Forcing bulbs to bloom sounds somewhat cruel. I like to think of it as gently coaxing them. It’s true that they are being slightly tricked into thinking they’ve gone through a long Rochester winter but their ignorance sprouts into beautiful bliss. Even those with a black thumb can easily pot up an early sampling of springtime splendor to be enjoyed in time for the holidays.
There are two types of bulbs for coaxing; those that require chilling and those that don’t. Hmmm, which to choose? I’d start with the quick and easy non chillables, like Paperwhite narcissus (delicate, white and very fragrant blooms) or Amaryllis (one darn big beautiful bulb.) With proper cooperation, these can easily become heartfelt homemade gifts for the holiday season. At your local garden store choose your bulbs, picking the ones that are large, firm and have no soft spots. The bulb is its own little awesome package of flower and food and will not need fertilizer.
There are two ways to pot these up, either in water or soil, and this is where you can get creative with presentation. If potting in soil, find a pretty pot that has holes for drainage and fill it almost up to the top with soil. Place the bulbs, tip end up, in the pot and cover about halfway with loose soil. With kindness, pack the bulbs in shoulder to shoulder in a single layer; they should get along just fine. Let the soil just nearly dry out between watering.
If you choose to get fancy (fancy is fun!) pot up your bulbs in water. Find a nice shallow glass container and fill with decorative stone, pebbles or glass pieces in a thick enough layer for roots to take hold. Nestle the bulbs in (again, pack them in shoulder to shoulder) and fill in around with your stone for stability, leaving the tops exposed to be able to see the amazing progress of the new growth. Fill the container with water just up to the base of the bulbs. Over the course of the next several weeks, keep the water level maintained at just that height.
For a gardener facing a long winter and willing to wait until February or so to see the fruits of their labor, there are the chillables like Tulips, Daffodils, Hyacinth, Crocus and Snowdrops. Each has their own required chill time that varies between 10-15 weeks. Check the package to get the exact time but 12 weeks will usually suffice if the label is dirty, rotted or in most cases, missing. Pot up your bulbs in the same way described in a soil medium above and then put them in your garage or a non heated basement to wait it out. Do not just leave the pot outside, where it can possibly freeze solid. Keep the soil moist but not wet through the entire chilling period. Maybe put the calendar alert on your phone and, when the required time has passed, pull your pot inside. Use mossy topdressing, stone or whatever you choose if you want to dress these up.
Now place your pre chilled pot (or non chilled prepared pot/dish of Paperwhites or Amaryllis) in a cooler area of your home, away from sunlight and heat vents, for a couple of weeks until you see green sprouts that are a few inches high. Then you can move it to a bright or sunny spot to enjoy seeing the daily progress. This is my favorite part, watching them grow over the course of these weeks, while there is a polar vortex outside and the only thing growing out there are snow drifts. It should only be about 2 more weeks until you see your cheerful babies start to bloom. I will tell you it is a proud moment realizing that you have done at least one thing in your life right. Just stand back, fold your arms, nod your head and say, “yeah, I did that.”