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Indoor Winter Gardening: Forcing Bulbs



By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners


What do gardeners do in the winter? Sitting by the fire, planning your spring beds and reading are all nice. Butwhile you stay warm, there are things you can grow inside to satisfy that need for green.


My family traditionally had paperwhites blooming throughout the winter season. My mom would start them at roughly two-week intervals to brighten a chilly northern Ohio winter with both the look, smell, and promise of spring. Most bulbs need a several month period of cold before they flower which is why we plant them in fall to bloom in the spring. Paperwhites, Narcissus papyraceus, originated in a warm Mediterranean climate and thus do not need a cold treatment, making them an easy bulb to force. “Forcing” is simply getting a plant to grow roots and flowering stems indoors when they are out of season.


Paperwhites are an easy bulb to force in water. Since they are only going to be grown for a short period of time, they do not need drainage. So, choose a 3-4” decorative container. Add 1-2”: of washed gravel. Place the bulbs halfway into gravel (we used to use aquarium gravel) as close as you wish and then add some more gravel or stones to anchor the bulbs and allow the top-heavy plant to establish roots.


Add water to the base of the bulb. The add enough water every few days to maintain it at the base of the bulb. Do not immerse the bulb in water, only the base needs to be wet. In about four weeks you should have a plant with flowers. When Paperwhites are forced to bloom without soil they expend their nutrients. Once the bloom begins to die, it is best to toss it in the compost pile since it won’t rebloom.


If you have a container with drainage, you can plant them in a good potting mix with the tops of the bulbs even with the container rim. Water the soil and keep it moist but not soggy.


And of course, these plants need light! They will do best started in a southern exposure but any light will work. To prolong the flowering move them to a cool area out of direct light once they begin to flower.


Do research before you buy bulbs to force because some bulbs require several weeks of chilling before they will successfully bloom. One can force other spring blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, or hyacinths but remember they need a period of cold to flower. You can simulate winter! Pot them in potting soil in a suitable container with drainage holes and keep them moist and in a dark refrigerator for 12 to 16 weeks before you expose them to light.


Questions? Call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700.


Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.

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