How to force bulbs for bright container displays during the winter months

Forcing bulbs allows you to introduce a much-needed burst of colour to your home at a time when very little is happening in the garden. Here, Hannah Gardner explains how to force bulbs and suggests a colourful woodland plant combination. 

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Forcing bulbs, simply requires mimicking the cold, dark conditions of winter (ideally at a temperature of between 1.5ºC and 10ºC) for around ten weeks to give the roots time to develop, before bringing them indoors where the warmth (above 15ºC) and light will fool the bulbs that spring has arrived so that they sprout and bloom around four to six weeks early. The forced hyacinths that are sold commercially to flower in time for Christmas have been pre-chilled. You can do this yourself by keeping the bulbs for 12 weeks in the bottom of the fridge, but not all bulbs need this.

While Narcissus ‘Paper White’ and oriental hyacinths are traditional choices for ‘forcing’, you can prepare and grow a wide variety of garden bulbs indoors and create something unique. As soon as the bulb catalogues arrive I leaf through them, make an initial list and then construct a simple mood board by cutting out the small images. Pay attention to details of height, but ignore flowering times as we are going to press fast forward.

Here is a plant combination for a woodland container display. See below for stockists.

 

Woodland container display

 

Woodlands offer the very earliest spring flowers as the plants have evolved to jump in and flower before the leaf canopy closes above them. Think of snowdrops, cyclamen and anemones that are often found mingling together on the forest floor in the eastern Mediterranean. These are all bulbs, corms or tubers that go into dormancy later in the summer. Displaying these plants in a home-made log planter leaves little room for misinterpretation. The texture of the bark (here it’s silver birch) gives the plants an immediate context.

 

 

 

 

How to achieve the look

Colours and shapes
The shiny, round leaves of the cyclamen bring texture and reflective light to the planting. While the large, open flowers of the crocus add a dramatic shot of vivid, ruby purple. The upright linear foliage is a good contrast and adds height. I tucked moss in between as a finishing woodland touch.

Container cultivation and care
My resourceful friend Penny crafted the planter from the bark ring of an off-cut of timber. It has a sawn wooden disc glued into place as a solid base with drill holes added. It will last for years. I potted up a few of each bulb into little pots of the loam-based soil mix first and put them in the cold frame.

The anemone corms need to be soaked overnight before planting. These bulbs do not need pre-chilling to flower but ten to 12 weeks in the cold is required to establish good roots. I put the look together once they started into growth. It is best to plant the crocus a few weeks later as they can easily skip ahead. Snowdrops are intricate and can be expensive so are often enjoyed more in pots. It is essential to protect against mice and squirrels. Upturned, aquatic mesh pots and mouse traps work well. Watering is crucial, roots must not dry out once the plant is in growth. They require consistent moisture but avoid wet conditions.

 

Plants

1 Crocus ‘Ruby Giant’ With purple hues that are much richer than others in this group and wonderful contrasting golden anthers, this is a showy and fragrant early cultivar. 12cm.
2 Galanthus nivalis ‘Viridapice’ Single drooping flowers with a distinctive green blotch at the tips. No need to ‘force’ as it flowers early, but bring into the warm to get them flowering. 15cm.
3 Anemone blanda ‘Charmer’ Pretty, pale-pink flowers with a light centre. The divided foliage has pinky tones on the underside of the leaf. 12-15cm.
4 Cyclamen coum f. pallidum ‘Album’ Spring-flowering cyclamen, from the pine and beech woodland of southeastern Europe and the Middle East. Flowers range from dark magenta to the white form I have used here. 8-12cm.

 

 

Words Hannah Gardner
Photographs Jason Ingram

See other display ideas for forced bulbs in the full article in the December issue of Gardens Illustrated (241).
 

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