Call me archaic


When I posted the above image on Facebook yesterday, the reaction (such as it was) pretty much amounted to “huh?” If bulb sales are in trouble, the art of bulb forcing seems barely to exist outside of commercial flower growers and maybe people in other countries—though I’m not sure of that.

It doesn’t help that bulb forcing instructions are prone to wide variation and are apt to make vapid (and unrealistic) guarantees like “imagine your windowsills filled with an array of dazzling flowers!” You can chill the bulbs alone, chill them in their planting media, chill them for 2 weeks in the fridge or for 8 weeks in the fridge, move them right into the sun or move them gradually into the sun. I’m not  that surprised that few gardeners bother with it; it does take planning and temperature conditions that aren’t always possible in contemporary homes with attached garages.

I don’t force dozens of hyacinths and tulips (plus a few muscari this year) because it’s easy or because I expect my windowsills to be filled with dazzling flowers. I like the ritual just as much—or more—than the results. It’s not particularly easy. And it might be cheaper to buy commercially forced flowers in the spring, given what I spend on bulbs, pots, and soil.  

But I happen to have a root cellar, plus a cold attic I could likely use in a pinch. It gives me something to work on during the final months of fall, when there’s not too much happening in the garden.  And I love the history of it, particularly  all the vintage forcing vessels you can use (and here). It harks back to a time when fresh flowers weren’t that easy to come by if you didn’t have a greenhouse, and longform ways of doing things were the norm.

It’s not real simple, it’s just real. BTW, I think Old House Gardens can be trusted for some good instructions.

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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


  1. I force a number of bulbs, usually chilled as potted in the garage, solely for the glimpse and scent of those indoor blooms 6 weeks earlier than I’ll ever see them here outside. For those who garden in the areas where there are four definite seasons, it’s a must!

  2. But also many people live in places where chilling in the garage is not an option (mine was a summery 80 degrees most of the last 2 weeks), root cellars are non-existant, and the refrigerator crisper drawers need to be used for food. I’ve forced bulbs before, sure, but at the expense of having fresh veggies & fruit available. Ten percent of the US population lives in California, and most Californians live in areas that don’t get that cold. Then you’ve got all those who live in other relatively warm regions … not many have the climate nor the space for such an endeavor. We aren’t really lacking in winter garden activities anyway, so including bulb forcing on my list isn’t necessary.

  3. I have forced bulbs before and I’m sure I’ll do it again. But at the moment I’m using my little forcing vessels for rooting cuttings…

  4. Elizabeth,

    Hear, hear! I can’t imagine not forcing at least a few bulbs each winter…even if it’s just the lowly paperwhite or the temperamental amaryllis. But I do think it’s much more fun to force the cold-hardy bulbs like hyacinths and muscari…just gotta have that fragrance and the “promise of spring”!

    P.S. I’ve also found that forced bulbs do just fine transplanted in the ground…for blooms the next year. 🙂

  5. forced some paperwhites once (in a San Jose, CA apartment if you can believe it). lots of fun, lots of fragrance, and I agree that it’s interesting to revisit horticultural fads/trends of years past. the new terrarium craze is also an entry point into the history of Wardian cases and international botanical exploration. sadly, my terrarium attempt was a complete disaster 🙂

  6. Forcing bulbs may be archaic, but the sweet and alluring fragrance of paperwhites in December or January is so welcome when temperatures are in the 30’s and it’s dark here in the northwest for 15 hours a day.
    By the way, I came across your wonderful site in a search for info on liming soil and your rant popped up. Excellent! Another gardening bookmark!

  7. Every year I tell myself I am going to use all of my charming teacups and saucers as forcing vessels for an array of bulbs and every year … zilch on the bulb forcing front. Sigh. I love the idea, and I hold out hope!

  8. I forget to add the amount of time it takes to chill the paperwhite, tulip, and hyacinth bulbs, so I buy amaryllis bulbs and pot those up for Christmas gifts. I buy 6 inch clay pots and saucers, a bag of potting soil, and I get the bulbs mail order. They are set in front of french doors facing south and given a drink to stay moist until they sprout. So this is my suggestion for those who want to grow bulbs but don’t have the refrigerator space to chill the bulbs.

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