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Hidden Life - Forcing Bulbs

by Catherine Fournier

In the depths of winter, spring seems a very long time away. In the long darkness of the first Advent, between the Fall of Man and the Birth of Christ, the coming of the Promised Messiah seemed at times as if it would never happen. The three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection must have seemed long and empty to Christ's faithful followers, even if they did remember his promises, though the Gospels indicated that they did not.

A dark and dreary winter day is a good time to teach the family about the return of spring and hope. We can also use the 'hiding' (planting) of bulbs to vividly illustrate both the hidden years of Christ's life in Nazareth and the hidden lost hopes of the buried Christ. What a miracle when He rose from the dead!

If you follow a few simple principles, forcing bulbs is a very easy procedure. Most bulbs need a period of dormancy and cold to prepare a good root, and to trigger development of the flower head. It is possible to buy bulbs that have been cold treated, or you can plant them in earth and cold treat them yourself.

"Forcing" -- coaxing, actually -- is the term used to describe the process to get bulbs to bloom out of season. Among the most commonly forced and easiest bulb flowers are amaryllis, paper-white narcissus, muscari and hyacinths. Spring flowering bulbs usually require a rooting period of about 12 to 15 weeks (3 to 4 months) at temperatures between 41-48 degrees F in order to produce a good root system, which is essential if they are to be "forced" into flower.

Potting Bulbs for Cooling/Rooting

Use clean pots with drainage holes (the depth will depend on the bulbs being grown). Allow for 2 inches of soil below the bulb and select a pot large enough to allow the top of the bulb to be even with the rim when placed on the soil. Plain potting soil is fine. You can add some bone meal or special fertilizer formulated for bulbs, just a "pinch" per bulb, to the soil mixture.

Place 2 inches of soil in the pot, then place (don't push) bulbs into position. Add enough soil to fill the pot, firming the soil gently around the bulbs being careful not to bruise them. Water well in order to settle the soil around the bulbs. Bulbs can be planted very close together, even touching, and make the best show in "crowded" arrangements.

Storing the Pots

Remember, if the bulbs were outside planted in the ground, they would be protected from freezing by the soil. So, in the house, they need to be stored in a cool but not cold place. After potting your bulbs store them in a cool place, such as an old (functioning) refrigerator, a root cellar or cool basement -- or if outdoor temperatures are below 45 degrees F. . Vegetable or crisper drawers can be used, but don't store bulbs in the same drawer you keep ripening fruit or vegetables which give off ethylene gas which can harm the bulbs. To keep the bulbs dark, place the pots in paper grocery sacks and staple the tops shut. Also since some bulbs are poisonous, this storage method will keep young children away from the bulbs)

Different types of bulbs require differing periods of time to root well. For this reason it doesn't work well to combine different types of bulbs in the same pot. Label each paper bag with the name of the variety, planting date, and the date you intend to bring it out of storage for forcing.

Bringing them to Flower

Bulbs will flower some 3-4 weeks after they have been brought into warmer temperatures. Thus, from time of planting to flowering, allow a period of 15 weeks, comprised of 12 weeks for rooting, 3 weeks in warmer temperatures to flower. (It is easier to hold bulbs back than to speed them up, so when you know the date you want them to be in flower, calculate accordingly the best planting time. (For Easter season flowers, for example, plant bulbs in early- to mid-January).

Forcing Blooms

Now that the cooling stage is finished, the 'forcing' begins. The 'forcing' begins at the stage when you remove the bulbs from the root-growing cool environment into warmth and light, triggering the growth of leaves and flowers. Sunshine and temperature are the most important factors in promoting successful flowering. Most bulbs will require about 3 or 4 weeks from the time they are removed from cold storage before they bloom. So remove the pots from the cool place on the 4th Sunday of Lent.

First put the pots in a place indoors with indirect sunlight and temperatures about 60 degrees F for a week or two. When the shoots are 4-6 inches tall, move the pots to a bright, sunny window to stimulate blooming. A temperature of about 68 degrees F and direct sunlight will produce the best results. When the buds take on color, return the plants to indirect sunlight to make the blossoms last. Keep the soil moist at all times.

Easy Paperwhite Narcissus

Paperwhites (narcissus tazetta), are among the most popular forcing flowers that don't require the 12-week rooting period. Paperwhites are most often (and most easily) potted in shallow containers of gravel. Place bulbs on a layer of gravel and carefully fill in enough gravel to hold bulbs but not cover them. A crowded grouping will be the most attractive.

It is best to cool containers, at temperatures between 45-50F, preferably in an area with low light or complete darkness. The refrigerator is good for this too. Keep containers cooled for about 3 weeks or until roots are well formed (this can be seen easily when bulbs are set in gravel). Then move into a sunny spot for forcing.

The Easiest Bulbs for Forcing

  1. Paperwhite narcissus; popular bulb; grows in soil or gravel
  2. Amaryllis; popular Christmas plant (plant bulb in early November, no cooling necessary)
  3. Large-flowering crocus; requires 12-14 week rooting period; bulbs can be potted in gravel and water for different effect
  4. Hyacinth; fragrant spring-time favorite; requires about 12 weeks for rooting; can be forced in special "hyacinth" vases using only water
  5. Colchicum; excellent for forcing, can even grow on a window sill without soil or water; begins blooming in about two weeks
  6. Muscari; requires 16 week rooting time; pot plenty, they're small
  7. Iris; especially iris reticulata are easy to force, but need careful attention to drainage; require about 15 weeks for rooting; don't hold iris bulbs too long before potting; tall-stemmed iris are less suited to forcing
  8. Daffodils require very bright light, such as that found in a greenhouse, to flower well. Too little sun results in leggy growth and no blossoms. Only the miniature varieties (hybrid) daffodils are recommended for home forcing. Daffodils usually require a 12-14 week rooting period. Once removed from the rooting area, daffodils must be placed in a location that receives lots of sun, say an enclosed porch or sun room or under a skylight.

With this planting and then waiting, bringing into the light and finally the miraculous flowering, a message will be brought to life for the whole family. Even in the darkest times, with the least sign of life and hope, God's Love is there waiting for us to find it and bring it into the open.

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