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Forcing Paperwhites & Other Bulbs

Bulbs1  The other day, I was talking to my two young sons about seasonal family traditions.

As we went down the list of things our family does each season (many of them garden related of course), I was surprised to learn that my boys consider “forcing bulbs” one of their all-time favorite fall traditions. It came right after trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving!

As I pondered this, I had to admit that it is one of my favorite fall activities as well.

It is truly magical to closely observe a flower bulb growing.

Hidden inside each bulb is a perfect embryo of a plant waiting to emerge, including every leaf, stem and petal of the flower to come. Amazingly, a bulb also contains all the nourishment it needs to grow into that flower. No fertilizer is necessary!

To “force” or coax that bulb into early indoor bloom, you only need to do a little trickery with light, water and temperature, convincing it that spring has arrived. If you have never tried your hand at bulb forcing, you will be surprised at how easy it is. The time to start is NOW.

Two of the easiest bulbs to force are paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis because they do not need a cool down period to bloom.

Other spring-flowering bulbs, such as grape hyacinths or crocus can be forced to bloom but they require a chilling period of several weeks in the refrigerator to simulate winter before forcing. Paperwhites and amaryllis are the only two that can skip the chill and go straight to planting. If forced now, you will have blooms by the holidays.


My boys love to grow paperwhites because they grow so fast.

You can plant them in a clear glass container with just pebbles and water, allowing you to view the roots as they develop. (Kids love to watch the process!) They grow quickly and will bloom three to five weeks after planting. If you want continuous blooms through the holidays, plant several pots in succession, every two weeks.

Paperwhites can be planted in any shallow pot, bowl or other container that does not have drainage holes. To anchor the bulbs, fill the pot two-thirds full with gravel, pebbles, glass beads or small aquarium rocks.

Set into the container as many paperwhite bulbs as you can comfortable fit without them touching. Place them with the pointed side up and then add more gravel or pebbles to cover the bulbs about half-way up. Add water to the container so that it is barely touching the bottom of the bulbs. Do not submerge the bulbs in water or they will rot.

The roots will eventually reach down to the water but the bulbs themselves should stay dry. For the next three weeks, keep the bulbs in low light light while the roots develop.

Then, move them to a brightly lit area and watch for the flowers to appear! The flowers usually last up to ten days and are scented. After blooming, the bulbs should be just tossed into the compost. They usually will not re-bloom well.

One common problem with forced paperwhites is that they often grow too quickly. When this happens, they get too tall and flop over. BUT THERE IS A TRICK TO PREVENTING THIS!  Give it a try!

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy®. For 9 years, Theresa was the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.