Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Plan and plant bulb-garden pots this fall for flowers indoors this winter.

Are Winter Flowers In Your Future?

A late summer day can be hot and muggy, but we are surrounded by nature's clues that autumn is fast approaching, with winter not too far behind. There are any number of garden tasks occupying our minds at this time of year, but think ahead to how lovely it is to have flowers blooming indoors during those grey winter days. And, no, you don't have to also think about the florist bill as well. Instead, maybe this is the year that you successfully force some bulbs so that you can to surround yourself with home-grown flowers this winter. Now is the ideal time to put that goal in motion.

So What Is Bulb Forcing?
Bulb forcing is such an inelegant term for a gardening technique that yields such wonderful results. Be assured that it does not involve weaponry. Instead, bulb forcing involves using various methods to get bulbs to bloom indoors at a time when they would not be blooming outdoors. The most well-known and easiest to force of these bulbs are paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis. The usual spring-blooming bulbs, like tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths, require a bit more effort as they need a cold period, called vernalization, to allow roots to develop and the flowers to break dormancy.

Is It Difficult to Force Bulbs?
Even with degrees in horticulture and decades of gardening experience, I've kept my winter bulb growing mainly limited to paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis. Most of the instructions I've read for forcing spring-blooming bulbs have made the task seem either too complicated or overly simplified, triggering my doubt in their veracity. Finally, though, I've found the perfect solution with the publication this year of the book Bulb Forcing for Beginners and the Seriously Smitten (AAB Book Publishing, 2012, $32.95). Author Art Wolk has put his more than thirty years of bulb-forcing experience and two Philadelphia International Flower Show Grand Sweepstakes Awards into this book. Few garden books break new ground, but Wolk has manged to do just that with "to the point" information accompanied by both his own excellent step-by-step photos and gorgeous examples of the final product. As a bonus, he writes in a humorous and conversational tone.

Wolk's book certainly provides a wide range of information, from background details about bulbs, corms, tubers, tuberous roots, and rhizomes, as well as choosing pots and potting soils, to how to pot, details on providing the chilling period, bringing the bulbs into bloom, and pests. He goes through chapters with instructions for a range of bulbs, from the easiest to the most difficult, with advice on choosing varieties. Even with the easy-to-grow ones, Wolk provides information that will improve your results. All of this is from first-hand experience.

Of the wide-ranging and copious information provided by Mr. Wolk, the most enticing and inspiring is the chapter on creating a bulb-garden pot, which is the technique of planting many different types of bulbs in the same container.

Here's how Wolk describes the experience of a bulb-garden pot: "When I brought my first bulb-garden pot indoors, it looked exactly the same as an outdoor bulb garden in February, with little pips of growth venturing upward like green thermometers to gauge the climate. Within a matter of days the first Iris reticulata bloomed, followed a few days later by crocus. Ten days later, early daffodils and muscari blossomed and fairly screamed, 'It must be April first!' Another week passed and typical late-April tulips began to show color."

Wolk's tip for a bulb-garden pot that stays in bloom for 5 to 6 weeks is to choose a wide variety of bulbs, including early, mid-season, and late-blooming bulbs. For example, use crocus and reticulate iris for your early-blooming choices. For mid-season, try daffodils, hyacinths, and grape-hyacinths. Tulips and late daffodils are good choices for those bulbs that bloom last.

You'll need a clay pot 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Set the bulbs close together in the pot, with the tallest ones in the back and the shortest in the front. To increase the flower count, double layer the smaller bulbs with the daffodil bulbs. An intriguing variation on the bulb-garden pot that Wolk describes is the bulb-arrangement pot, where the the bulbs are grown separately in small containers, then a variety are replanted into a larger container.

Whether you stick to the simple or charge head-on into the greater complexities of bulb forcing, the experience will make winter brighter and more bearable.

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