Forced Bulbs: What to Keep, What to Toss

March 19, 2013

HERE’S A DILEMMA YOU MIGHT BE FACING — What to do with the hyacinths, tulips, and other bulbs you forced for indoor winter-bloom.  In truth, some of these bulbs are worth keeping for future enjoyment outdoors. Others, not so much. Here’s how I determine the fate of my own, myriad forced bulbs, and how I care for the keepers:

What I toss:

Bulbs forced in water. This may sound heartless to you, but I do not keep bulbs which were forced in water (including my vased ‘Blue Jacket’ hyacinths, above). Why? Because water-forcing zaps most of their strength, and consequently increases the odds that they will never bloom again. (Ditto for bulbs which were forced in pebbles and water.)

Tender (tropical) bulbs. I toss my tropical Narcissi, too. These are hardy only in zones 8-10. I live in (frosty) zone 5-b. Still, because of the gorgeous color and scent they bring to my window garden, I don’t mind buying the bulbs year after year.  Pictured above is the sweetly-perfumed ‘Winter Sun’ — my favorite among the tropical narcissus clan.

What I keep:

In my experience, Dutch bulbs — if they were forced in soil — can have a fine future in the garden outdoors. Dutch bulbs include crocuses, like the ‘Golden Yellow’ variety that bloomed in my bathroom window one February…

And tulips (that’s ‘Sunny Prince’ above, a remarkably-fragrant variety)…

And hyacinths, with their legendary scent…

And the tiny, blue Puschkinia, which blooms in my Music Room window each February, and beneath a crabapple tree each April…

And all kinds of cold-hardy daffodils, including the heavenly-scented Narcissus ‘Erlicheer’ pictured above.

To make these bulbs worth saving, it’s essential to care for them after their blossoms fade. Cut off the dead flowering stalks, but do not remove the green foliage. Foliage is necessary for photosynthesis — the conversion of sunlight into sugar. Provide full sun, cool temperatures (65 degrees maximum), and plentiful food and water.

After several weeks have passed, yellowing foliage will signal the bulb is ready for a rest. Withhold all food and water.

And by the way, a tulip with yellowing leaves is not an attractive sight in a window garden. I let my bulbs ripen their foliage under a fluorescent light unit in my kitchen.  Mercifully, my kitchen is not on “public” view.

Once the soil has dried out, cut off the withered foliage. Then remove the bulbs,  and place them in a paper sack filled with sand, sawdust, or some other dry medium. Or, do what I sometimes do, and let the bulbs remain in their pots. Transfer the bag or the pot to a cool, dark, and dry location for the remainder of spring and summer.

Be sure to label the bags or pots. There is nothing worse than finding bags or pots of bulbs in the fall, and not having a clue as to their variety or color.

Well, I don’t like surprises.

In autumn, plant the bulbs in some sunny location outdoors. There, within two years time, they will flower as freely as though they had never been seen in a window garden.

Was this tutorial useful to you? Perhaps you can let me know by leaving a comment.

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Related Posts:
How I Force Tulips for Winter Bloom
How to Force Hyacinths in Bulb Vases
Fragrant Narcissus ‘Winter Sun’

Comments

  1. Rinnie says:

    I was just searching the internet for this very topic!! When I couldn’t find it I remembered your website and thought you would definitely have some article on this. Thank you very much!

  2. Rinnie – Welcome. So glad this article came to you at a crucial moment!

  3. Kelly says:

    Question: what is a good light bulb , type and potency, for houses plants and flowers. I love in the same climate zone as you and find that the natural light I’d not enough.
    Thanks!

  4. Hi Kelly – I use ordinary, “cool white” fluorescents. You can find these at any hardware store. African violets, geraniums, and other flowering plants thrive beneath the “artificial sunlight” the fluorescent tubes afford. The lights are really cheap, too — about $4.00 for a pair.

  5. Donna B. says:

    You know, I had wondered if it was worth trying to save my water + pebble forced hyacinths…
    Maybe I’ll just give it a shot – let them dry out and sit quietly in my basement and plant them in the fall? Worth a shot! >D
    [I have never successfully forced before, so this was a good year for me! Hehe...]

    very very useful information here for me! Gotta try some fragrant bloomers next year… ohohoho!

