for itself. I love how intricate the pink-colored veining is – it looks as though it had been painted on by an artist – and it perfectly complements the snow-white petals. The light ruffled edges and double blooms are a delight!”
Shantelle

Berger Pruning Saw
Berger Pruning Saw

Berger Pruning Saw
“This saw is great. It’s easy-open, easy-close and fits nicely in a side pocket or tool apron. I used it last spring to prune back my old and very large Butterfly Bush. It cut through 4″ diameter limbs in less than 1 minute, and cut through 1.5″ diameter branches in just 10 strokes.”
Mary V

Beech Tree at White Flower Farm

Winter Protection

As this is written in early November, it’s still too early to apply winter protection to newly-planted perennials, but it’s not too early to plan for it, if you garden in a cold-winter area (USDA Zone 6 [-10°F] or colder).

Although you might think a winter mulch keeps plants warm, it’s intended to do the opposite—to keep the ground frozen, instead of repeatedly thawing and refreezing. That freeze-thaw seesaw can heave lightly-rooted plants right out of the ground, leaving their roots vulnerable to freezing or drying out fatally. Perennials planted or transplanted in the fall are especially susceptible during their first winter.

Applying Mulch
Applying Mulch

To protect plants from heaving during their first winter, put a 4-6in layer of loose organic material such as straw, Oak leaves, pine needles, or evergreen boughs (cut into 1-2ft lengths) over the crowns after the ground freezes (generally in December here in Litchfield, Connecticut). Fortunately, after Dec. 25, there is a ready supply of Christmas trees to cut up for this purpose. Do not use bark mulch or other types of leaves, because these materials mat down and hold too much moisture over the crowns. Take care to avoid covering the evergreen foliage of plants such as Digitalis (Foxgloves) and Dianthus. Remove this winter cover gradually in spring when frosts become infrequent, usually at about the time Daffodils and Forsythias are in bloom.For these colder zones, we also recommend that you protect bulbs planted less than six inches deep. Again, after the ground freezes, apply a 4-6in covering of the same loose organic material over the bulbs. Because many of these smaller bulbs tend to bloom in very early spring, begin to remove the cover gradually in late winter or early spring—a bit earlier than you might for perennials.

Winter Protection
Winter Protection
Tulip 'Dream Touch'

Fall Sale! Save 20% on All Fall Planted Bulbs, Perennials & Shrubs

An extended period of mild autumn temperatures is a boon to gardeners. The soil in most parts of the country is still plenty warm, which creates ideal conditions for settling in new plants and bulbs. The comfortable weather also means it’s a fabulous time to be outdoors in the garden getting a head start on spring. To help you make some additions to your garden (and so you can help us clear out our greenhouses and the warehouse), we’re offering 20% off all fall planted bulbs and garden plants. Quantities are limited, so please order promptly. This offer ends Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, at 11:59 p.m. Please use Coupon Code FALL20 when checking out online to activate the savings, or mention this code if you call to place your order. Discount prices will be reflected in the shopping cart during checkout. Please note, gift certificates are excluded from this sale. Click here to shop all fall plants on sale.

Tulip 'Analita'
Tulip ‘Analita’
Daffodil 'Winter Waltz'
Daffodil ‘Winter Waltz’
Papaver orientale Helen Elizabeth
Papaver orientale Helen Elizabeth

 

 

Lavender

Bring The Garden Indoors with Fragrant Houseplants

Almost everyone has experienced a moment when a certain scent – a freshly baked apple pie or the perfume worn by a favorite aunt – revives a memory and transports us to another place and time. The unique fragrances of many plants remain in our memory for a lifetime too.

Gardenia
Gardenia

Gardenias were very popular during the World War II era. A sweetly scented Gardenia corsage was considered the ultimate romantic gift and as a result, many war veterans still order the plants for their wives. Those vintage corsages may be passé now, but the Gardenia’s perfume and full-petaled white blooms are welcome outdoors in warmer climate gardens, and inside during the winter months.

