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bigstock-Amaryllis-1503708When the outdoor garden is tucked away for the winter — the saplings supported, the grass seed sown and the spring bulbs tucked snugly away in their flower beds — it’s time for indoor gardening fun! Many plants can be successfully grown indoors by children, including the pits and seeds of many grocery items (who hasn’t seen an avocado pit supported by a toothpick in a plastic cup on a window sill?). One of the most fun and satisfying indoor gardening projects, however, is forcing flower bulbs. Forcing projects are an easy, inexpensive way to keep little hands busy for hours on a rainy day. Bulbs can be potted up as “I made it myself” gifts for friends, teachers or grandparents. They can also give young people a real feeling of accomplishment. Imagine their pride when Grandma “ooohs” and “ahhhs” over her magnificent pots of blooming amaryllises!

As bulbs mature into flowers, the seeds of myth and magic can grow in a child’s imagination. A three-year old, for example, might thrill to the “wonder of it all.” A “more serious” 12-year old might play the budding botanist, growing various colors or experimenting with different treatments of light and temperature.

Though the flowers are wonderful, the real joy comes in the child’s anticipation, as each morning she rushes to the kitchen window to see “her” green stalk yet another inch taller. Guided by an enthusiastic parent, growing these plants the Dutch call “guaranteed miracles,” can offer a metaphor for and an introduction to the wonder and mystery of the natural world.

You Can Fool Mother Nature

The term “forcing” might be better expressed as “fooling.” For what you really do is fool the bulb into thinking that winter is over and it’s time to flower. The two easiest bulbs to force are paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis (hippeastrum). Other fun bulbs for easy forcing include colorful hyacinths, crocuses and narcissi. These require a bit more attention, but they too can offer the young gardener an enchanting indoor experience.

To begin with the easiest:

Paperwhite types are especially easy to grow. They can be bought as loose bulbs or as part of a pre-packaged forcing kit. They are often found in displays along with gravel, containers and other bulbs for forcing. Paperwhites are best forced in a shallow pot or bowl with no drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the pot two thirds full with gravel, stones or even fun things like marbles! Place as many bulbs as will fit on the gravel with the pointed side up. Then fill in gravel around them leaving the tops exposed. Add water up to the base of the bulbs and maintain water at this level. Place the container in a cool place. Within days roots will appear. As they grow, they will sometimes push the bulbs upward. When the green shoots appear, move your project to a cool, sunny spot. The shoots will develop rapidly and in about three more weeks, you’ll have masses of heavily-scented sweet white flowers.

Amaryllis bulbs are very large but also very easy to grow. These big bulbs are normally planted one to a pot and are also often available as complete pre- packaged kits. Begun early enough, amaryllises can be easily brought to flower for the holiday season. By staggering your start-up times, it’s possible to have amaryllises blooming in the house from December through April. Loose amaryllis bulbs can be planted in any kind of container you like, but a drainage hole (and a saucer to catch the water that drains!) is required. The pot circumference should be not much bigger than the bulb itself.

Spread a shallow layer of gravel, pot shards or other drainage material at the bottom of the pot (this is a good way to recycle those annoying plastic foam “peanut” packing materials). Add several inches of soil and place the bulb in the pot, pointed end up, with the neck and “shoulders” of the bulb just peeking over the top of the container.

Fill in with soil and gently pat down, leaving the neck of the bulb exposed. Water well. Place in a cool bright spot. Water sparingly at first. After the first sprouts appear (about two weeks), keep soil moist but don’t over water. In about eight weeks, you and your young gardener will be proud to show off your plants with their huge, exotic-looking flowers of velvety red, pink, white, peach, orange or even multi-colors.

Magnificent amaryllis grow tall and top-heavy. To keep your child’s amaryllis upright as it blooms, try “double-potting” it by using a lightweight plastic flower pot placed inside a heavier decorative container. Kids’ containers should be fun, such as toy buckets, large kitchen tins or inexpensive crockery pots. Just about anything that pleases a child can be used as an outer container.

Forcing many other bulbs, especially hyacinths, crocuses, grape hyacinths (muscari) and narcissi (you probably know these as daffodils) is also easy but may take a little longer and require some free space in a refrigerator or in an unheated garage or storeroom. Do not store near ripening fruit.

Spring-flowering bulbs normally spend the winter underground outdoors because they require a period of cold temperatures to kick off a bio-chemical reaction inside them that starts the flowering process.  Indoor forcing induces that reaction artificially. 

Hyacinths can be grown without any soil or gravel. Special hour-glass-shaped hyacinth glasses are available from many catalogues and retail stores. Such containers allow you to grow these fragrant flowers righ t on water. The growing roots, which can be seen clearly through the glass, add a special interest. Pre-cooled hyacinths can be purchased, cutting about two to four weeks off time needed for the bulbs to flower, making it possible to have hyacinths for the holidays if you begin in September or early October. Methods for forcing hyacinths are about the same as for other spring bulbs that need cold treatment. 

Hyacinths can be grown without any soil or gravel. Special hour-glass-shaped hyacinth glasses are available from many catalogues and retail stores. Such containers allow you to grow these fragrant flowers righ t on water. The growing roots, which can be seen clearly through the glass, add a special interest. Pre-cooled hyacinths can be purchased, cutting about two to four weeks off time needed for the bulbs to flower, making it possible to have hyacinths for the holidays if you begin in September or early October. Methods for forcing hyacinths are about the same as for other spring bulbs that need cold treatment.

To force daffodils small and tall, delicate crocuses, and many other spring-flowering bulbs, it is important to look for types that will force readily. This information is usually provided when you purchase your bulbs. To prepare, use regular flower pots or other containers with drainage holes. Add a layer of gravel or drainage material and a layer of potting soil to a depth of about two inches. Use as many bulbs as will fit in the container, then fill in with enough soil so just the tops of the bulbs are visible. Water thoroughly. Wait two days then water again.

Put a piece of tape with the date written on it on each pot. Place your pots in a dark cool place (between 40 and 50° F) and keep moist for twelve weeks. If you have room in your refrigerator, cover the pots with an open plastic bag; this will reduce the need for watering. Two “musts” to remember: keep the pots moist and no fruit in the refrigerator! Ripening fruit gives off a gas that can kill the bulbs.

When the cold period is over, move the pots to a warmer area in indirect or low light. Keep them there a week or two, then move them to a cool, sunny area where they should flower — to everyone’s joy and amazement — in about six weeks. Bulbs that need cooling periods are a bit more work than paperwhites and amaryllises, but they can be a great project for older children, especially those who have shown an interest in doing projects.

These simple winter garden projects offer children an insight into the workings of nature. A hyacinth bulb cut in half will reveal the embryonic flower bulb in its center. The process of chilling the bulbs, the effects that water and sunshine can help stimulate a child’s interest in natural chemistry. But most important: it’s fun.

Whether for entertainment, education or both, forcing flower bulbs and other indoor gardening projects are activities the whole family can enjoy together.