How to force bulbs indoors

Garden bulbs being forced on the window sill.
Garden bulbs being forced on the window sill.

I was recently with a friend, Emma Jeffery from Hello Beautiful, and we started talking about how to force bulbs. Emma is originally from England, and she said, “Oh yes, Mum always did that. I did too.” She seemed genuinely surprised that in America we aren’t as likely to force bulbs. I told her I think it just never caught on here like it did in Europe. Well, like Justin Timberlake, I’ve decided I’m bringing sexy back, and it’s in a small vase full of water. Forcing bulbs is the cool way to get your garden going on in winter when you’re bored out of your skull. Using vintage containers like forcing bowls makes bulb forcing even better. If you’re not bored, you can read the next post. I am, however, easily bored in winter which is why I started buying bulbs last August with forcing in mind. Although I bought some ‘Nir,’ ‘Wintersun’ and ‘Erlicheer’ narcissus, I went whole hog on hyacinths. ‘Gypsy Queen,’ ‘Woodstock‘ which has just started blooming above on the left below, ‘City of Haarlem’ named after this beautiful city, ‘Jan Bos’ and ‘Delft Blue.’

Hyacinth vases and amaryllis in a pot.
Hyacinth vases and amaryllis in a pot.

The two glass pieces on the left are true hyacinth vases. You can buy hyacinth vases on eBay and other places like Etsy occasionally. If you clicked on those links and saw a cobalt blue hyacinth vase for $795.00, do not buy it. Although older vases (and I’m not sure that’s even a vintage vase) are more expensive, I’ve never seen one for that. Before you spend money on bulb vases, you should do your research. Read a copy of The Curious History of the Bulb Vase, by Patricia Coccoris. The book is pricey, but I wish I’d read it before I spent money on candlesticks. If you live on the East coast, I hear bulb forcing vases are a common sight in antique shops. In Oklahoma, they are definitely not. Online, they are quite common, but you want to start early in July or August. That’s when they aren’t as expensive. Also, order your bulbs early and tell your bulb supplier that you want to force them. Then they’ll send them to you earlier.

Most bulbs, other than paperwhites and amaryllis, need a chilling period. Mine hung out at first in the garage fridge.
Most bulbs, other than paperwhites and amaryllis, need a chilling period. Mine hung out at first in the garage fridge. The cobalt blue glass container is probably a candlestick. It still works.

To force in my crazy climate with all of its ups and downs, a refrigerator may be necessary especially at first. Temperatures between 40F and 48F are ideal, but I know that the refrigerator gets colder in the garage midwinter. It doesn’t seem to matter. You can either go ahead and put the bulbs “on vase,” or you can leave them in a paper bag. I did some of both. I did notice that the bulbs I put “on vase” are much further ahead of the others. One more thing about refrigerators…don’t store fruit near the bulbs. Ethylene gas will hamper your efforts. Because I use my garage refrigerator for extra food especially during Christmas, I needed to pull the bulbs out early. One day, when I was in the kitchen, I noticed that my broom closet that backs up to the dog run is very, very cold. I talked to Bill, and he offered to build shelves for me–anything to get some of those bulbs out of the refrigerator.

The bulbs in the forcing or cold closet.
The bulbs in the forcing or cold closet. They are starting to sprout. When they are above about an inch, then you can bring them into the light.

Normally, this closet is also in the dark. I just turned on the light for us to see what was going on. The temperature is the most important aspect of this process, but the dark helps too. If you have an unheated cellar, that works great too. The ones in the hyacinth vases in front have yellow tips because I just took them out of the dark closet today. Contrast that with the green ones in back. Chlorophyll amazes me the same way it did when I was seven years old.

See those in front with the yellow tips? They just came out of the closet today. The vase on the left is modern. The turquoise one may be modern too, but it has the Tye type shape. It came from England.
See those in front with the yellow tips? They just came out of the closet today. The vase on the left is modern. The turquoise one may be modern too, but it has the Tye type shape. It came from England.

