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How to Force Tulips

A pot of blooming tulips in January is always a pleasant sight and is sure to lift spirits even on a cold, dismal day. With a little planning and effort you can brighten your winter days with your choice of tulips. In order to have blooms by January, you should begin the forcing process in October. You will have to chill the bulbs for several weeks and then let them grow and come into bloom, a process that takes 14-17 weeks.

Begin the first week in October for flowers in January.

Assemble your Materials

    Well drained commercial potting mix
    Containers; they may be plastic, ceramic, clay, metal or other material but must have drainage holes in the bottom.
    Piece of broken pot or other material that will allow water out of the pot while keeping the soil in the pot.
    Labels; these may be store bought or made at home from plastic knives, mini blinds, popsickle sticks or any similar object than can be inscribed with a pen or wax pencil.
    Marking pen like a Sharpie, or wax pencil
    High quality, large sized, tulip bulbs. Single Early, Double Early, and Triumph tulips do best. For more information on bulb selection click here to read my post on selecting bulbs for forcing.

Prepare the Container:

    Cover the hole in the pot with the piece of broken pot or object of choice.

Add Potting Soil:

    Fill the container with potting soil so that the tip of the tulip bulbs will be about ½” below the rim when placed in the container.

Position the Bulbs:

    Place the bulbs in a ring evenly around edge of the container with one bulb in the center. Set the bulb so that its flat side faces the wall of the pot; this will allow the lowest leaf of each bulb to grow over the edge of the container and make a pretty border around the edge of the pot. Five bulbs in a 5” pot or 6-7 bulbs in a 6” pot is a good rule of thumb. Take care not to compact the soil when positioning the bulbs so that the roots can easily grow.

Add Soil:

    Fill the pot with soil leaving the tip of each bulb showing. There should be enough room above the soil for watering.

Label:

    Write the cultivar name and date on the label and slide the label into the edge of the pot. The date is especially important if you plant to plant several pots and stagger their bloom time.

Water:

    Add enough water that water escapes through the drain hole.

Chill:

    Place the container of tulips in a dark cool place such as a refrigerator, root cellar, or unheated garage. Temperatures between 35 and 48 F are best. Use black plastic garbage bags if necessary to keep the bulbs in complete darkness. If you use a refrigerator, keep the tulips away from fruits such as apples because the fruits produce ethylene a gas that inhibits flower formation.

Water:

    Check the bulbs regularly and water thoroughly if they become dry.

Check for Root and Shoot Formation:

    About 10 weeks after potting, check the underside of the pot for root formation and the tips of the bulbs for shoot development. You may have to wait 13 weeks or more so don’t despair if the first check reveals nothing. Once root or shoot development has occurred remove the container to a warmer (50-60 F) area where it will receive low to moderate light. Once the leaves and shoots begin to expand they can be put in a warmer and brighter site.

Wait for Flowers:

    Water regularly so that soil never dries out. In a few (3-5) weeks buds and flowers will appear. Once the flowers appear place pot in a cool place to prolong the bloom.

The display will last about two weeks so if you want to have flowers the whole winter, pot up several containers and remove one pot from the chilling area every two weeks.

Once the tulips have bloomed and the flowers have faded, discard the bulbs. They will not flower well again.

Floristry pointer

Recommended Reading:

Flowers: The Book of Floral Design
Tussie-Mussies: The Language of Flowers
The Complete Flower Arranging Book