11/14/2011 08:26 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

How To Force Bulbs: Sprout Home Q&A

Photo by Tara Heibel

Q: I want to plan ahead for the holidays and try my hand at forcing bulbs but they are a little intimidating to me, how do they work?
A: It is the perfect time to pot up forcing bulbs so that you can have the florals you want
for the holidays. The term 'forcing' means that the bulb is being tricked to bloom ahead of its natural schedule by recreating what it would go through when planted outside. Luckily, most garden centers will have a selection of bulbs at this time in which the growers have already done some of the work for you by putting the bulbs through their cold and dark period. They are ready for you to just pot up and enjoy.

Q: How do i know what bulb to select? Are there any guidelines?
A: For your first try i recommend selecting an amaryllis bulb and a handful of paperwhites. Paperwhites come in varying shades of white to yellow and are incredibly fragrant. Amaryllis, while not normally fragrant, have some of the most spectacular large scale blooms, available in a broad range of colors, that lasts for weeks. Give the bulbs a little squeeze like you were selecting fruit, they should not be soft.

Q: How do i plant them? Should i use just regular soil to plant them and should i bury them completely?
A: Both amaryllis and paperwhites can be planted in a well draining potting mix but you can also plant paperwhites in rocks or pebbles. Plant the bulbs with the pointed side up. It is wise to have the bulbs not completely buried in the soil or rocks to prevent any potential rotting. Paperwhites look best when tightly grouped together while amaryllis looks best when planted alone to show off its its hefty blooms and be the center of attention.

Q: After I have them potted up how do I care for them?
A: Allow the soil to dry out slightly between watering being careful not to over water them. If you opted to pot your paperwhites in pebbles make sure that the bulbs are not submerged in the water. If you want them to bloom in a quicker time frame get them in sunlight, it will speed up the process. As soon as they start blooming remove them from direct sun so that their bloom will be prolonged.

Q: Will they keep re-blooming and i should I keep them as a houseplant?
A: Paperwhites and amaryllis do not make for what is traditionally considered a houseplant. Paperwhites will send up one set of blooms per bulb and when the bloom fades they are finished producing flowers for the season. Dispose of them in your compost or plant them outside in your landscape to see if they will re-bloom for you. Amaryllis will normally send out a couple of blooms during the season and as soon as the first flower set drops, cut the stock and wait for another one to come. You could try to force your amaryllis bulb to bloom again by waiting for the foliage to stop growing, cut it off, then store it for about 13 weeks in a cooler dark space, mimicking its natural winter pattern.

Q: I think i am going to use the amaryllis as my holiday table centerpiece since my anxiety about them has now subsided. Any advice on how to finish off the planting so it makes for an even more stunning focal point?
A: Use mood moss on the soil surface gently bumping up to the amaryllis bulb. Mood moss is a dried and preserved moss that is available in many garden centers by the bag. The mood moss will provide a visual contrast and it will look like the bulbs were sprouting through a naturalized landscape. No fear and holiday cheer.