Container Bulbs For Spring Color

The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are moderating with some chilly nights. What does that mean?? Bulb time!!!

Bulbs peeking through in early spring
Tulips growing in a spring border

Planting bulbs around my house is a process. I add to my collection in the ground every year and also pot up containers with bulbs to strategically place around my yard for pops of color. This year, I am holding off on planting in the ground as we are in a drought here in the mid-Atlantic and the ground is hard as cement.  Containers are the way to go right now and I am getting everything lined up.

You can stuff a lot of bulbs into a large container

Bulbs in Containers

So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy dry clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture.
Texas Gold Tulips growing close to the house where I can enjoy them
Mini daffodils growing on my patio in April

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

 

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

Miniature Iris in a pot
Iris reticulata in a pot is one of my favorites; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Potting Bulbs Made Easy

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break if not insulated with bubble wrap); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside. This last winter, my pots stayed outside in a sheltered spot and they bloomed beautifully.
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots; set them where deer can’t go

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position. This would be in a unheated garage or shed or cold frame.

I overwintered my bulb containers in a cold frame last winter

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage or cold frame, until early spring growth appears is essential.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
One winter I wrapped my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Squirrels will clean out your flower beds of tasty bulbs
Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Bulb foliage starts to show in late winter

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
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First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (at least 16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 6-7 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Lasagna pot ready to come into full bloom
Full bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post is Longfield Gardens, my go-to source for bulbs.

 

 

 

Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs

Variety of bulbs for forcing
Variety of bulbs for forcing

Forcing Bulbs

Every gardener in the depths of winter, wants to bring spring in and relieve the monotony of dreary, dull winter days, without flowers.  The garden is lifeless, snow-covered and icy, and you need your drug fix of color and fragrance to help you get through the winter. What is a gardener to do??? An easy solution, short of buying your  own greenhouse of flowers, is to plant bulbs inside that will emerge and bloom in a couple of weeks in the depths of January and February. But to get those quick results, you need to force certain varieties- Paperwhites, Amaryllis, and pre-chilled Hyacinths.

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Forcing bulbs is a technique that has been in use for hundreds of years, popularized in the Victorian era, and the Victorians went to great lengths to force bulbs into bloom.

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The proper definition of forcing bulbs is  defined as “a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier”. Different types of bulbs require different chilling periods, generally between 12 and 16 weeks. But for Paperwhites and Amaryllis, they are primed and ready to go without this artificial chilling period, and that is why gardeners depend on them for easy winter color.

Usually you see only one variety of paperwhite, but there are many different ones
Paperwhite display
Paperwhite display

To have Tulips, Crocuses, Iris, and other bulbs  blooming in my house in the winter, I would have had to pot the bulbs up in the late fall, chill them in a refrigerator for weeks and weeks, and then bring them into the house for warmth to bloom. But, I don’t have the time or room for that, so I do the next best thing – force the easy ones quickly without much fuss or mess.

At a local nursery, I also discovered a treasure trove of Hyacinth bulbs that were pre-chilled and I snatched those up to force also.

Paperwhite Narcissus

Paperwhites are the most commonly forced bulb that gardeners love to grow and enjoy for their wonderful fragrance. The scent of a bowl of Paperwhites in full bloom will waft through an entire house! They are incredibly easy and bring a touch of much-needed spring scents into your living space. When choosing your bulbs, select ones that are symmetrical, rather than ones that have off shoots, as these tend to come out lopsided and will fall over easily.

Forced Daffs at the Philadelphia Flower Show
Forced Daffs at the Philadelphia Flower Show

How To Force Paperwhites

Step 1

Paperwhite bulbs
Paperwhite bulbs-one lop-sided and one symmetrical

I like to put my Paperwhites in gravel so that they are bottom heavy and won’t flop over from the weight of the tall stems. Simply fill a container with loose gravel or pebbles, or soil.