If you decide to force hyacinths on water, you need to place the bulb so that the roots on the bulb plate (bottom of the bulb) can nearly “smell the water.” I may have read that in Patricia’s book. I don’t remember, but I love the sound of it. I don’t like my bulbs touching the water, but some websites like Wim Granneman’s Hycinglazen suggest it to stop Penicillium rot. Explore his site. He has lots of great information. Once you’re addicted, you can buy Patricia’s book, and maybe even Hyazinthengläser which is in German. It has great photos though. I copied some of it into Google translate and then read it. Most good information that isn’t put out by our cooperative extension service is written in Dutch. Oh gosh, what it would be like to visit Holland! I have a thing for blogs from the Nordic countries, and I’m so grateful for Google Translate. It works so well with blogs. If you want to check out more blogs from other countries where they do force bulbs so well, check out my Bulb Forcing Pinterest board. It is one of my favorites. Although I also force bulbs in soil, I find I love hyacinth glasses more because I can watch the roots grow in water. There is something primeval about it, and it makes me feel like spring is in the air. If you want, you can soak bulbs ahead of time in manure tea, but I don’t find it’s necessary. The bulb has enough energy to get started and grow all by itself. That’s what bulbs are–pure energy. I also like forcing in containers filled with soil. That works splendidly too. While I’ve seen lots of people online forcing theirs in rocks, I find it doesn’t work as well for me. The growing shoots fall over for example. To get the same look, I use soil halfway up the bulb in a container and then place moss or rocks around the top to make things look good. This does work well for me. I hope I’ve inspired you to try forcing bulbs next year. It’s great fun. Just remember to start in August. I wrote this to participate in Carol Michel’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day although I don’t have much blooming as yet. I’ll write again when they’re all in bloom. GBBD the longest running garden meme that I know of, and I’ve tried to participate nearly every month for years. To find others who wrote on the 15th, check out May Dreams Gardens.

27 Comments

  1. Nell Jean says:

    Great post. If it’s a trend, then maybe I’ll put my modern frosted glass forcing vases up for sale. Growing in pots works so well for me and I don’t care about seeing roots.

    Love the Woodstock; this year here was Pink Pearl in single pots most of which have found good homes, and White Pearl just coming into bloom in nests of Sedum acre. Already making plans for next years’ Hyacinths.

    Thanks for the links. I never get tired of seeing how others grow their hyacinths.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Nell Jean, I have ‘Pink Pearl’ just starting to bloom. I’ll take a pic in a few days. I’d love to talk with you about your frosted glasses. Are they mid-Century Modern?

      1. Nell Jean says:

        Oh, no. Modern as in purchased in the past ten years, lol. You could find them easily in your local thrift stores, I expect.

        http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-6UnEkMxRHEA/TvuoW3j8cjI/AAAAAAAAVx0/2cRIAb9Fhwc/s640/DSCF7811.JPG

        Pink Pearl and White Pearl did so well that next year I plan to try Blue Pearl, a sport of the pink.

  2. Rose says:

    I love all your beautiful bulb vases! After reading this, I see some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past. I didn’t get any bulbs potted this winter, and usually I don’t even think about it until January–mistake #1:) I’m going to be sure to put this on my Pinterest board so I remember all these helpful hints next year!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Rose, the truth is in spite of my best efforts, I have still taken some of the bulbs out of the closet too soon. Forcing bulbs take some finesse. I do better at some times than others.

  3. Lea says:

    Beautiful vases and I know the blooms will be fantastic. Interesting information, too. I have an Amaryllis that has buds, and two more Amaryllis bulbs I’m going to get started today. I just got my February issue of Mississippi Gardener – enjoyed your article “Bronzed and Beautiful”
    Lea

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Oh thank you Lea!

  4. Nancy says:

    Dee, your vases are fabulous! What a wonderful collection! I envy your new closet with shelves especially devoted to them. I have one lonely hyacinth, but did a bunch of amaryllis this year. Northhaven in Dallas had some of the hugest bulbs.

