How I Force Tulips for Winter Bloom

September 27, 2012

HERE AT A GARDEN FOR THE HOUSE, I’m busy potting tulips for indoor winter bloom.  Tulipa ‘Christmas Dream,’ pictured up top, bloomed in my bedroom window one February. What a thrill to see the pastel-pink petals against a background of snow! Tulips will bloom at the wrong time of the year for you, too, providing you pot the bulbs in early autumn. Here’s my fail-proof forcing guide:

In my experience, early-single varieties are the best tulips for coaxing into winter bloom. Besides  pink ‘Christmas Dream;’  I’ve also successfully forced the white-edged, pink ‘Quebec,’ and the deep-pink ‘Purple Prince’ (pictured above, in my music room window).

Obviously I’m drawn to pink tulips.

You might prefer  yellow, white, red, or variegated tulips.  Choose a color which makes your spirit soar.

1. Potting - A squatty, 6-inch diameter “azalea” pot provides comfortable quarters for 5 tulip bulbs. Place a piece of broken pottery over the drainage hole, and then fill the pot half way with any well-draining potting mix.

2. Planting - On the surface of the soil, arrange the bulbs with their pointed tips up, as above. Then add more soil to just cover the bulbs. When all is finished, you should have a one-inch opening between soil and pot rim to allow for future watering.

3. Soaking - In a sink or dishpan filled with water, immerse the pot to within an inch of its rim, and let it remain for several minutes, or until the soil has taken up all the moisture it can hold. Avoid top watering until roots have formed, lest your careful planting-arrangement become undone.

4. Chilling - Dutch tulips insist on 12 weeks of darkness and a cold temperature (35-45 degrees) while roots grow. Some years I set the potted bulbs in my spare refrigerator. Other years they go into the closet of my unheated mud-room. If your cellar stays reliably cold but above freezing, you can  place your bulbs there.

Now, if you decide to place the bulbs your refrigerator, be sure to keep fresh fruit out. Why? Because ripening fruit gives off ethylene gas, which can sterilize bulbs.

Check weekly for water. The soil should remain moist, but not so saturated as to invite rot during the rooting-period.

5. Bring the bulbs to a sunny, cool window.  In January, transfer the tulips to a  window that receives full sun.  Try to keep temperatures on the cool side — 65 degrees maximum. Flowers will emerge about 4 weeks later.

Subsequent care.  Tulip bulbs can have a fine future if you continue to care for them after their blooms fade. Cut off dead flowers, but provide food and water until the foliage withers. I feed mine with a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous formula, at the rate of one 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water.

When the foliage starts to yellow, withhold all food and water.  Then, once  the soil has completely dried out, you can remove the bulbs and store them in dark, dry, and cool location. In autumn plant the bulbs in a sunny spot outdoors. In two years time they will bloom as if they had never known the inside of your house.

Let me know if you feel inspired to coax a few tulips into early bloom. You can’t imagine how much pleasure you’ll receive when the flowers open during a February blizzard.

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Related Posts:
Forcing Hyacinths in Bulb Vases
Tip-Toe Through the (Species) Tulips
Narcissus ‘Winter Sun’

Comments

  1. Adele says:

    Kevin, I remember all those flowering spring bulbs you trotted out last January, February and March. Boy was I jealous! Do you really think anyone can perform such miracles with bulbs? Anyone, including me?!

  2. Adele – the miracle is the bulb itself, which already contains an embryo flower. The only difficult part to growing hardy bulbs like tulips, hyacinths, etc., is finding a cool, dark location for them while they grow roots.

  3. Erin says:

    I just love planting bulbs now for winter bloom. Tulips, paperwhites and hyacinths are my favorite to force.

  4. Katreader says:

    I don't have room in my fridge…but I have a little room in my basement next to an outside wall where I store my gardening supplies…hmmm. If not this year, maybe next year I'll try to force some flowers!

  5. Erin – you are a kindred spirit. I can't imagine not having tulips, hyacinths, and etc. to bring to my windows the first week in January. To me it says “spring is here.”

    Katreader – a cold room in the basement, a barely heated garage, an enclosed porch…all these are ideal places for hardy bulbs.

  6. ksh0727 says:

    I potted up a few “apricot beauty” tulips in mid October for forcing in a mini freidge and accidentally knocked a pot over in early November only to discover that none of the bulbs had any roots yet. Thankfully there was no evidence of rot or mold either so I potted them back up. Is there something up or do i just need to be patient?

    Ken

  7. Ken – welcome! Your tulips should have made roots after 4 weeks. I'm thinking your refrigerator might be too cold (below 35 degrees).

    If the bulbs are still firm, place the pot in a dark but slightly warmer location for 2 weeks. Then check for roots. If they are present, return the pot to your refrigerator. And be sure to keep fresh fruit out of that fridge — fruit gives off ethylene gas which can sterilize bulbs.

