Winter Interest Battle, Round III: Revenge of the Bulbs

This is Madame Sophie, from Old House Gardens (in my office)
This is Madame Sophie, from Old House Gardens (in my office)

Over the last few posts, this discussion has partially devolved (in comments at least) into climate comparisons and other weather-related talk. Such is the nature of online conversations, but just to reiterate, I’m merely saying that for me, where I live, designing my outside garden for winter interest, as many, including Evelyn, recommend, makes little sense. That’s the myth part.

Some of this year's crop
Some of this year’s crop

I find my own definition of winter interest in plenty of other places however, both outside and in, mainly in. Bulb forcing (potting, repotting, moving, general maintenance) keeps me plenty busy on most weekends, and I’ve been able to talk friends into experiments. First, I give them pots of bulbs as gifts. The gateway drugs are the common tazettas/paperwhites you can buy everywhere, but I always get slower-growing hybrids that have better flower forms and milder scents. Then there are the hyacinths and tulips—people are finding that even if there is no root cellar, a cold attic (which many of our old houses have) works well for chilling periods. This form of off-season gardening was common gardening practice through the early twentieth century.

Some mixed parrots I gave my hairdresser, Lisa
Some mixed parrots I gave my hairdresser, Lisa

Because I give away the pots that seem farthest along (less chance of failure), I’m getting reports of blooms from all over Buffalo, including my hairdresser, who has parrot tulips coming up (see above). My own are slower—in fact, my favorite indoor flower right now is not a bulb, but an accidental sprout from an ornamental kale stalk I cut into two pieces and used as filler in a holiday centerpiece. It now has a foot-high flower stalk with little yellow blooms.

Crazy kale stalk action, with scilla madarensis, amaryllis, hyacinths, and narcissus
Crazy kale stalk action, with scilla madarensis, amaryllis, hyacinths, and narcissus

So far, the in-house forcing tally includes:
-100 tulips, mainly doubles, parrots, Prinses Irene, and something called Golden Artist (about 40 of these are in 2 large pots)
-40 hyacinths
-30 various, including amaryllis, tazettas, other narcissus (requiring chilling period), and 1 scilla madarensis, an interesting gift from Longfield gardens

Not sure what this is--Gigantea from Old House, maybe
Not sure what this is–Gigantea from Old House, maybe

That’s more than enough to keep me interested until spring.

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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. Lovely as always. I’ve given up on bulbs because of the four fabulous furry felines. I can only keep them in a spare bedroom which defeats the whole purpose of winter interest.

    • Our cat seems supremely indifferent to all bulbs and houseplants. She’ll chew on a leaf very rarely, and then it’s usually something weird, like holiday evergreens.

    • I know exactly what you mean! My four furry monsters (I love them, I do!) have forced me to become very creative in my houseplant placement.

  2. How lovely! I’m forcing a few, but our warm December temps have pushed back the flowering I think. I should haul a few other pots out out of their straw bale cave to see if they’re further along than the first two I took out a couple weeks ago. This is my first year trying to force bulbs, and it’s still all an experiment for me. Thanks for the encouraging article! -Beth

  3. Do you buy your bulbs from mail order nurseries? Do you chill them at home?
    Is it possible to buy bulbs and pot them without chilling?

    Can’t work up any enthusiasm for working a winter garden. I love going out after a beautiful snowfall when all looks perfect.

  4. This is my first year forcing and I’m in love! I did some stinky paperwhite (they were beautiful but I definitely need something less pungent), and am now babying some hyacinth along. Fingers crossed.

    BTW – along with sources for bulbs, any thoughts on the best place to find hyacinth vases? Or a good book for forcing indoors?

    • Steph,

      There are some books that cover it, but once you have the chilling situation handled, you can do anything. As for the vases, Ebay, and be sure to check worldwide, as most come from the UK.

    • If you have paperwhite bulbs, you could start them now and amaryllis bulbs can be started without a chilling period. If you can find tulips and hyacinths, they could be chilled and started, but finding any of these bulbs at this time would be the issue. Most if not all vendors have shut down their fall bulb offerings.

    • If you have some hyacinth bulbs you can force for 10 weeks in the refrigerator. Place them near a sunny window Easter week

  5. Your pots look lovely! And I can only imagine the scent throughout your house. yum.

    But I have to side with Evelyn here 🙂 – I LOVE my ‘winter interest’ garden outside. And indoor gardening just doesn’t do it for me – not a pot person and my husband would go crazy as well, with plants everywhere.

    I sit inside looking (and marveling) at those dry grasses or red twig dogwoods against the snow, sipping my tea. So serene and calming. A perfect counterpoint to the exuberance that is the summer garden. I take out my compost and on the way check my witch hazel and hellebores for buds, wondering why they choose to flower now? I’ve added lots of bird feeders this year, and am enjoying the realization that while the world looks asleep, there is still plenty of life buzzing.

    Not to extend this debate more than necessary… just sharing. 🙂

  6. Elizabeth, thank you for all the photos of your bulbs. They look amazing. I’m thinking I may need to try forcing next winter, if I can get creative enough with the pots to keep them away from my greens-lovin cats. Hanging on a wall perhaps…

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