Force your bulbs into bloom for the winter

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— Brightly colored fresh flowers are a welcome morale-booster during the shorter, colder days of a Steamboat winter. While fresh-cut flowers are nice, it's more gratifying, I think, to watch something grow and flower. Plus, by forcing bulbs to flower indoors, you can get your gardening "fix" even though the ground is as hard as a brick.

Some of the easiest bulbs to force indoors are crocus, hyacinth, narcissus, iris, scilla and tulip. A holiday favorite is amaryllis. Here's how to do it.

Between now and late November, place your bulbs in a container of potting soil, allowing for about two inches of soil below the bulb. The number of bulbs you can place in a pot will vary according to the size of the pot and the bulbs. Feel free to crowd a lot of bulbs almost touching, tips facing up, for a full, colorful display. The top of the bulb should be even with the rim of your pot, the bulb noses just peeking out of the soil. Water thoroughly by placing the pot in a shallow pan of water and allowing it to soak until the surface of the soil is moist. You shouldn't need frequent watering, but don't allow the soil to dry out completely.

Next, the potted bulbs must be kept in darkness at around 40 degrees for 12 to 14 weeks. Use a spare refrigerator, bury in a mulch pile under snow or place in a cool garage or shed. (Don't store bulbs in the same drawer as your vegetables or fruit, which give off ethylene gas, which harms bulbs. Also, some bulbs are poisonous, so a refrigerator accessed by young children is probably not a good spot to chill bulbs.)

After the chilling period, check for root development. If you see roots in the drainage hole or in the root ball under the bulb, move the pots to a cool (50 to 60 degrees), well-lighted (not direct sun) spot to begin development of shoots. As the shoots come up, you can move the pots to a warmer, brighter location. Be sure to keep the soil moist throughout the blooming period.

On average, your bulbs will flower within three to four weeks after coming out of cold storage. To extend flowering, plant several pots of bulbs and pull out of cold storage one or two pots at a time every week or so.

Unfortunately, bulbs that have been forced indoors, with the exception of amaryllis, are generally poor candidates for replanting in the garden. They seldom grow and flower.

So if you're looking for a boost this winter, force bulbs indoors for fresh flowers.

Deb Babcock is a a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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