Forcing Bulbs for Winter Holidays

Forcing Paperwhites

paper-white-narcissusziva2The beautiful white blooms and rich fragrance of Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus and Narcissus tazetta), along with the fact that they are so easy to grow, make them a favorite for winter forcing.  Paperwhites typically bloom three to six weeks after planting in soil, potting up in gravel, or placing in a bulb vase with water.  Warmer temperatures in your house will cause them to sprout, grow, and flower sooner; cooler temperatures will slow down the process.  Factor in how warm or cool you keep your home, and count back from your preferred bloom time to determine when to start planting.

colbrooke-pottery-with-paperwhitesPlant in late October and you might have some in bloom in time for Thanksgiving.  Plant in November or early December and there’s a good chance you’ll have blooms for Christmas.  Plant in intervals to increase your chances of having blossoms exactly when you want them and for a continuous display throughout the winter.  Consider labelling each planting with the date and recording your results for next year.  And, remember that forced bulbs make great gifts, so plant up some extras; it’s a great way to upcycle leftover vases and containers that have accumulated in your basement or closet!

paperwhites-in-bowlFor the holidays, forcing bulbs in stones, marbles, or beach glass is very popular.  For soilless forcing, you will want a vase or container that is at least four inches tall.  Place a minimum of an inch of stones, marbles, or sea glass in the bottom of the container.  Place a single or multiple paperwhite bulbs on the stones, with the roots facing down.  If planting multiple bulbs, the bulbs can be placed very close to each other, almost touching.  Fill in the gaps between bulbs and around the edge of the container with a shallow layer of stones to hold the bulbs upright.  Leave at least the top third of the bulbs exposed.  Add water until the level reaches just below the base of the bulbs, but no higher.  Do not let the bulbs themselves sit in the water, or they will rot.

img_0298Set your container or vase in a cool spot away from direct sunlight for the first two to three weeks (55-60°F is ideal).  Cool temperatures help to stimulate root growth.  Check the bulbs frequently and add water to keep the water level just below the base of the bulbs.  If your bulbs are in a container that you can’t see through, water with care to prevent the bulbs from sitting in water.

When the bulbs have produced roots and the stalks begin to grow, you can move your container to a sunny window.  Rotate the container daily to encourage straight stalks.  Keep a close eye on watering.  Bulbs in active growth can dry out in just a day or two.  Once your paperwhites are in bloom, extend the life of the flowers and your enjoyment of them by moving them out of direct sun and/or moving them into a cooler room at night.

paperwhites-with-ribbonForced paperwhites planted in stones have a tendency to topple over when they flower.  Studies show that adding alcohol (any hard liquor or rubbing alcohol will work!) will stunt the growth of the stalk and leaves, making the plants less likely to become top heavy.  There are lots of articles online about how much alcohol to use, but you want to keep the alcohol level at around 6% by volume, so don’t overdo it!  Even if you stunt the growth of your plants, they may need some support.  You can use bamboo sticks, or you might want to upgrade to birch, redtwig dogwood, or curly willow twigs for a more festive look.  And, instead of plain twine, use a fancy ribbon for added seasonal appeal.  You can also try planting in the bottom of a tall cylindrical vase.  The walls of the vase should help hold the flowers up when the blossoms open.

img_0288An answer to a frequently asked question….  Easy to grow, but also delicate, planting paperwhite bulbs is usually a one-time shot.  These plants are considered tropical, growing best in warm climates and treated as annuals in colder locations.  Once forced, the foliage will yellow and it is time to toss the plant, as planting paperwhites outdoors after forcing is rarely successful.  If you have used pebbles, marbles, or a similar medium, wash them and your containers thoroughly before storing for future use.


Forcing Amaryllis

amaryllis-red-2Amaryllis plants produce spectacular, regal looking flowers that are perfect for Christmas and New Year’s.  Huge blossoms in reds, pinks, whites, and pale greens atop long stalks make for a dramatic plant.  Amaryllis bulbs bloom seven to ten weeks after planting.  Plant soon for full bloom right at Christmastime.  Wait a little while if you want to give as a gift at Christmas with the intent of letting it bloom after the holiday.  And don’t forget, amaryllis make great gifts for New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, too!

img_0292Amaryllis bulbs can be grown in water, but many people prefer to plant them in soil.  You will want to choose good quality potting soil, high in organic matter.  Select a container that is deep enough to allow adequate room for good root development and has provisions for drainage.  Amaryllis bulbs prefer a small container, so the diameter of the pot should be only about one inch larger than that of the bulb.  Make sure that your container is heavy enough to support the weight of the plant – its height and the size of its flowers give it a tendency to be top heavy.

amaryllis-whiteJust prior to planting, soak the base and roots of the bulb in lukewarm water for an hour or two.  Plant the bulb, pointed end up, leaving approximately one-third of the bulb above the soil line, and packing the potting soil gently around the bulb to keep it securely in place, being careful not to damage the roots.

2014-12-12-cc-amaryllis-058Water thoroughly and place the pot in a warm, sunny spot.  Continue to water sparingly until you have an inch or two of growth, then gradually water more as the stem lengthens and the stalk and leaves appear.  Once the plant starts to grow, feed regularly with a fertilizer that has a high phosphorus content.  The stalk will grow rapidly and flowers will develop after it has reached full growth.  As the plant grows, turn the pot regularly to encourage the stalk to grow straight.  Once blooming, to prolong the flowers, move the pot out of direct sunlight.

2013-11-25-christmas-amaryllis-006Unlike paperwhites, which will typically not flower again, amaryllis plants will bloom year after year with the correct care.  Click here to see more information on post-blooming care.



A final word….

Don’t worry if you miss the opportunity to plant up your bulbs in time for them to bloom for Christmas.  We’ll have plenty of potted paperwhites and amaryllis available for sale for the holidays.  Plant some bulbs up anyway – you’ll be glad to have the color and fragrance in January and February!