February 16, 2011

The Experience of Forcing Bulbs

A tray of Dutch bulbs brought in from the cold frames, ready to force in the greenhouse.

Forcing bulbs. I know, just saying it sounds a bit effected (affected?). You know, in the way one may say " We're taking a tea" or "Release the hounds. Oh so very British, I suppose, and yes, that's where this all began, so we have the British to thank for forcing bulbs, hot beds, and so many fine gardening past times that makes gardening today so, well.....stylish and enjoyable.

 The very idea of 'forcing bulbs' is not new, it dates back to the 1700's when the trend began with some of the earliest glass houses, or stoves - glass growing structures that were heated, allowing people to grow plants they never could have grown before, and the timing couldn't have been better, as exotic plants were being collected and brought back by explorers sent out by Kew gardens, out to collect rare and new plants all in the name of the Queen. Plants and bulbs were arriving from Turkey and South Africa to be and ultimately, being 'collected' and 'forced' by enthusiasts into bloom in proper British glasshouses, cold frames and hot beds.

Today, we continue to 'force bulbs', but not exactly with the same passion or tools that the great British horticulturists did. But think about for a minute, if you lived in 1810, how incredible it must have seemed to have fresh pineapple, tulips in bloom and fragrant citrus in the depths of winter. Remember, this was a time when books were even rare, and of course, there was no TV, no radio, no automobiles. 

In our modern world, the idea of forcing seems rather old fashioned, like many things today, has become diluted and simplified, something that is unnecessary, yet quaint.. The art, one might say, has lost it's panache - no longer a romantic folly of the wealthy and privileged, who might have wooden coldframes, greenhouses and gardening staff who can take the time to pot up clay pots of Dutch bulbs in October, bury them in sand within the protection of a cold frame, and then, brought into the glasshouse in late winter to be forced into bloom, but rather, it is something that hipsters may try, in much the same way they may raise bees for honey. I'm not knocking it, but I will admit that it takes a certain soul to appreciate forcing bulbs, or any plant today, in our modern world.

Many garden writers offer advice and guidelines on forcing bulbs. We are advised that we can still 'force' bulbs, but often advised to take the easy route, and, the less romantic. Use plastic pots so they won't crack, buy bulbs at the supermarket on sale in the fall, pot up the bulbs in potting soil from Home Depot, bury the pots in black plastic garbage bags full of leaves that you raked up with your kids, tie it off, and stash it under the deck until mid-winter, and then, bring the pots into the house to force in a sunny window. 

Hey, it works, but it still isn't quite the same experience. May I suggest a few options, to help improve the experience? I shall.

1. Buy bulbs anywhere, but enjoy perusing the websites and catalogs, and plan a little. Planning on what bulbs to purchase is almost as pleasurable as the actual 'forcing' part.

2. Raise the Bar on the Experience Level at Every Step - Look, you are not forcing bulbs just for the flowers, you hopefully are doing it because you love gardening, so why ruin and waste the entire process just to enjoy a few days of tulips after a long day at work?   Use clay pots ( or plastic, and then bury -hide- the pot in a clay pot once brought indoors). Plastic pots won't crack if they freeze, but if you do have a real cold frame, and if the pots are buried in sand and covered with a thick layer of leaves, they will not freeze, and you can use clay. 

My best advice is to - amp up the experience at every step.  Make the experience beautiful, pay attention to every detail, and enjoy the minutia. I prefer real wooden cold frames with glass lights, real clay pots preferably hand made, nice sand, nice imported English heirloom trowels, real Haws brand copper watering cans, elegant labels.... make every touch point a pleasure. Buy interesting bulbs, experiment with odd, new or rare bulbs.

3. Lastly, exhibit the pots. I designed a bay window over my sink to function as a display window. I had lights installed, so that I can dim the halogen spot, or increase them at different levels, and every weekend, I can set up a display of pots that I bring in from the greenhouse just as a retail store  or a botanical garden might. Silly? Maybe, but I don't think so. I invest alot of time and effort, and dollars into my greenhouse, the care of my plants, and in selecting what to grow, I might as well enjoy the results!

 Lachenalia cultivars almost ready to bloom.

Tulips will tell you that they are ready to be brought into the greenhouse but how long their shoots are.

 Find the sunniest spot on a windowsill in a cool room, or in your greenhouse to allow the bulbs to slowly emerge into bloom.

These Hyacinths are ready to bring indoors where their intense fragrance will make the kitchen smell like a spring flower show.


  1. I'm a new follower of you blog! I love that you include the scientific name of each plant. Unfortunately, it will be many years before I can have my own home with my own greenhouse (I'm a med student), but I thoroughly enjoy the pictures of your beautiful home and garden.

    It would be amazing if you gave a tutorial (perhaps in the fall) on burying bulbs to be forced in the winter... I would love to learn more. Oh, and where do you buy your plant labels? I love them!

  2. Anonymous12:04 PM

    I have enjoyed reading this post, I love the details of the equipment used and I like the fact that you use British tools. Just can't beat them really.

  3. Matt, reading that was such an enjoyable experience. I loved it. Thank you. I even read some of it out loud to Bill, my husband. He understood that you were saying to enjoy the moment, experience. Enjoy it all. Thanks again.~~Dee

  4. Thank you Dee, you are so sweet!


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