  6. Anne says:

    I was just wondering about my tulip bulbs this morning. I forced them in water, but I’ll know better next year!

  7. Great info…Thanks for the post! I have some tulip bulbs right now that I was going to plant…now I know!

  8. Gail says:

    What a lovely set of pictures, and I could just smell the sweet scents of your window garden, Kevin. How fun. You can bet I’ll be forcing some hyacinth next year in MY garden window.

  9. Joelle says:

    Great info. Yesterday I went looking for tulip and daffodil bulbs to plant, but couldn’t find any. And the stores couldn’t even tell me if they had seen any yet, and figured they just haven’t come in yet. I told them “But the ones that I have already are 5 inches up out of the ground!” So I started to consider buying the ones they get in that have already bloomed and plant them in my front yard – whenever it is they come in to the store. So my question is….Will these stay alive and will they produce next year?

  10. Hi Joelle – Tulips and daffs are usually only available September-December (they are autumn-planted bulbs). If you buy already-forced bulbs now, my advice is to feed and water the heck out of them until the foliage naturally withers (as described in the article above). Then plant them out in September or October. If they don’t bloom for you the first spring, don’t despair. They are merely convalescing, and will bloom the the following year.

  11. Sheri Rice says:

    Great article! super useful and very timely, Kevin, thanks for taking a complicated topic and making it very easy to understand. I’m curious, do you ever fertilize after forcing? Would that help these depleted bulbs bounce back?

  12. Honor says:

    I have a house full of bulbs that I had forced last winter, stuck outside in the pots for spring and summer, then topped off with compost before cold-treating them again. The daffodils sent up lots of foliage and quite a few blooms. The muscari bloomed like crazy (still at it!) and the hyacinths did well too. The tulips didn’t show but I suspect the bulbs were eaten by some enterprising little rodents over the course of the summer. I think the level of success I did have was due to a late start pulling them out of the cold last year…they were blooming only slightly ahead of the outside bulbs. That and the hard to kill nature of the grape hyacinths! This year I’ll get them in the ground and start some fresh new bulbs for forcing in the fall.

  13. badger gardener says:

    Happy Spring!! We are ushering in the season w/ -1 wind chills and are still snow covered. But some signs of spring cannot be stopped. The geese are arriving and the maple trees are showing buds. It shall not be long now and I cannot wait to see some life popping up from the ground. Hope you enjoy the vernal equinox today : )

  14. Sheri Rice – I’ve tried feeding my water-forced hyacinths, and they still refused to grow (let alone flower!) after being planted out in the garden. You might have better success than me. On the hand, all of my soil-forced Dutch bulbs — which I feed regularly after flowering, as described above — have had productive careers outdoors.

    Honor – Congratulations on a job well done! Letting the potted bulbs ripen their foliage outdoors is a big, big, plus.

    Badger gardener – Happy spring to you, too. Same (dreadful) weather here. But the robins have arrived — one is pecking at my ice-cloaked crabapple tree as I write this — what a comforting sight!

  15. Judith says:

    Great tutorial; especially helpful to sort out the differences in ways of forcing bulbs.
    I have a question. I did not get around to replanting the tulip bulbs I pulled up this time last year, 2012. Should I throw them out? Should I plant them this fall? Should I plant them now?
    Now I have to go to my kitchen and make a couple of your recipes!
    Thanks so much.

  16. Hi Judith – If the bulbs are still plump and firm, I’d go ahead and plant them. And remember: no expectations, no regrets!

  17. Henrietta says:

    Over the years my puschinias have greatly increased outdoors I am wondering if I could take some of these bulbs from the yard and force them to bloom indoors.

  18. Hi Henrietta – You can absolutely dig up some of your puschkinia and force it for indoor bloom. Have fun!

  19. Cary says:

    Kevin, this is exactly the information I’ve wondered about. Thanks so much for posting!

  20. Daisy says:

    I love your ideas!!!