Lavender 'Goodwin Creek Grey'
Lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’

For centuries, the evocative scent of Lavender has been used to perfume the home, refresh the body, and rejuvenate the spirit. The herb is still a popular indoor favorite today – few people can resist touching the leaves or blossoms to release their soothing aroma. The flowers are easily dried for use in potpourri or sachets, preserving the scent for months.

Paperwhites
Paperwhites

The heady scent of Paperwhites can rekindle a variety of childhood memories. For many growing these bulbs in nothing more than water and stones was their first successful gardening project. In 2017, they remain a popular choice for forcing indoors as decoration and gifts – particularly during the holiday season. Gardeners of all ages still find them extremely easy to care for and fun to watch grow.

The Works Daffodil Mix

Bulb Planting Time is Here

Most plant growth is obvious, even to the casual observer. In spring and summer, we can see shoots, leaves, and stems burgeoning. By this time of year, that growth appears to slow, even stop. But another cycle of growth is just beginning in preparation for winter. Tucked safely – and invisibly – beneath the soil, bulbs are growing fresh new roots.

Out of sight usually means out of mind. However, you can improve the performance of your bulbs if you take a few moments to fertilize in the fall, even though it feels as though nothing new is happening in the plant world. The ideal bulb fertilizer is slow-release, lower in nitrogen (which supports leaf growth) and higher in phosphorous and potassium (to enhance roots and flowers). For centuries, bone meal was the bulb fertilizer of choice, but it’s not a complete fertilizer and may have the unfortunate consequence of attracting dogs or rodents, who digs around to try to find the tasty “bone,” so we no longer recommend it.

Apply the fertilizer as a top-dressing to your existing bulbs, or after planting new ones. You can do this now, or later in the season after you’ve cleared away spent plants.

With fertilizers, it’s important to follow label directions and apply only as much as directed. Applying more than your plants can absorb doesn’t benefit the plants, and excess nutrients can wash off into waterways, disrupting aquatic life. The best practice is to apply fertilizer with a frugal hand.

Oriental Lilium Mix - The Perfumed Garde

Your Guide to Choosing and Planting Lilies

Lilies grow form bulbs that are easy to plant and offer big rewards for your garden. Lilies add height, distinctive flower shapes, and sometimes perfume, to summer gardens. The season begins with the colorful Asiatic varieties, continues with the delightfully fragrant Orientals, and then the hybrid Orienpets, which combines the best traits of Oriental Lilies and statuesque Trumpet Lilies. To enjoy a long season of blooms, we recommend including some of each type.

Lilium Commander In Chief
Lilium Commander In Chief

Lilies produce their intriguing turk’s-cap or trumpet-shaped flowers on stems that can be graceful and arching, or sturdily upright and an inch thick. Plant heights range from 2 to 6ft or so, depending on the variety. All are elegant in perennial borders, and shorter varieties may be successfully grown in pots. Many Lilies look lovely naturalizing in sweeps, and we offer several mixes ideal for this purpose.

Plant Lilies in a cutting garden or in part of your vegetable garden so you can enjoy magnificent bouquets. A single stem in a vase makes a classic statement and Lilies also lend drama to mixed arrangements. Remove the stamens to avoid contact with the pollen (which can cause stubborn stains) and to prolong the life of the bloom.

 Lilium Arabesque

Lilium Arabesque

Thanks to modern storage facilities, most Lily bulbs are available to plant both in the spring and in the fall. Many Lilies prefer full sun but will flower in partial shade, which may help blooms to retain their color. Some of the species Lilies and their kin prefer afternoon shade, and require it in the hottest climates.

Plant Lilies in well-drained fertilize soil; they will not survive in soils that are poorly drained, especially in winter. Use a layer of mulch to keep their roots cool in summer. Feed plants with a balanced fertilizer in early spring and then again just before they start blooming. Ensure that plants receive regular moisture, especially during drought.

Pastel Shades Asiatic Lily Mix for Naturalizing
Pastel Shades Asiatic Lily Mix for Naturalizing

When all the flowers have passed, cut the stem directly below the blooms, so that as much foliage as possible is left to feed the bulb. Also, when cutting flowers for the house, keep the stems as short as possible for the same reason. Deadheading also makes the plants look neater and shortens the tall stems, so they are less likely to topple in a windstorm. After foliage dies back, cut stems off at ground level, or leave a few inches so you know where the bulbs are if you plan to do fall or spring planting around them.

