Although the South is blessed with a long growing season, eventually the waning sunlight of late fall sends most gardens and gardeners into hibernation until spring. For hundreds of years, gardeners have learned to break this rhythm of the seasons by forcing bulbs to bloom during the coldest winter months. Pots of colorful Crocus blooming in a windowsill serve as an indoor garden while the outdoor garden sleeps.
There is nothing difficult about forcing bulbs to bloom in winter. You don’t need expensive garden tools or a horticulture degree to force most bulbs. The basic principle is to expose bulbs to fall, winter, and early spring conditions over a shortened time frame.
Crocuses, narcissus, hyacinths, and tulips are the most popular bulbs for forcing. Amaryllis and paperwhites are also popular winter bloomers, but they don’t require chilling before blooming.
* Start by buying healthy bulbs. Bulbs should be firm and free of mold or deep cuts. Store bulbs in paper bags with holes or in mess bags until you’re ready to pot them up. Unplanted bulbs need to be kept cool and dry to prevent early sprouting. A dry basement is sufficient, but if you store bulbs in the refrigerator, keep them clear of ripening fruit, which gives off a gas that can damage bulbs.
* If you pot your bulbs in October, most bulbs will be in full bloom by February. If you decide to give forced bulbs as Christmas gifts, pot up your bulbs in late September or early October. By Christmas, most bulbs should have tiny shoots of foliage that will burst forth with color in a few months. If you pot up your Christmas bulbs much earlier, the tender shoots of the flower stems may break during moving or wrapping.
* Any well-drained pot or container serves well for potting up bulbs. Be sure to choose pots that leave about 2 inches of soil or more under the bulbs for root growth. Common potting soil mixed with a little sand is sufficient for potting. Bulbs are little storehouses of energy and nutrients, so they don’t require fertilizing or pre-fertilized potting soil. Plant bulbs with the pointed side up. Keep the bulbs close to each other for the best show of blooms. Follow the directions on the bulbs packaging for planting depth.
* The chilling process is the crucial step in forcing bulbs. Bulbs require a constant temperature of about 35 to 45 degrees for forcing. During the chilling process, the root system will begin to form in preparation for blooming. Consult the bulb timetable for chilling and blooming times.
* Southern gardeners may have to refrigerate their pots to keep the bulbs cool. You may want to use a thermometer to monitor the temperature and to keep the bulbs from freezing. Keep light levels very low during the entire chilling process.
* If you simply do not have room in your refigerator for potted bulbs, it is possible to chill unplanted bulbs. Chill the bulbs in a ventilated sack at the bottom of your refrigerator for 8 weeks. Plant the bulbs in pots and leave them in a cool, dark place for another 4-6 weeks. Chilling unplanted bulbs may result in slightly smaller blooms.
* Water throughout the chilling process so the soil is damp but not wet. Use the forcing timetable to determine exact chilling times.
* After the required chilling period, it’s time to place the pots in a cool area of the house with indirect sunlight. As the shoots begin to grow and turn green in a few weeks, they can be moved to warmer areas with direct sunlight. Keep the stems growing straight by rotating the pot often.
* Remember to continue watering the bulb throughout its life cycle. Depending on the bulbs, you should be rewarded in just a few weeks with colorful indoor blooms.
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