Gardeners act now for Christmas blooms

sowing seeds in spring for flowers in the garden
sowing seeds in spring for flowers in the garden

It’s hard to think about Christmas now, but if you want some indoor bulbs to bloom for the festive season, you should take action now

Barely have you started to plant your spring-flowering bulbs, and it’s already time to think about the winter and how to replicate these blooms indoors, without spending a fortune.

daffodil bulbs

daffodil bulbs

The answer is to ‘force’ bulbs into flower, that is give them assistance to bloom far earlier indoors than they would normally outside.

Garden centres should now be stocking up on bulbs which are sold specifically for forcing, which may include fragrant hyacinths, large-flowered crocus, hippeastrums, miniature daffodils and a few tulips, which should be marked ‘prepared’ in the shop.

By growing bulbs indoors, in a warmer atmosphere than they are accustomed to in the garden, for all or part of their growing season, they’ll grow more quickly and flower earlier than they would otherwise. However, if you bring them on too quickly, they may fail.

You can use any type of pot because indoor bulbs can manage without drainage as they are being grown for such a short time, provided the container holds enough compost to accommodate the bulbs. It’s worth spreading a layer of gravel at the bottom of the pot to help drainage.

For best results go for bulb fibre when growing bulbs in containers with no drainage, as it has plenty of air space and often contains added charcoal which keeps the compost fresh, even if it becomes too moist. Alternatively, you can use multi-purpose compost.

Prepared hyacinths are the most popular bulbs for forcing and generally go on sale at the beginning of September, after being given a couple of weeks of cold treatment to make them think they’ve gone through winter.

Whatever you do, don’t leave ‘prepared’ bulbs for a few weeks in a warm environment before planting, or they will lose the cold effect they were given initially. Instead, store them in a cool, dark place and plant them by the middle of September if you want them to flower by Christmas.

For the best effect, plant bulbs of the same colour together. They should be planted close together on top of a depth of at least 6cm of compost, so they are not quite touching one another. Then fill the bowl to just below the rim with compost, so their growing tips are just sticking out above the surface. Don’t firm the bulb fibre down or it may hinder the root system establishing quickly.

Make sure you don’t overwater them, just water the compost lightly.

Place the container in a cool, dark place such as the shed or a closed cupboard in a cold room for 10-14 weeks, to encourage the flowering stems to develop before the leaves. It also enables the root system to become well-established. If the bulb fibre becomes dry at any time, water carefully between the bulbs.

Don’t hurry them because insufficient time in the dark will result in stunted flowers or failure. When the leaf shoots are around 1-2in (4-5cm) high, move the container into a cool, light room. The flower buds which you can see between the tips of the leaves should just be starting to show signs of colour. If you remove the bulbs too early the leaves will grow too quickly and will obscure the flowers

If you want to delay flowering, put the bulbs outside in a sheltered position so the flowers develop more slowly, then move them inside, but not near a radiator.

Paperwhite narcissi and other dwarf narcissi may be given a cold preparation prior to sale and should be stored in a cold, dark place and then planted every couple of weeks from mid-September onwards to give you a succession of blooms from November to January. All other narcissi apart from paperwhites should have around 17 weeks of cold before being brought indoors to flower, planting them as you would hyacinths.