Time to force the issue



For those of us north of zone 6, going for weeks without cultivating anything can be a real drag. That’s why, in spite of the fact that this is not a “how to” site, I’m going to get down and dirty and talk specifically about bulb forcing—because now’s the time to do it.

Let’s start with hyacinths, which I’ve been forcing successfully for several years. Mileage varies, but as far as forcing goes, these bulbs are practically foolproof. You can get directions from all kinds of different sources—expert, official, and otherwise. These are mine:

Pot the bulbs in mid-October, right as the air begins to cool. (Later is fine, too.) They should be tightly packed in the pots (bottom drainage, please), with their tops showing, watered, and then placed in a cool dark place, where the temps will be between 40 and 50 degrees F. For me it’s a root cellar under the back addition to our house. For others it might be a cool attic, basement or unheated back room. I have heard refrigerators work, but I would use one devoted only to this purpose. Food … constant rearrangement of contents … kids reaching in … pots full of dirt. Hmm, could get messy.

The pots should be left alone in the cold and dark for 8-10 weeks. They’re ready to come into the light when you see nice fat buds pushing up and some roots emerging from the bottom. If you use forcing vases, where the bulbs sit above water, you’ll see the roots filling the vase. Very cool. These have the same requirements.


After you bring them out, leave them in indirect light a week, then put them in the sun. Avoid dry, overheated spaces (for these and for all house plants, for that matter). Hyacinths potted in mid-October should come into bloom in late January/early February. I often give them as holiday gifts; the recipients are sometimes nonplussed at first, but then I hear how beautiful the flowers are when they finally come up.

I have also successfully forced tulips (Triumph and Single Early work the best), which need 12 weeks in the root cellar, and once I forced some scilla that I had forgotten to plant. They had sprouted a bit in the garage so I stuck them in some pots in January and brought them in the house. They bloomed beautifully.

It’s not really full-fledged gardening, but it is fun to check out the pots every now and then when they are chilling to see if there’s progress, or if they’re moist enough, and so on. This year I plan to challenge myself and try to force some erythronium as well as hyacinth and tulips. (Maybe scilla again too.)

I’m sure there must be a few of you who do this; I know Carol of May Dreams does quite a few in hyacinth vases. Carol—or others—are there some tips I’ve forgotten?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Have you ever tried forcing oxalis? I just orderd some Oxalis tetraphylla (four leafed clover) from B&B bulbs. I can’t wait to try it out. And my kids can’t wait to pick the lucky shamrocks!

  2. The only thing I would add is “pointy end up”. It seems obvious to us gardeners, but when you give someone a hyacinth vase with a bulb as a gift, if they put pointy end down, nothing happens. Just ask my sister…

    I love forcing bulbs, everyone should try it!

  3. We always have the bulbs and vases for sale and always end up with a bunch left over because nobody wants to do it themselves. Then we place the ones in the vases that didn’t sell. As soon as they bloom then they sell. Oh, well better late than never. Don’t forget you don’t have to place all of them in vases right off. You can plant some up later, like December and get later blooms.

  4. You know, it is really not hard at all. Seriously. I feel like doing one of those meme things, but ask the people to actually force a bulb. (I suppose that’s a meme no-no.)

    Oxalis–hmm. A thought. What I’d like to try is to force an example of every bulb I get and see which works the best.

  5. You can keep a bag of tulips in the fridge for 8-12 weeks to chill before planting, without potting them. I did that last year with a mega-cheap bag of tulips from Home Depot.

    The one thing to remember, though, is Do Not Keep Them in the Crisper (or wherever you keep fruit, and don’t forget, tomatoes, peppers, cukes, et al are technically fruits) as the ethyls given off during ripening will kill the flowerbud in the bulb.

    I kept the tulip bulbs in the meat drawer in a paper bag, and they all came through fine. This year I’m going to expand with a lot of double frilly daffodils and fringed tulips I wouldn’t be caught dead planting in the ground. By February they’ll seem like plants from paradise.

    We’ll just have to store meat somewhere else, is all 😉

  6. I heard about that, but when I tried it with hyacinths they got moldy and gross. It’s worth another try. Old House gardens recommends it.

  7. Crocus and grape hyacinth are easy to force, and the little pots don’t take much room. I’ve used the back cellar steps under the hatchway for chilling the pots — cold, but usually above freezing, even in Connecticut. I’ve also used an unheated, detached garage to hold bulbs for chilling, and had success, although that might not work in Minnesota or northern Vermont. ‘Rip van Winkle’, a tiny, shaggy double daffodil that looks like a dandelion, is one of my favorites for forcing. ‘Tete-a-Tete’, ‘Baby Moon’ and ‘Minnow’ all stay short, even when stretched for light indoors, so no hassle with having to stake them.

  8. I used to have my children plant paperwhites in red plastic cups, filled halfway with gravel, on December 1st each year. Much to their joy, by the 24th of December they were in full bloom!

  9. Adding a spoonful or so of activated charcoal to the water in forcing glasses will keep it from becoming grossly stinky.

  10. I love forcing! Species tulips also work very well as do the smaller daffs like Tete-a-Tete.
    Don;t forget you can force branches to bloom early indoors too – quince are my fave, but forsythiare most abundant an easiest.

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