If you are like me you probably start to go a little stir crazy after the holidays and find yourself dreaming about when you can get back out into your garden come spring. Well with a little bit of planning and work now you will be able to enjoy some cheerful spring flowers indoors through the dead of winter. October is the perfect month to start your indoor garden.
You will need:
- Good quality bulbs. Look for larger bulbs that are firm and don’t show any signs of bruising. Hardy bulbs that are good for forcing include crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and snowdrops.
- Clean flower pots, coffee cans or sturdy containers can also be used as long as they have drainage holes in them.
- Potting mixture of equal parts sand, soil and peat moss.
- Fine pebbles, gravel or chips to provide good drainage
You will want to start with some good quality bulbs from your local garden center. Make sure that the bulbs you buy are a good size, firm to the touch and that they don’t show any signs of bruising.
Next you want to prepare your pot. Cover the bottom with a 1 inch layer of pebbles, gravel or chips to provide good drainage. We don’t want our bulbs getting soggy feet! Add your potting mixture, making sure you mixed it well, leaving about 2 inches of headroom at the top for easy watering. Using only one type of bulb per pot place as many bulbs as you can inside while allowing the top of the bulb to show above the soil line.
When using tulips look for the flat side of the bulb. You want to place the flat side facing the side of the pot. This is because when the tulip grows it will have a large floppy leaf that comes from that flat side of the bulb and it will look so much prettier hanging over the outside of your pot.
Once your bulbs are in place firm the soil up just a tad, keep an easy touch here because you want the bulbs to have nice fluffy soil but at the same time held firmly in place, then water them well. No need to fertilize them because the bulbs have enough of their own food built right in for a good flower come spring.
Now on to some cold storage. What you are going to be doing is tricking your bulbs into thinking that they are outside for the long cold winter so you need to put them somewhere that is cold and dark, at a temperature of about 40-50 degrees. The easiest method is to stick them into a refrigerator far away from any produce, which emits a harmful vapor and in an area where they won’t freeze. I am lucky enough to have a spare fridge in my barn that is only filled with dog treats, chicken treats and beer, so in they go!!
It might be a good idea to label and date them so you won’t forget which is which and more importantly when to take them out.
Other methods would be to store them outside in a cold frame, or to dig a trench deep enough in the ground to submerge the pot and then cover it back up with a 2 inch layer of mulch. A cool dark part of your basement will also do the trick. Most bulbs will require 10-12 weeks of cold storage for their roots to develop. Keep your bulbs moist during this time but not soaking wet.
When you take your bulbs out of cold storage place them in a cool 60-65 degrees, partly shaded location. Yellow sprouts should be showing, leave them until the sprouts turn green. Then you can move them to a warmer area with more light and enjoy the show. Just keep in mind that the cooler the area the longer the bloom will last. After the bulbs have finished blooming just throw them away. Unfortunately you really won’t be able to get another good bloom from them again.
You can also try the water method for forcing your bulbs. For that you will need a specially designed glass just for this purpose. This method works best for hyacinths. Place the bulb on the rim of the glass and fill with water to 1/4 inch of the bottom of the bulb. Make sure the water does not touch the bulb because you want the roots to grow down into the water. Most garden centers sell the glass and the bulbs in a kit so you can force them this way. They are already cold so you do not need to put them into a cold storage. You can also use a low bowl or dish that is 2-3 inches deep. Grow the bulbs in a mixture of coarse sand, pea gravel, bulb fiber or washed pearl chips (whatever that is…I have never used this method so I don’t know). Place the bulbs so the necks are showing and fill the container with water to 1/2 inch below the sand mixture. Put the container in a well lighted area of about 60 degrees and be sure to keep them watered. Done this way they should bloom in about 3-4 weeks.
You can also grow Amaryllis in the late fall by setting the bulb in a pot and allowing 1 inch of space around it. Use a mixture of one part top soil and one part peat moss, set the bulb so 1/2 of the bulb shows above the soil. Water well and place it in a sunny location at close to 60 degrees. In 6-8 weeks you should get a flower. At this point you want to feed it with a good liquid fertilizer every 2-3 weeks. After the flower dies cut the stalk off and continue watering and fertilizing, keeping the plant in bright light. When all danger of frost has past you can move the amaryllis outdoors into a sunny location or keep it inside for the summer. When the leaves turn yellow decrease the amount of water you give it, when they die back completely let the soil get really dry. The bulb is now dormant and should be moved into a spot that is cool 40-45 degrees. Come November its time to wake your bulb up again. Remove it from the pot, shake off the old soil, repot it and force it as if you were starting with a new bulb again. If you treat it right your amaryllis will continue to bloom for you indoors for many years.
Another plant that I adore is my Christmas Cactus. It is not a bulb but it requires special care if you want it to bloom during the winter months. Keep the plant in a well-lit location, like near a window but away from direct sunlight, drafts, heat vents or fireplaces. A normal house temperature of about 65 degrees works well. Provide it with some humidity like a tray of gravel and water to set it in. The tricky part with these cactus is the amount of water you give them. Keep in mind that they are a tropical cactus, not a desert cactus. You want to keep them dry but not completely dry. The top inch of soil should be dry. If the soil is too dry they will drop the buds and the plant will wilt. Feel the soil with your fingers; if it feels dry it’s time to water. A good rule to remember is less water is better than too much water. During the fall and winter months the plant should be watered less frequently to promote blooming. You want to fertilize your plant to keep it strong and healthy so use a good blooming houseplant fertilizer 2-4 times a year. Stop feeding in October about a month before the buds appear. The trick to getting your Christmas cactus to bloom for the holidays is proper light, correct temperatures and limited watering. These plants are what is known as thermo-photoperiodic (my big word for the day) which means they will set buds when the day length is equal to the night length. Just make sure you keep it in in-direct sunlight during the day and then complete darkness at night, about 12 hours of darkness should do the trick. Water sparingly!! Come Christmas your plant should be in full bloom (cross your fingers!!). After blooming prune your cactus to encourage the plant to branch out. Wait about a month so it has a period of rest first, sometime in March would be perfect. You can also propagate your Christmas Cactus by cutting off sections of the stem. Each section should have 2-3 segments. Allow them to dry for a few hours and then push them into a pot that is filled with the same soil as the mommy plant. Plant 1/2 way down the first segment. Treat them like you would a mature plant and in about 4 weeks they should have rooted and will show new growth. You can fertilize them once they have one whole segment of new growth.
Important Christmas Cactus Tips:
- Turn your plant every week or so. If you don’t turn it you will have blooms on only one side and the other side will be…bloomless.
- Bud drop is one of the most frustrating things that can happen to your plant. This is caused by over-watering, lack of humidity, or insufficient light.
- The cactus only grows to the circumference of its pot. So if you want a bigger plant you have to give it a wider pot.
- The best time to repot is in February and April, once every three years. Use the best soil you can find because they will be sitting in it for a long time. Make sure the pot isn’t too big because they love to be pot-bound.
- Your Christmas Cactus will be with you for a long time. They can grow and bloom forever with the right care. They can even be passed down from generation to generation.
Even though it is not hard to fool Mother Nature, it does take some time, you just can’t hurry the process. The time is now if you want to enjoy the scent of hyacinths, the sweetness of narcissus and the happiness of tulips come winter. Enjoy.