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Force Bulbs for Good Cheer

  • Daffodils forced from bulbs can brighten a winter day. (Henry Homeyer photograph)

    Daffodils forced from bulbs can brighten a winter day. (Henry Homeyer photograph)

  • Daffodils forced from bulbs can brighten a winter day. (Henry Homeyer photograph)

Winters here can be long and cold. Sometimes they are burdensome for a guy like me who loves playing in the garden — planting and picking flowers, or harvesting lettuce and berries. But like the squirrels, I’m planning ahead and burying some little round things for future enjoyment. Nuts? No, I’m not. I am planting bulbs in pots now so they will bloom indoors in February and March.

Each fall in early November I plant tulips and daffodils and sometimes crocus in pots, planters and in a window box that I take down and bring into the basement where it’s cool and dark. Almost any spring bulb can be planted for forcing, and now is the time to do it.

One nice thing about forcing bulbs is that the deer cannot get them. Tulips are like magnets for deer and rodents in many neighborhoods, though my fierce and determined Corgi, Daphne, does a pretty good job of deterring them for me. But tulips growing inside are unlikely to be bothered by anything. That said, one year rodents did get in my basement and dug up tulips that were in pots, so I sometimes cover containers of tulips with wire screening I get at the hardware store called hardware cloth.

My window box is one I built over 10 years ago out of cedar and it is still holding up nicely. (A nice winter project might be to make one yourself. Directions are in my first book, Notes from the Garden, which is now out of print but available at many libraries.) The box is 36 inches long and 7 inches deep and 9 inches from front to back.

Outdoors I plant tulips and daffodils so that their tips are 6 inches below soil surface, and 2 to 3 inches apart. But in my window box I plant them closer together to cram as many bulbs as possible in the space. I plant them in 2 inches of soil mix so that they have plenty of space for their roots, but this means their tips are just below the surface of the planting medium after I fill up the box.

I start the process by dumping out all the plants and soil from my window box. I take a stiff scrub brush (the one I use for cleaning out garbage cans) and clean the window box as often roots and dirt are sticking to it. I have drilled holes in the bottom of the box for drainage and I check to see that they’re not clogged.

Garden soil is great for growing bulbs outdoors, but is not ideal in a container. In a pot it tends to get compacted by watering. So I make a mix that is 50 percent compost and 50 percent potting mix that I buy. That mix is very light and fluffy because it contains peat moss and perlite. Perlite is an expanded mineral — sort of a rock popcorn. It’s the white stuff that looks like Styrofoam in potting mixes.

I planted 25 large daffodils in my window box, which was a bit of a squeeze, but will be dramatic when they bloom. Some years I plant two or three varieties of daffodils in it to stagger the bloom time, but this year I went for the “Big Bang” look — all blooming at once. I will bring the box out of the cold basement in early March.

After planting I water the mix lightly if it is dry. Bulbs won’t do well if sitting in soggy planting mix, but they also are living beings that are growing roots and need some moisture. If the soil mix dries out too much, I sometimes do a light watering halfway through their winter rest.

When selecting bulbs for forcing, “early-season” varieties are best. Some varieties will be listed as “good for forcing” and those are ideal. I give daffodils a minimum of 90 days of rest before bringing them into a warm room to start the process of above-ground growth. For tulips I recommend 120 days — four months from now is mid-March. If you bring them up without proper rest, you will get foliage but no blossoms. Crocus are ready in 10 weeks or so, but can be planted in the same container as daffodils — as a second layer of bulbs above the daffodils.

Those 8-inch plastic pots that are used for perennials at the garden center make good pots for forcing, too. Half a dozen tulips in one will make a very nice display indoors while there is still snow on the ground. Plant several pots and bring one into the warmth every week for a continuous display.

Temperature is important. The ideal temperature for forcing bulbs is 40-45 degrees. Anything over 50 is too warm, and below freezing is too cold. You might have a suitable place in your garage or on the steps of the bulkhead, or even in an unheated mudroom. It is best to keep the pots in the dark, but you can create that by placing a plank over the top, I suppose.

So go get some bulbs and pot them up for a late winter delight. It’s easy, it’s not costly, and you can plant those bulbs in your garden after they have done their work — cheering you up.

Henry Homeyer is the author of four gardening books and a fantasy-adventure for children, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.” His Web sites are www.henryhomeyer.com and www.Gardening-Guy.com.