Make winter brighter with flowers

yellow daffodils in pot on window sill
Daffodils

If it has ever happened before, I don’t recall it. I actually had to rewrite my column because fall came and went so fast there was really nothing to say about it any longer.

I managed to get some of my garden beds cut back. But most of the leaves, which we usually mulch with our mower and toss around the yard, are frozen to the ground where they fell, and I guess they will pretty much stay there until spring.

Oh well. Time to gear up for winter.

If you’re like me and you didn’t manage to get some of the bulbs you bought into the ground, this is a good time to ready them for indoor bloom. The idea, known as “forcing,” essentially involves tricking bulbs into believing that winter is over and it’s time to wake up.

Tulips, daffodils, amaryllis and hyacinth are the bulbs you usually see available on store shelves for indoor bloom. But it’s easy to force many others, like anemone, scilla, crocus and dwarf irises.

Here’s how. First, choose which bulbs you’d like to have blooming indoors in the next few months. Part of your decision may be based on how long some cold-hardy bulbs need to be chilled. Keeping bulbs cool for a period of time encourages them to produce new roots before flowering.

Amaryllis and paperwhites don’t need to be chilled, but anemone and crocus need a cold treatment of eight–10 weeks. Scilla and snowdrops need about 10–12 weeks and, depending on their type, hyacinth, daffodils, tulips and narcissus need anywhere from 12–18 weeks.

People who live in more temperate climates — so just about everybody — have an easier time cold treating bulbs than we do because they can keep them outdoors. But it can be done here.

Some gardeners use space in an unheated attic or cold(ish) room in the basement. I don’t have those options, so I chill bulbs in a little refrigerator we have downstairs. As long as temps stay below 40°F, the bulbs will be happy.

You can chill them in your main fridge too. Just be sure there is no fresh fruit in there with them, because the ethylene gas the fruit gives off as it ripens will hamper the flowering process.

As they chill in storage, the bulbs will produce white roots that will turn green once they are exposed to sunlight. To save space, I sometimes chill bulbs in paper bags for a couple of weeks or more before putting them in pots. That way, I can stagger what I have in bloom with some in bags and others in pots that I bring upstairs once their cooling period is over.

To pot bulbs, choose whatever container you’d like to use and partially fill it with a soilless potting mix. Add some water and stir the mix around a little before setting bulbs, root-side down, on top of it. Place bulbs more closely together than you would outdoors, almost touching, so they will bloom nicely together as a group. Add more potting mix until only the tips of the bulbs are exposed, and then water thoroughly.

As you wait for your bulbs to finish chilling, peek inside the bags every couple of weeks to make sure nobody is rotting or anything. Also, remember to check on the pots. If the potting soil feels dry, water it well as you say a few encouraging words about how great life will be once the bulbs get out of the dark fridge.

Once the various cooling times are up, check your pots to see if there are any white roots poking out of drain holes. If you don’t see any, it’s fine to leave them in there a bit longer.

Out in the house in a bright room, your bulbs should bloom in about two weeks to a month. Every couple of weeks, grab another pot from the fridge and bring it out so you’ve got something in bloom for months and months.

Winter can be long and dark and drab. Make it brighter with a few flowers.


Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing, at livinthing.com.

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