  21. I used to work in a flower shop and would take home all the pots of forced bulbs that had ‘gone over’ and were not saleable. However, I used to plant them outside in the spring as soon as the ground was workable. If I waited to the fall, I could never remember where the holes were, and would always end up spearing some bulbs.

  22. Louise Brouillette says:

    Kevin, I’ve planted my water-forced narcissus, and they bloom. It may take a couple of years, but eventually they produce year after year. I just figure, heck, why not give it a shot and plant them? Thank you for the good information and for another view into your lovely home.

  23. Lori G. says:

    Interesting. I was told that no forced bulbs would ever grow or flower again if planted outdoors. A couple years ago, I was given a pot of gorgeous white tulips for my springtime birthday. Wish I had known this then…they’d be out in my yard right now instead of thrown away. Ah well. Forcing bulbs is on my list for next winter. Good to know that they aren’t necessarily one hit wonders.

  24. Karin W. says:

    So what if I plant them outside right away in the spring and let the leaves die off there? I know the hyacinths do well this way.

  25. Louise – Great to know that you’ve had success with water-forced narcissus.

    Karin W. – If the weather is “spring-like” where you are, you can indeed let your forced bulbs ripen outdoors.

  26. Trudi Dido says:

    good information ..Thanks . I’l; give my hyacinths a chance to come back. I was planning of tossing them ..but now I won’
    t’

  27. KimH says:

    One of the local stores have the most gorgeous pots of spring flowers that I buy for very little and once they’re past their glory, I do as a few others do.. I plant the whole ball of wax in my perennial garden once I can get outdoors in the spring.. Most come back beautifully.. Some of the hyacinth are wimpy for the next year or two but they eventually made a great showing.

    I buy my bulbs from americanmeadows dot com every year.. They have the biggest and best bulbs I’ve ever bought & on top of that, they often have 50% off sales or B1G1 that make their bulbs some of the best priced out there.. I highly recommend them if anyone is looking for a great place to get just about any variety of bulbs, spring or fall. Just wait for the sale. ;)

    Thanks for sharing your expertise Kevin.. I always look forward to your posts.. While I consider myself a fairly decent outdoor gardener, indoors, Im really mostly a hack that has just been very lucky, me thinks. ;)

  28. dori says:

    Deborah Kilbourn can empathize with the squirrels. They also forget where they buried the bulbs. Sometimes that is to my advantage; my bulbs travel all around my garden with no work on my part, thanks to the beasties. They even planted a Paulonia tree for me.

  29. Kristina says:

    I was just wondering about this yesterday! Thank you for answering my question :) Although, I was hoping I would be able to reuse the bulbs for indoor blooming. I had bought potted tulip and hyacinth just pre-bloom from a store and am enjoying their company, but it sounds like they are destined to decorate the outside of the house in a few years. Thanks again for your perfectly timed advice.

  30. Jo says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I’ve never known what to do with bulbs so stayed away from them even though I love their flowers. This has been a great help!

  31. Clarice Lofgran says:

    This article is very timely! I have tulips that bloomed in water and have been wondering what to do with them. So I guess I might as well just toss them. I’d hate to put them in the ground and watch and wait! I had planned to plant them outdoors but, sad to say, sometimes it is better to start fresh!

  32. Lynn says:

    Hi Kevin,
    what about little baby bulbs that are growing from the mother bulks in water ?
    Could they just continue to grow and feed from the mother bulb and be viable bulbs
    to plant next year ?

  33. Karen says:

    I have had amaryllis given to me almost every year. I put them outside in about April,
    (Zone 8) and they produce lovely foliage but no flowers. I brought them in this year and they bloomed . Next year I will bring them in sooner to get them blooming by Christmas.

    I was given a Star of Bethlehem this Christmas and will put it out as well. No info about sun needs. Full sun like most others??

    Love this site and your expertise. I use a lot of the information.

  34. Karen says:

    Ooops that would be Zone 8 !!

