Just when I'm sick of garden chores, Jack Frost tromps through the ragged flower beds in his combat boots and solves my problem for another season. I come inside and flop into a chair beside the stack of unread books I've been eyeing all summer and fall. After a week, I'm mourning the absence of fragrance and beauty that only a flower will give.
Forcing bulbs answers the need perfectly. I get fragrance and blossom without the work of a full-blown garden.
What is forcing?
Forcing is treating plants in a way that fools them into growing and blooming outside their normal season. It can be done with a variety of plants. Every January, my mother used to cut dormant pussy willow and forsythia whips and force them into early bloom by putting them in a sunny window in a vase of warm water. Bulbs can be enticed to produce bursts of fragrance and color for weeks out of season.
"Lots of bulbs can be used for forcing," says John Elsley, horticulturist at Park Seed's Wayside Gardens. "Dwarf miniature iris, crocus, tulips."
"The best bulbs to force are the amaryllis and the paperwhites," says Sophie Langeveld of Holland Bulb Farms, "because they do not need a cool period before they are ready to bloom."
Native to South America and South Africa, amaryllis (Hippeastrum) produces a dramatic clump of large, trumpet-shaped blooms atop a sturdy pedestal of stalk.
Often sold in the grocery store around the holidays, they require little attention and usually go from bare bulb to flower in five to eight weeks. Paperwhites, a k a narcissus, which come from Israel and southern France, produce highly fragrant flowers within a few weeks of being placed in a container on a sunny windowsill. Other bulb choices for forcing include hyacinth and daffodil. These, however, along with the miniature iris, crocus, and tulip, require some preparation before they will bloom outside their usual schedule.
How it's done
Amaryllis and narcissus need little more than a sunny window and water. Amaryllis, usually sold already potted and accompanied by written instructions, are watered sparingly until they begin to grow. When the flower bud appears, fertilize and increase water to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Narcissus bulbs can be wedged into a container of soil, gravel or even marbles. Keep the soil moist, or fill the gravel container with water to just above the level of the bulb's roots. If the water is kept too high, the bulb will rot; too low and the roots will shrivel and die. In four to six weeks, a collection of green fronds topped with creamy ruffled blooms will open to perfume an entire room. A hot room will force them to bloom faster, but a cooler room (55-65 degrees) will keep them blooming longer.
For other bulbs, you will need to re-create their dormant period for several weeks before they will grow and flower.
"Hyacinth, tulip, daffodil and crocus need a cool period to develop their roots," says Sophie Langeveld.
Depending upon your time, space and ambition, you can get fairly technical about it. "The Complete Book of Bulbs" (Doubleday, 1953) devotes an 18-page chapter to a Martha Stewart-like prep drill including soil mixtures, trenching and re-digging bulbs for winter bloom. But for many bulbs, mimicking their dormant period doesn't have to be a full-time job.
Plant bulbs in soil, potting medium or compost, and put the pot in a dark, cool spot. A paper bag can keep it dark; the refrigerator will work for a cool spot, as will an unheated cellar, attic or garage.
"Any potting mix is fine when you pot them up," says John Elsley, "but compost is best. And good drainage is essential."
"Crocus need four to six weeks to develop proper roots," adds Langeveld. "Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths need about 12 weeks. You should be able to see roots coming through the bottom of the pot. Then take them out and bring to a cool room. They have to adjust to a slightly warm temperature. Then you can bring them out in your room, and they will bloom for you."
* Holland Bulb Farms, P.O. Box 220, Tatamy, Pa.18085-0220; 800-283-5082
* Wayside Gardens/Park Seed Co., 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001; 800-845-1124; www.parkseed.com
* Parks Advance Bulb catalog is available by calling 800-845-3369.
Pub Date: 12/06/98