Shut Up and Dig

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.

Posted by on October 28, 2013 at 8:15 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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15 responses to “Call me archaic”

  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. Laura Bell says:

    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.

    • Oh it absolutely is not for everyone, especially those in higher zones. I think that the fact it was (and maybe still is, a bit) a British thing appeals to the Anglophile in me.

  3. emily says:

    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. Those are beautiful! I want some! Thank you for reminding me of one of the things that makes me so happy and I rarely remember to start!

  5. Jan says:


    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. 🙂

  6. commonweeder says:

    I never thought of using my dark cold attic for the chilling part of the process. Many thanks.

  7. Jenny says:

    Pretty. I live in the South. I’m too lazy. I’ve planted species tulips in the lawn and moved on.

  8. Tyler C says:

    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 🙂

  9. Gretchen says:

    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!

  10. Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

    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!

  11. 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.

  12. greg draiss says:

    Amaryllis and paper white sales are very strong. Indoor forcing is strong but outdoor planting…………….not so much

    The TROLL