One of the benefits of living in Southern California is that I can garden all year round, except maybe in August when the dry heat threatens to suck the life out of everything.
I always chuckle a little when I read about gardeners in colder climates “putting their gardens to bed” for the season. Even Martha Stewart wraps her tender hedges in burlap sleeping bags for a long winter’s rest.
I remember living in Upstate New York during my college years struggling through the blizzards and counting the weeks until the daffodils started to poke their heads through the thawing earth to announce spring.
Then I learned that you could have a garden full of flowers all winter long indoors by forcing flower bulbs. Forcing is an indoor growing technique that imitates the outdoor environment and tricks the bulb into flowering earlier. It is also the perfect way to enjoy a spring garden even if you don’t have an outdoor space in which to plant.
Bulbs such as Narcissus (paperwhites & daffodils), hyacinths, crocuses, tulips, and even Hippeastrum (amaryllis) can be easily forced indoors. Some bulbs like hyacinths and tulips benefit from pre-chilling in the refrigerator, which imitates the bulb’s winter slumber under the snow and frozen earth. Others, like paperwhites, can be planted inside immediately after purchase. Bulbs can be forced in pots, bowls, glass vases, etc. Almost any container will work as long as it provides drainage and is at least twice the height of the bulb itself.
Flower bulbs can be forced in the chosen garden planter by planting in a porous potting soil mix and allowing the leaf tip of the bulb to emerge slightly. Cover the potting soil with mulch and keep it moist in a cool dark place until the leaves emerge to ensure success. Once the leaves do emerge, the mulch can be removed and the pot moved to a partially sunny or lit area. Remember that you are trying to mimic the conditions of spring, so don’t put your bulbs in direct sunlight or on top of a radiator cover. They prefer cooler temperatures (60-70 degrees) and diffused light.
Another forcing technique is to force the bulbs in water. Using a watertight glass or ceramic container, fill the bottom 2 inches or so with pebbles and water. Nestle the bulbs in the pebbles so only the root end is touching the water and place the container in a cool dark place until the roots and leaves emerge. Check the water level every day to ensure that the roots don’t dry out. A layer of horticultural charcoal can be added to the bottom of the container to keep the water smelling sweet.
Experiment with different flower bulbs. I love heady the perfume of hyacinths and paperwhites. And try different containers. I like to use mason jars and old florist vases filled with sea glass or colored pebbles. Unfortunately, most forced bulbs will not flower a second year as they’ve used all their energy flowering during forcing. It may be cold and blustery outside, but by having a small indoor garden of flowering bulbs, you can create the perfect environment in which to dream about warmer days to come.