Tips for Forcing Bulbs in Water

Forcing bulbs in water is the perfect way to bring spring color into your winter home. Forcing is defined as coaxing bulbs to bloom out of season by recreating their growing season indoors.

Although all bulbs can be forced to grow inside, only a few respond well to soil-less conditions. Hyacinth  (Hyacinthus orientalis) are famous for their ability to grow in water, but Paperwhites  (Narcissus tazetta cultivars) can also be grown indoors without soil.

Forcing Bulbs in Water: Fooling Nature
To mimic the growth cycle of spring bulbs, you need to subject your bulbs to two stages: root growing and forcing. Although paperwhites don't require the root growing stage, hyacinth needs 12 to 16 weeks of root growing before forcing can begin.

To promote root growing in hyacinth, the bulbs need to be kept in a dark, chilled (40 to 45 degree) environment. An unheated garage or crawlspace is a perfect storage place, although a refrigerator will work as well. If you decide to use a fridge, don't store your bulbs near apples or other fruit-some fruits emit a gas that is harmful to bulbs.

Once your bulbs have grown a strong root system, they can be forced to bloom. Over a period of a week or so, expose your bulbs to more light and warmer temperatures. Eventually, you'll acclimate your bulbs to room temperature and full sun. Once your bulbs are acclimated, you'll see new top growth. In a few weeks, your forced bulbs will produce blooms.

Working with Hyacinth
Hyacinth bulbs can be chilled without being potted and then "planted" in water. Here are some tips:

  • The right vessel will help. The best container for forcing a hyacinth is a "hyacinth glass". These glass containers are shaped like an open-topped hourglass. The hyacinth bulb sits in the top half and water fills the bottom half. Alternately, you could use a vase with a similar shape. In a pinch, you could pierce the bulb on four sides with toothpicks and set it into a drinking glass or other glass container.
  • Plenty of water, but not too much. When you fill your container with water, only add enough water to bring the level up to the bottom of the bulb without touching it.
  • Keep your water fresh. Add a teaspoon of activated charcoal to your water to keep it fresh. If the water turns green or cloudy, replace it.
  • Keep blooms longer. Once your hyacinth starts to bloom, place it in the fridge at night to prolong the life of its blooms.

Forcing Paperwhites
The easiest of all bulbs to force, paperwhites require no chilling period. You'll need water, gravel and a two-inch deep glass dish wide enough to hold several bulbs. First, fill the container halfway with pebbles. Then, place the bulbs close together, but not touching, on the gravel. Add more pebbles to cover the bottom third of the bulbs. Finally, add water until the surface is just below the bottom of the bulbs.

Keep the bulbs in a dark, cool room until roots form. Make sure to check the water level often. Once you have a good root system in place, you can move your paperwhite bulbs to a sunny location. Expect to see blooms in thee to five weeks.

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