Annuals Collection

Choose Your Favorite Annual Container Combinations

Dear Gardening Friends,

Every year at the farm, we create new and different combinations of annuals. We pot them up in spring and let them grow. At the end of the season, we select our favorites and offer them to you in our Spring Garden Book and on our website. This year, we thought we’d ask for your help in the selection process. Please click the link below to rate the annual collections you see based on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being your favorite. Thanks for your help!

TAKE OUR SURVEY

 

White Flower Farm Classic Perennial Tulip Mixture

Plant Perennial Tulips Now and Enjoy A Glorious Spring For Years

The best way to encourage long life from your Tulip bulbs is to plant them deep. Try for a depth of 8-10 inches for full-size Tulips. That’s far deeper than any of those coring-type bulb planters will ever reach. The hand-corers also encourage repetitive motion problems if you’re planting more than half a dozen bulbs. So arm yourself with something heftier. We love our specialized bulb planters, for prepared soil or for naturalizing. The foot-powered tools dig deeper, and with far less effort, than a hand-powered one.

Tulip 'Blushing Girl'
Tulip ‘Blushing Girl’

The fastest way to plant bulbs involves two gardeners: one to dig, one to plant. To plant each bulb, create a deep slot by inserting the planting tool into the ground and pushing forward. Your assistant follows and pushes the bulb into the slot, then steps on the loose soil to push it back into place.

Tulip 'Dordogne'
Tulip ‘Dordogne’

The second tip: water when you’re finished planting. This helps settle the soil, and the moisture will trigger root growth, although it’s not obvious above ground, bulbs send out roots at this time of year, so they will be ready to burst into bloom when spring arrives.

It’s also a great idea to scatter some bulb fertilizer after you plant. We suggest a formula low in nitrogen and high in potassium for the best results.

Tulip 'Jaap Groot'
Tulip ‘Jaap Groot’

Squirrels have an uncanny ability to discover a spot where someone has very recently buried a tasty little bulb. Deep planting discourages squirrels, who rarely scratch down more than a few inches. But they might find Crocuses, since they are planted just three to five inches deep. If squirrels are a serious issue, we recommend laying a piece of hardware cloth or small-gauge poultry wire fencing over a newly planted area. You can take if off in a couple of weeks, after rain and watering has settled the soil and removed all telltale signs of planting.

Spring Calvary Collection`

Plant Exclusive Daffodil Mixes for Spectacular Spring Displays

Daffodils are usually the first flowers to make a significant statement in spring gardens. Since there are so many kinds that appear at different times, Daffodils can also be found blooming well into late spring. Daffodil mixes for naturalizing provide a long season of blossoms because they include many different types of Narcissus. As they naturalize, they will increase in number over the years. These mixes are ideal for woodlands and rock gardens, and in bedding areas.

Professional's Naturalizing Daffodil Mix
Professional’s Naturalizing Daffodil Mix

When planting Daffodils, make sure they have adequate drainage and plenty of sun, although some varieties will tolerate half-day shade. To encourage consistent Daffodil blooms, use a granular, slow-release fertilizer upon planting and then feed established bulbs in the fall. Using the right bulb planting tools will make the job a breeze. Watering during the fall is essential for good root growth before the ground freezes in cold regions. For helpful tips on planting Daffodils to create a naturalized look, please watch our video.

The Works Daffodil Mix
The Works Daffodil Mix

You can also take advantage of a wide range of Daffodils by designing areas that showcase specific colors or varieties. Be sure to plant fragrant Daffodils close to your house or anywhere their perfume will be readily appreciated.

First Blush Pink Narcissus Mixture
First Blush Pink Narcissus Mixture

Daffodils can be enjoyed equally indoors in forced bulb gardens. Set in a sunny window in a cool room, they yield a delightful tapestry of bloom during the long winter months.

Early Cheer Bulb Collection
Early Cheer Bulb Collection