  35. Woody says:

    Just enjoyed a summer dinner special thanks to your tip on freezing yellow squash. Love it.
    Now making zucchini bread for Easter week- end from the same hint.
    Cathy

  36. dana-dxb says:

    so uesfull and i wish id non this erlear but still its a good refrince thanx a bunch

  37. Kristin Smith says:

    Your caring for keeper bulbs tutorial was very helpful. You are a good teacher, pleasant, encouraging and informative. I appreciate knowing for instance that some flowers need the freeze and thaw action to get going. As a violin teacher my goal is to help people approach what they expect will be difficult with a cheerful confidence, armed with information. That is just what you are doing for me in areas where I’m a bit afraid.

  38. Hi Kevin –

    What would you do with paper whites? Thanks much!

    Rachael

  39. cynthia turpin-friday says:

    thank you for that great info,I have planted some bulbs that I received for Easter a year or so ago not knowing if they will grow in my garden.Now I am sure to look for them sprouting up this spring

  40. Jan Holmes says:

    I want to plant bulbs and put mulch down and I “HATE” using the black plastic. I’m afraid bulbs won’t come up. Can I cover with mulch & how much mulch to keep weeds out but let bulbs thru?

  41. Rachel Burger – Paperwhites are tropical narcissi. Because the bulbs are not hardy in my zone, I toss them after their flowers fade. If paperwhites are hardy where you live, then by all means plant them out.

    Jan Holmes – For a weed-barrier, I use newspaper instead of black plastic (details here). Easy enough to plunge a trowel through the paper at planting-time. How thick a mulch depends upon the kind of bulb you are planting. I’d use a 2-inch layer of shredded mulch for major (large) bulbs; and less for minor (small) bulbs.

  42. Enid Albat says:

    Since you mentioned shredded paper, I just ordered a shredder for leaves and small twigs to try and speed up my composting. Do you think such a shredder could work with newspaper and hay or do I need separate shredders for each item?

  43. Hi Enid – I did not mean that you should shred the newspaper. The mulch that you place atop the paper should be a shredded-type (as opposed to a chunky, bark-type).

  44. David Deutsch says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I have always wondered how this worked. You made it so simple.

  45. Janet Livesay says:

    What to do with some gorgeous Amaryllis bulbs?
    They bore 4 huge blooms and are now lying on their side outdoors here in Oregon.
    How to get them ready to bloom again for Christmas?
    I ordered them from Van Engelen.

  46. Ann Honer says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I have taken your advice and started several seeds in milk bottles. What I want to know is how do you know when to transplant them? Do you transplant them straight into the garden and also, do you thin them out whilst they are still in the bottles?
    I live in Illinois, which I think is zone 5.
    Thanks in advance,
    Ann Honer

  47. Janet – Here’s my Amaryllis How-To.

    Ann – Here’s my guide to Transplanting Winter-Sown Seedlings.

  48. Kimberley says:

    Yes, very useful information, thank you! I had very good luck with forcing bulbs indoors this winter. Generally, I just toss the forced bulbs into the compost. I’m experimenting with the paper-whites, keeping them watered and fertilized until the foliage dies, to see whether I’ll be able to get anything out of them next year. I have my doubts, but weirder things have happened!

    I’m happy to have found your site. I live in NE Pennsylvania, near Scranton, so our climates are similar.

  49. Jeanne says:

    Kevin,you wrote a tutorial for making shelves,glass ,for the window.I would very much like to make one,(limited carpentry skills) .African violets seem to do well in my north facing kitchen window,thus the shelves.Have you ever tried freesias? thank you,Jeanne

  50. Hi Jeanne – I’ve forced freesia many, many times. Love it! Here’s my freesia forcing guide: http://www.agardenforthehouse.com/2009/10/how-to-force-freesia-bulbs/

  51. Anne says:

    Perfect. I followed your suggestions and had a house full of blooms this February and can looking for what to do next. I knew I could count on you!

    Thanks.

  52. Carol says:

    Excellent information. Just what I was looking for. My husband bought me some forced Tulip’s for Valentines Day and they were Beautiful. However, they were forced in water and I didn’t know what to do with them this Spring. I am a little disappointed that you recommend in throwing them out. But, I certainly don’t want to waste my time if they’re not going to bloom in the yard. So thanks for the info and I look forward to receiving your newsletter. I am an avid gardener, it’s my Therapy.

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