Holiday bulbs
  Forcing their blooms means adding color to your seasonal decorations

December 16, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Today's article addresses what has become a popular holiday season gardening practice. Forcing blooms from bulbs for the holidays is so faddish that you cannot only prepare the bulbs yourself, but you can purchase kits in garden centers and stores with all the necessary materials and instructions. Either way, the result is highly anticipated blooms of striking colors and scents for indoor holiday enjoyment.

As we move further into the holidays, we likely will find ourselves in a season filled more and more with anticipation. These are the days we eagerly await to celebrate with our loved ones, and we often decorate with plants adding beauty to our surroundings. There are many choices of potted plants that we can enjoy now - and some even after the holidays.

When looking for a holiday seasonal plant that expresses feelings of anticipation, holiday bulbs bring a wonderful garden feeling into our homes. The secret of having bulbs bloom during the holidays is to plant them so their blooming coincides with the holiday season. Indoor forcing of bulbs for blooms during the holidays is a way of bringing a hint of spring during the winter, and is basically "fooling" a plant into bloom by exposing the bulb to controlled conditions. Potting of the bulbs is done approximately eight to twelve weeks before the anticipated bloom date.

Dr. William C. Welch, professor and landscape horticulturist at Texas A&M University, says, "Bulbs that are good for indoor forcing include crocuses, grape hyacinths, daffodils and tulips." These bulbs must be refrigerated before forcing blooms, or outdoor planting, because of our moderate winter temperatures. Crocuses, hyacinths and tulips will not naturalize in our area and should be treated as annuals.

Two effective methods of indoor forcing are bowl culture and pot culture. Bowl culture involves placing a bulb in a container where the base of the bulb is supported just above the water level by either pebbles or the shape of the container. The container is set in a sunny window and the water level is maintained at the base of the bulb. Bulbs forced in this manner generally will not survive planting later in the garden.

Pot culture involves planting the bulb in a container with a mixture of garden soil, sand and peat. The pots are refrigerated for at least 12 weeks. The pots are gradually moved to a sunny window for the blooms to appear. Although not requiring refrigeration to bloom, bulbs like paperwhites and amaryllis forced in a pot culture may be saved to re-bloom next year.

Daffodils and paperwhites are both narcissus bulbs. People often refer to the long-trumpeted types of narcissus as "daffodils" and to the small-cupped, bunch-flowering narcissus as "paperwhites." Some daffodils will naturalize if planted directly into the garden without force blooming. Fragrant paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are extremely easy to grow and are probably more familiar to many of us as holiday bulbs than daffodils. They are planted in either soil, stones or above the water level in a forcing container. Paperwhites bloom about four or five weeks after planting. Stems are often propped to prevent them from leaning over. Paperwhite bulbs may be planted outside after flowering where they may naturalize in your garden so you may continue to enjoy them.

Probably the most popular holiday bulb is the amaryllis. The showy amaryllis (Hippeastrum) flowers appear in many colors, which include combinations of red, white or pink. To force the large amaryllis bulb to bloom for the holidays, the bulbs are potted in October or November. If you have a potted amaryllis that is blooming now, water thoroughly while the bulb is blooming. If you want to keep your amaryllis to bloom year to year, you should cut off the flower stalk 1 inch above the base when it has finished blooming. Place the plant in a sunny location, water infrequently, and feed it monthly with a water-soluble fertilizer. When the leaves start turning yellow (early fall), slow down the watering and discontinue the feeding. Cut off the leaves when they die and move the plant to a cool dark location. The bulb likes crowded conditions so leave it in the same pot for three or four years. When you want the potted bulb to bloom again, move it to a bright window and resume your schedule of watering and monthly feedings. Blooms should appear in six to eight weeks. If you prefer, you can plant the amaryllis bulb in the garden where it will naturalize. Plant the bulb with the top third exposed in a sunny, well drained location in your flowerbed using bone meal to feed the bulb.

Paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs are often sold in kits that include everything needed for indoor blooming. As stated previously, paperwhites and amaryllis do not have to be refrigerated before potting, but be sure to follow instructions included with the kits as they may vary slightly from one to another. These bulbs are more acclimated to our area and will very likely perennialize in our gardens to be enjoyed later.

If you have received a gift plant, a Texas Master Gardener Web site gives the following recommendation for the plant care. "Prolong the life of holiday season gift plants by providing proper care. Check to see if the pot wrap has plugged up the bottom drainage hole. Don't over water and make sure to discard any water that pools in the bottom of the pot wrap or tray. Keep plants out of drafts from heating vents and open doorways. Fertilizer is seldom needed the first few months."

More information about care of bulbs in our area may be found in "Perennial Garden Color" by William C. Welch. "A Gardener's Guide to Growing Bulbs on the Gulf Coast" by Sally McQueen Squire is also very valuable. The Texas A&M horticulture Web site offers invaluable information plus links to other sites, if you are interested.

Enjoy your holiday bulbs for the beauty they bring to this wonderful season. Anticipating and watching a bud slowly open into a flower indoors can be an added gift in our homes this time of year.