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Theresa Nichols Schuster is author of "Brittle Silver" and "We Are the Warriors" a 2015 USA Regional Excellence Book Award Finalist. She currently lives in southwest Montana where she appreciates the wonders of nature, family, friends, a bit of pottery.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bright Blooms in Winter

The time has arrived. Pot up your bulbs and enjoy the beauty of indoor flowers during the frigid months of January and February.

All you need is a bit of garage space that goes down to at least 40 degrees for several months, a few old pots, potting soil, and some early season spring bulbs, and you are good to go.

Following is a step-by-step introduction to growing or "forcing" your own bulbs to bloom in the winter. It is a delightfully fun and mystifying project.

1.  Select some early-season "hardy" bulbs such as crocus, tulip, narcissus (daffodil) or hyacinth. Early-season instead of mid-season or late-season bulbs have a better chance of blooming with the forcing method. Hyacinths are beautiful, but for me, the long bloom time seemed to put a lot of perfume and pollen into the house. So now I usually plant crocuses, tulips and daffodils.

2.  Old interesting pots discovered in the shed, at garage sales or at second hand stores can add a spark to your planting. It helps if the pots have drainage holes, but if you find some you like without holes, just add gravel to the bottom or be very careful not to over water. I also use a lot of the old thin plastic pots that bedding plants come in and then when I am ready to bring the bulbs in the house, I slip them into a nicer looking flower pot. You can use small pots, except for the daffodils bulbs which are usually quite large and will need more space and depth.

3.  Select some potting soil. If you can find some heat-treated soil it minimizes the chance of having knats or other insects hatch out from the soil when it is brought into the warm house. Unfortunately most name-brand potting soil is not heat-treated. Some greenhouses carry shredded coconut potting soil which is finer, has fewer large sticks and usually has less insect problems.

4.  If you can find a few old large plastic buckets or bins these are helpful to put the potted bulbs in while they are chilling in the garage. The bins keep rodents away from the bulbs and the few times you water the bulbs they will keep water from running over your garage floor.

5.  Now to get started potting up the bulbs...I usually try to find a warm fall day I can work outside in the driveway and not worry about the mess. Sometimes I settle for a cool day. Don't worry about the directions for depth and spacing of the bulbs. When you force bulbs, you get to break all the rules. Usually forced bulbs are only good for one season, but sometimes I've dumped the old bulbs in garden spaces and they have bloomed in a year or two.

6.  Fill your pots half full of damp potting soil. Arrange your bulbs, tips up. Crocuses will end up one inch below the soil height, and tulips, daffodils and hyacinths tips will barely be under the soil or only slightly sticking up. I usually place the same type of bulbs in one pot due to the varieties of bloom times, but sometimes it is fun to mix them up and see what happens. Fill in damp soil nearly to the top of the pots, leaving a half inch below the rim to hold the water when you need to dampen the soil. If the soil isn't too wet, you may water the bulbs in. Just be careful not to over water, especially if you use pots without drainage holes.

7.  Stack the pots in your large plastic buckets or bins, cover them with newspaper and place in a cool, dark place. I usually put mine in the garage. If you are in very cold northern climates, place them against the interior, back wall of the garage to minimize extreme freezing.

8. Now you wait—creatively, doing other fun things, of course. Forcing bulbs works best with a dark, cold period where the temperature is at least as cold as 35-48 degrees. My bulbs have often been in unheated garages when the outside temperature was often 25 below zero or colder. They did fine. This dark, cold period is usually followed by a shorter cool, light period of optimally 55 degrees. At one time I had an unheated room in our house that was perfect for the cool period. But now I just place the pots in the coolest place in the house, out of direct sunlight for the few weeks of cool temps.

9.  Recommended cold periods are 10-12 weeks for crocuses, and 12-15 weeks for most other bulbs. Cool, light periods are 2-4 weeks to encourage gradual root growth and blooming. So if I plant in October, I can bring the pots into the house in January. I usually bring in several pots every couple of weeks to extend the bloom time for a couple of months. If you stack your pots in the garage you may have to keep an eye on them as temperatures warm so they don't sprout crooked under the weight of the other pots.

10.  Water your pots only lightly in the winter. Most winters I only water the bulbs twice. You only want them damp, not soaking wet. Drier is better.

Then enjoy—flowers in January and February—what fun!

For more information see Forcing, etc. by Katherine Whiteside, Workman Publishing, New York or your favorite gardening website.