by Carol Wallace
Copyright by Carol Wallace. All Rights Reserved.
How would you like to enjoy spring right from your living room, without even having to get up to look out the window? Not just spring, but a succession of blooms and colors that will last for weeks?
You can. All it takes is a nice, big container and a good variety of different spring bulbs. The trick to creating a miniature bulb garden is layering your bulbs. You can pack an amazing number of bulbs into a single container, and have them emerge when the time is right - from the earliest bloomers right on through later, slower and shyer bulbs.
The first thing you will need to insure success is a nice bright spot in your home - or a setup where you can give your bowl of bulbs some good , bright artificial light that it can pretend is sunlight. Once the bulbs emerge from their chilling period, they want sun - especially daffodils and tulips.
You will also need a good space for chilling your bulbs. Most bulbs (with a few exceptions) need a period of cold before they will bloom. So you need an unheated room, a porch or garage, or lots of refrigerator space to get your spring bulb bowl started. And if you use a refrigerator, make sure that you keep all fruit in a separate compartment. Fruit gives off a gas that can keep your bulbs from flowering.
You will need a nice large container with a wide bottom. The wide bottom is important because when you layer bulbs for indoor forcing you will be putting your largest bulbs on the bottom.
You will also need a variety of bulbs that force relatively easily. The very easiest bulbs (aside from no-brainers like paperwhite narcissus) are large flowering crocus, iris reticulata, hyacinths and grape hyacinths (muscari). If you have a bright space for growing on, then add daffodils and tulips to the mix.
Finally, you need a good, free draining potting soil mix.
Add an inch or two of potting soil to the bottom of your pot and then take your largest bulbs - normally daffodils or tulips. Set them with their noses pointed upward, not quite touching. Now sift enough soil over them to almost, but not quite cover them.
Next, add tulips, if you are using them. Early blooming tulips work best - either species tulips like Kaufmannia varieties and their hybrids, or single early tulips like Apricot Beauty work best. The trick with these is to plant them with their flat sides facing the rim of the pot. This will allow the tulip to grow with its outer leaves draped gracefully around the rim of the pot for a nice, lush look.
Place the tulips carefully between the noses of the daffodils. Now sift more dirt over the two layers of bulbs. This time you can cover them. Remember that tulips and daffodils should be planted at least 6" below rim of the pot.
Hyacinths, which can form your next layer, can be planted anywhere from 4-6 inches deep. The tulips and daffs can be planted as deep as 8 inches if you are planning a real extravaganza of a container display, so plan accordingly.
Iris reticulata need to be planted about four inches deep. Lay these on the soil with which you have covered the preceding layers. Aim for planting between the bulbs for the last layer you planted - but bulbs are amazingly accommodating and will bend their stems to find their way to the light.
You can also add your grape hyacinths to this layer - the bulbs of both this and the iris are quite small and so you will be able to fit several of both onto a single layer. Finish covering the bulbs with soil to not quite the rim of the pot.
Now water the entire pot so that the soil is damp but not too wet. The soil will settle as you water, so you may find that you need to add a bit more soil.
And (finally!) cover the entire pot with plastic wrap and place it in cold storage. (You might need a crane to lift it at this point!) The pot will need a maximum temperature of 50 degrees - preferably temperatures in the mid-30s to 40s - to really get off to a good start. And they will need to stay in this cold area for about 14 weeks.
Periodically check the pot to make sure the soil hasn't dried out. The plastic should keep moisture in, but check anyway to make sure. You won't see much activity for a while, because the bulbs are busier sending roots down at first than they are worrying about sending up greenery. But, around that magical 14-week period you should start to see green shoots pushing up. Or, if your chilling area has been mostly dark, those shoots may be white. Don't panic - this is normal.
At this point move your bulb garden into an area that is cool - 60 degrees or so- and somewhat dim. "Dim" is the right amount of light to turn those white shoots green. And once they do green up they should also start to grow taller in their new, warmer area.
Don't rush them into bright sunlight or you will shock them. Don't forget that the poor things have just spent weeks in total cold and darkness. To give them time to adjust, let them spend at a week - preferably two -- in cool dimness.
When the shoots are green and four to six inches tall, move your bulb garden into the brightest light you can give them. It should take anywhere from two to three weeks, but you should soon be rewarded with a beautiful burst of blooms that will just keep on coming.
And let me tell you a little secret that the bulb companies usually don't reveal. You usually hear that forced bulbs are exhausted, and that when the show is over you should throw them away. And it's true that it will do you little good to try to force these bulbs again. But if you have space outside, plant them up when the flowers die down. You may only see foliage the following year - but most forced bulbs actually can and will flower again in your garden when they have recovered from their indoor show.
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.