Forcing and Caring for Indoor Bulbs this Winter

November 24, 2015

Besides getting to see my family—especially a rapidly sprouting niece and nephew—the thing I look forward to most about going home for the holidays is possibly stealing an amaryllis bulb from my mom's windowsill. (Okay, okay, I think she loves sending me off with one, tucked into a paper shopping bag that I'll carry on the flight back to New York.)

Once I get back to the city with the bulb, which is already potted for the trip back north, I prop it up on a windowsill and water it here and there. Seeing the stalk inch up a little every day is just the kind of encouragement I need to get through a blustery December, and when the amaryllis blooms, big red petals unfurling like a bow, I know the same thing is happening on a windowsill in Tennessee. It's the little things.

A Tennessee amaryllis, perking up a Brooklyn winter of yore.

What's going on here?

In the wild, bulbs are largely springtime bloomers (with the exception of fall bulbs like Begonia and winter bulbs like snowdrops) but some early intrepid gardeners learned that if you source certain spring bulbs in October and give them the "cold treatment"—which means stowing them in a paper bag at the bottom of your fridge to simulate a long, dark winter—for anywhere from four to 16 weeks depending on the bulb type, they will be ready to flower come winter. Iconic spring flowers like Narcissus, Hyacinth, and lily of the valley (which is basically the jingle bell of flowers if you ask me) would add an extra springy addition to the end of the year and can be forced by pre-chilling.

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Green-thumbed plant lovers might have had the foresight to do this at summer's close, but if you didn't, there is still hope yet: Nurseries are stocking up spring bulbs now, pre-chilled and barely sprouting, ready to bloom indoors in a patch of sunlight. They'll also have bulbs like Amaryllis and paperwhites, which don't even require pre-chilling to flower in winter. Pick up your favorites in abundance now, so you can keep some on your own 'sill and farm the rest out as good cheer.

Lily of the Valley Photo by eireannj (via Flickr)

Caring for your bulb while it's forced.

Once the green shoots start inching up, move your bulb into a sunny place (windowsills work nicely); there, it will take two to four weeks to bloom. Rotate periodically so it doesn't grow lopsided.

You'll want to periodically moisten the soil and then let it dry out thoroughly before watering again—about half a cup of water once a week should do it. And there's no need to fertilize during the forcing stage; that bulb has all the nutrients it needs at this stage!

Once your bulb flowers, move it into indirect sunlight to extend the bloom period—your desk or bedside table will be happy for the company.

Amaryllis bulbs Photo by Tommie (via Flickr)

Can I save this year's flower to bloom again next year?

Your bulb can't be forced a second time, but with proper care it will stay alive and bloom again back in the great outdoors.

Even after the petals appear, continue watering your plant once a week. Eventually the petals will fall off and the green stalk will turn brown, but the plant is still alive—just cut off the withered bits, carefully dig up the bulb, and plant it in your garden.

If you don't have a patch of land, just move the withered plant in its pot to an area with low light, continuing to water it once a week and then fertilizing the soil come springtime. If you're lucky, it will bloom again next winter—but if tending to it all year long feels tedious, you can always get a new bulb to force next year.

Do you force flowers in winter? Which ones? Share your favorites in the comments.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.