    Please keep me posted…I want your tulip test to be a triumphant one!

  8. ksh0727 says:

    Dear Kevin! Thank you so much for the brilliant advice! I placed the tulips in a wine cellar (high 40 to low 50 degrees) and within a week or so, I had roots! The next big test awaits…will I have flowers in a few months? who knows?

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and for this fantastic site!

    Ken

  9. Ken – congratulations!

  10. Kathleen says:

    Hi Kevin! I know I cannot chill these bulbs in a fridge with produce, but what about fresh made apple cider stored in kegs in the same fridge? I know apples are particularly bad. Would the cider and tulips be a bad combo?
    Thanks!
    Kathleen

  11. Kathleen – Nice to hear that you are thinking of forcing tulips. As for keeping the bulbs in the same fridge as apple cider, I should think this would be okay, especially if your kegs are tightly sealed.

  12. Hazel says:

    Hello, Kevin! Can I force other bulbs using this method? I love your site, it is fabulous with the amount of good information! Thank you!

  13. Hi Hazel – Yes, all Dutch bulbs are forced in the same manner as tulips. Some need less than 12 weeks of cold and dark. If you’d like to see (and read about) the bulbs that I have successfully forced — snowdrops, grape-hyacinths, and iris reticulata among them — just click on the “Bulbs” category on this site. Meanwhile, happy bulb-forcing to you!

  14. Maria says:

    Thank you for teaching how to force the bulbs!

  15. Paddy Barr says:

    Our Master gardener group will be doing a class on
    forcing bulbs It was good to read what you had to say
    I force daffodils to be out by the 1st march for St Davids Day.

  16. Jenny says:

    Hi Kevin!

    If I force my bulbs inside, they will rebloom in two years, I understand. But, if they are planted outdoors (never forced inside) do they bloom annualy? thank you!

  17. Hi Jenny – If you plant your tulips outdoors — and if you live in a zone where winters are cold — then yes, your tulips will come up annually. That is, unless squirrels dig them up.

    To insure perennial success, plant the bulbs deeply — about 8 inches. And after the bulbs bloom, feed them with an organic formula intended for bulbs. Do not remove the foliage until it yellows and becomes loose. The foliage turns sunlight into sugar, which in turn causes the bulbs to produce embryo flowers for the following spring show.

  18. Kathy says:

    Kevin, I have some bulbs to force and I understand how to water them the first time by placing the pot in the water. But, how do you water them once they are in the fridge? Do you add a little water to the top or take them out and submerge them again when they get dry? Do they still get dry in the fridge? Thanks, I would love to do this and I have an extra fridge in the garage.

  19. Jesica Carleton says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I saw a picture on pinterest with tulips forced in plain glasses with rocks in them… unfortunately, clicking on the picture seemed to lead to something completely unrelated, so I was hoping you could help. I’d like to try this, but assume I’d still need to chill the bulbs for 10-12 weeks. Can I just put them in the refrigerator, then take them out to put in the jars?
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Jesica

  20. Hi Jesica Carleton – Yes, you could refrigerate the bulbs for 12 weeks and then plant them in soil or in pebbles and water. But for very best bloom, plant the bulbs first…then refrigerate. In my experience, bulbs always perform better when they are permitted to make their roots during the chilling period.

  21. Barbara says:

    I live in Virginia and it is still warm mid October ( 12 weeks of cooling) therefore not sure where to place bulbs for cooling. We do not put our bulbs in the ground until late November. Any suggestions for cooling other then a refrig? Also, I did not see your reply to Kathy’s question (#18) November 27th I was wondering the same. Do you water them when they are cooling in the refrig. I am new to your site and it is the best! Thank you for all the wonderful tips ! I have 7 mini milk jug greenhouses started………can’t wait to see the results.

  22. Brooke says:

    Hello,

    My friend is engaged to be married next June, and she really wants to use daffodils in her centerpieces. Unfortunately, most of the florists we’ve found only have daffodils available through April. I am considering trying to hold bulbs in cold storage through the spring to force into bloom in late May/early June.

    My question is–does this sound feasible? We are willing to take a risk, but I don’t want to get her hopes up for something that is doomed to fail.

    If you think this sounds like a worthwhile experiment, I would appreciate any advice you have to improve our chances of success.

    Thanks!

  23. Hi Brooke – I think it’s highly possible to force daffodils for a June wedding. Be sure to choose late-blooming varieties. Daffodils are usually labeled as “early”, “mid,” or “late.” Pot the bulbs in October, and then set them in cold storage. About 6 weeks before you want the flowers, bring the potted bulbs to sunlight and warmth (65 degrees maximum). Avoid too much warmth, or the bulbs might bloom and fade before the wedding day!

  24. Judy says:

    Such pretty gardens in your windows!

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