Step 2

If you pot them in soil, water until moist. If you use gravel, fill up the container with water until the level hits the bottom of the bulb, but they are not submerged.

Paperwhites in container for forcing
Paperwhites in container for forcing

Step 3

Keep your paperwhites in a warm sunny spot and check the rooting container almost every day for formation of roots, adding water as it evaporates.

Step 4

Once the shoots reach 2 inches tall, you need to pour off the old water and add a mixture of 4-6 % alcohol and water. You need to do this to stunt the growth of the stems which can get quite tall. You will end up with drunken Paperwhites! The alcohol mixture will shorten the stems by one-third and not affect the flowers at all. See below for the recipe.

Step 5

Once in bloom, if you move them to a cooler location, the flowers will last longer.

The Science

I thought that adding alcohol was an old wives tale, but scientists have proved the veracity of this claim. Go to, http://blogs.cornell.edu/hort/2009/11/10/pickling-your-paperwhites/ .

Basically, if you add 1 part of gin, vodka, or other alcohol, to 7 parts water, the mixture will interfere with water intake and you end up with shorter and less floppy stems. As anyone who has grown these bulbs knows, a container of fully grown Paperwhites needs support or the whole thing will topple over. The key is to add this mixture after the shoots reach 2 inches tall. Do not use wine or beer!! as that adds too much sugar. Don’t go over this amount of alcohol (4-6%), or you could really damage the plant. If you decide not to add the alcohol, you will need to add some support to the stems.

Varieties of Paperwhites

Ziva Paperwhites planted in mass in the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens
Ziva Paperwhites planted in mass in the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

I like the old-fashioned variety Ziva for the great fragrance and pure white color. Also, for those who can’t stand the intense fragrance, there is a variety that is only lightly scented called Tazetta inbal. Personally, I love the strong Paperwhite scent and would never plant the lightly scented variety as that is the main reason I grow them. Another variety to try, is a beautiful sunny yellow with an orange center, called Grand soleil d’Or.

Types of Paperwhites
Types of Paperwhites

The Big One-Amaryllis

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Amaryllis are huge bulbs with huge flowers

If you have read this blog at all, you probably have figured out that Amaryllis tops my list of favorite plants. Go to Amaryllis Centerpiece or Amaryllis Primer  to see what you can do with this easy to force bulb.

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Amaryllis Centerpiece

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Amaryllis flowers used at Longwood
Amaryllis flowers used at Longwood

Hyacinths

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens

I love the fragrance and color of Hyacinths, so am forcing these for the first time. I found some pre-chilled bulbs at the nursery along with some forcing vases and thought I would give it a whirl. The trick here is to set the bulbs directly above the water, but not touching, so that the bulbs don’t rot.

Forcing Hyacinths

Step 1

If you can’t find pre-chilled bulbs, place them in your crisper drawer of your refrigerator for at least five weeks, keeping them away from your produce.

Step 2

Fill the forcing vase to just below the cup where the bulb will rest. The bulb will reach for the water. Some of my bulbs I set on gravel in a mason jar with the water level just below the base of the bulb.

Step 3

Place the hyacinth bulb with the root end down and growing tip up, so that the base is just above the water. Place your vase on a bright windowsill and periodically change the water, and turn the vase to keep it centered. Enjoy the two-week show of beauty and fragrance. I especially enjoy watching the roots form through the glass!

peach-hyacinths
Photo from Longfield Gardens

After Care

Paperwhites and Hyacinths pour all their energy into blooming and are all bloomed-out afterwards. I toss them. Amaryllis are a different story. After blooming, I cut off the stalk and water it just like any other houseplant. In the spring when all danger of frost is gone, I stick the pots outside in a sheltered location, in partial sun. I ignore them all summer long, until the fall, when it gets chillier. Then, I bring the pots in and put them in the dark basement and let the leaves die back. Around Thanksgiving, I start watering the bulbs and bring them into the light. Usually they reward me by sending out buds and begin their cycle again.