Beautiful blooms all winter

Plan now to grow your favorite spring and summer flowers indoors this winter by 'forcing' bulbs – it's easy!

Beautiful blooms all winter

Story by Tosha Kelly

This winter, don't let frost on your windowpanes or a dreary view out your window get you down. Shake off those doldrums by "forcing" spring's glorious flowers to grow inside your home all winter long.

Yes, the same types of bulbs that don't poke their heads out of the ground until spring or summer are the ones that can be blooming inside your home even when there's snow piling up outside your window. Take your pick: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses, or even offbeat ones.

It's easy to fool Mother Nature. With a few simple "forcing" steps, you can convince these bulbs that they have slept through the winter months and it's time to awaken into full spring bloom.

Hardy spring-flowering bulbs are particularly suited for forcing indoors. In general, plant in mid-September for flowering in late December, around mid-October for flowers in February and in mid-November for March and April flowers.

Plant batches in succession and you'll enjoy fresh flowers all winter long.

And while anticipation is always fun, what if you want colorful blooms even sooner? Luckily, you can purchase pre-chilled bulbs (or bulbs that don't require a cooling period) from a garden center. This will cut your prep time drastically.

Ready to give it a try?

Here's what you'll need:

Bulbs. If you buy bulbs from the local garden center, inspect them the way you would produce at the grocery store. Bulbs should be firm and crisp; don't buy bulbs that are soft or sprouting. High-quality bulbs are necessary because the bulb contains the food required to produce a flowering plant.

Bulbs that "force" best include crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths and tulips. For other varieties, check the labels on the bulk bins or bulb packages and look for wording that indicates a variety is "suitable for forcing."

Containers. Different bulbs have different requirements, but generally speaking, a clay or plastic flowerpot or tray that is broad and several inches deep (to accommodate the root systems) is fine. A drainage hole is a must to allow excess moisture to escape.

Potting mix. Purchase either pre-made bulb mix, or make your own. The best potting mix for forcing bulbs contains equal parts of potting soil, sphagnum peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. Bulbs for forcing should not be planted in ordinary garden soil or in potting mixes that are labeled "potting soil." Potting soil mixes are often no more than a fine form of peat moss. This type of material holds too much moisture and may cause water-related disease problems.

Now follow these step-by-step instructions, and your house will be blooming this winter.

Step One: Pot up the bulbs

Fill the pot three quarters of the way with potting mix. Plant only one type of bulb per pot. It's okay to crowd the bulbs in a pot, as long as they are not touching. Bury each bulb so that approximately half of it is beneath the soil. Tulips should be planted with the pointed end up and the flat side against the outside of the pot because of the way the leaves develop, notes Julie Riley, extension horticulture agent, Cooperative Extension Service. The same holds true for daffodils.

Once you pot the bulbs, water them just until the soil is moist. Avoid overwatering.

Now is when you'll want to label each pot with the type of bulb and the planting date. This is especially helpful if you are staggering plants for blooms all winter.

Margaret Donatello, garden manager at Alaska Mill & Feed, says you can force certain bulbs in just rocks and water. "Settle them into the rocks with the tops above the surface and keep the water about a half-inch below the surface." Paper whites are very easy to force this way because they can survive in a shallow container. Hyacinths and crocuses can be raised in mix, but also grow and bloom in nothing but a glass of water if the top half of the bulb is not immersed. Special fluted "jars" – pinched a few inches from the top to create a section that cradles the bulb, then flares to accommodate root growth – are available, often wherever the bulbs are sold. Fill glass with water to 1/4 inch from the bottom of the bulb (if the water soaks the bulb, the bulb can rot) and the roots will grow down into the water.

Step Two: Chill 'em

When outdoors, fall-planted bulbs get a natural winter chilling. For your indoor ones, you need to mimic these conditions in order to inspire them to start growing. Place the pots in a dark, cool (but nonfreezing) spot, such as in your garage, crawl space, or even your refrigerator's vegetable section. In the refrigerator, the pots should be covered with plastic bags that have had a few breathing holes punched in them. Vegetable or crisper drawers can be used, but avoid storing bulbs in the same drawer as ripening fruit or vegetables due to off-gassing which may harm the bulbs. If containers are put outside, they will require mulching with straw or some other medium when the temperature drops to 30 degrees or below. If the bulbs freeze, they will rot.

Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, for example, require temperatures between 35-40 degrees for 13-15 weeks, advises Riley. Crocuses can be easily forced to bloom at the higher end of this temperature range and the number of days until flowering is shorter.

NOTE: As noted previously, you can purchase pre-chilled bulbs and skip this entire cooling off stage. You may not like the containers pre-chilled bulbs come in, but you can easily repot them. Gently remove the bulbs with their soil and replant into another planter. Move on to "Step Four" below.

Step Three: Check on them

Once or twice a week, check to make sure the growing medium has not dried out. Give bulbs a light watering if they're dry. It may take from six to 10 weeks for green growth to appear. Be careful not to let temperatures get too warm or the bulbs may send up leaves long before the root system has developed properly, advises Riley.

A general rule of thumb: When you see roots in the drain holes or new shoots an inch or two tall emerging from the soil, it is time to move your plants to a warmer area.

Step Four: Transition

When the sprouts poking up are about an inch high, take the pot into a cool dim room for a week or so, such as an unheated entryway. Temperatures in the 50s are ideal, says Riley. This allows growth to continue at a gradual rate. During this time, stems and flower buds should become evident. Water as needed.

Step Five: Move into the light

As soon as the buds are formed, move the potted bulbs into a warmer, brighter room and watch them flower. Depending on room temperature, blooms can last up to four to six weeks. Keep the growing medium lightly moistened to fuel growth. Insert a slender stake if the stems are tall or top-heavy.

After-bloom care

After flowering, cut the flower stems and place the pots in direct sunlight, keeping the foliage growing until it begins to die back. As it withers, don't pull the leaves off, store the bulbs in the pots in a cool, dry place until late summer or early fall, at which time they can be planted in the garden. Attempts to force the same bulbs indoors will be unsuccessful, as forcing weakens the bulb and the bloom will be small and unsatisfactory the following year. Once the bulbs are back in the garden setting, "they may or may not bloom the following year, but usually one or two out of the five to eight bulbs make it," says Debbie Hinchey, a horticulture and landscape consultant. "Most books say to throw them away after forcing, but I've had very good luck. I have a great daffodil collection."

You can keep amaryllis year after year, says Donatello of Alaska Mill & Feed. "It actually becomes like a plant. Put them in a dark, cold place towards the end of the summer for about 10 weeks. Then cut back the leaves and start watering it again with sunlight and you'll have flowers again. I know people who've had the same amaryllis for 20-30 years," she says. "They are a nice way to brighten up the winter."