    Today Howard Garrett spoke to our garden club. He told about using hydrogen peroxide to cure rose rosette disease! I had never heard of a cure. I think the information would be on his website, but I wanted to let you know what he said.

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Nancy, thanks for the information about Howard Garrett. I just researched this issue again for Fine Gardening, and I still find from Oklahoma State University that Rose Rosette Virus or Rose Rosette Disease isn’t curable. They have discovered that we may be spreading it with clippers. So, between pruning roses, we should spray our clippers with alcohol. Thanks again!

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I am envious of all of your bulb starting vases. I bet your place smells wonderful when they all start popping.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Lisa, you must simply buy some. Haha! I’m such an enabler.

  6. I saw your post on FB. I know you have those beautiful vases….I don’t but I did go to the Dollar store and bought some glass beads and a ‘crystal’ bowl for my hyacinth bulbs. I bought mine in January — from a place that has their bulbs in non-heated storehouses. I am going with them having had their cold period. (already started the process…either works or it doesn’t at this point). I will make sure not to put the water up on the bulbs….thanks for a great article. I have five dark pink (unnamed) hyacinths in my ‘lovely crystal’ bowl. Will share pictures once they put up flower stalks.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Janet, that’s a great idea too. I would love to see the photos of your pink hyacinths.

  7. I have often forced hyacinths, and I have a couple of clear hyacinth glasses. But I had no idea there were such pretty colored vases available! I have never seen those here in Spain. I am a HUGE fan of colored glass, especially the green and blue tones, and I just HAVE to find me some of these. I’m off to ebay… (I hope you realize that you’ve created a monster!).

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Bwahaha, Lady of La Mancha, that was my evil plan. Not really, but I’m glad you’re liking them too.

  8. Chloris says:

    I love those Hyacinth vases. I have got lazy these days and buy Hyacinths ready growing. You get a far greater range of colour if you buy the bulbs and do it yourself. I love that Woodstock, it is a gorgeous colour.
    Chloris

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hey Chloris, I do things the “lazy way” too sometimes. I have to have spring around me as I write.

  9. Speaking from England . . . forcing hyacinths was a standard part of junior school life when I was a child – not because we wanted early flowers but because this way we could see how roots grow. I’m afraid we did nothing with them except fill a hyacinth vase with water, plonk a bulb on top, put them on a window sill and wait. It worked!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Esther, if that was the case, you definitely had prechilled bulbs. Which of course, makes sense for school children. It’s like putting a sunflower seed in a paper cup here. We do this and watch them grow. No one wants to wait on a hyacinth bulb to do its chilling. Thanks!

  10. Jane Scorer says:

    Gosh Dee, I never knew it was so complicated ! I wonder if, here in the uk, I buy bulbs which are prepared for forcing without even knowing, as I just take them out of their packaging, fill the bulb pot with water, pop the bulb in and leave it on the windowsill until it flowers. I have never pre-chilled at all, so I think someone else has done that for me. It is such a part of brightening our grey old winters that lots of people do it, so there must be a large market for it. I tend to use hyacinths because the perfume is just fantastic and fills the kitchen.
    Your post was very informative … can’t believe I didn’t know all that, yet have success every time !

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Jane, I’m pretty sure you have bulbs that are already chilled. You can also buy them that way in the states, but we must ask for it specifically. I know Texas gardeners definitely get chilled bulbs to make their yards full of tulips and other traditional bulbs. Hyacinths do have the most wonderful fragrance. Thanks so much for writing.

  11. Carol says:

    Wonderful info, Dee. I’m forcing some hyacinths bulbs, too. I might just have to buy that book!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Carol. That book is great.

  12. Cindy, MCOK says:

    You might want to hide that turquoise vase next time I visit you. You know that’s MY color!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Ooh, thanks for the warning.

  13. Emma says:

    Well, your gorgeous vases certainly make the bulbs look beautiful in that in-between, awkward, not-quite-yet-growing phase they go through! Thanks for the mention Dee. Forwarded to my mum!

  14. Charlie@Seattle Trekker says:

    Amazing photos, love your eclectic pots. The information was great.

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