Christmas in bloom: Forcing indoor bulbs for the festive season

There’s nothing more welcoming than fresh flowers in winter, and by planting and forcing indoor bulbs now, you can even have some blooming in time for Christmas.

The optimism of a fresh flower bursting into life, when most of our garden plants are dying down, is irresistible.

And while a few outdoor plants battle into bloom despite winter’s drear, nothing beats the fireworks and fragrance of an indoor flowering bulb.

If you plant and force your bulbs now, you could be enjoying the sight and heady scent of hyacinths, amaryllis and narcissi during your Christmas celebrations.

An arrangement of potted flowers and Christmas decorations against a wooden backdropCredit: Shutterstock /Galina Grebenyuk
Forcing indoor bulbs so they bloom at Christmas makes a beautiful addition to any festive decoration

What is forcing bulbs?

Tricking bulbs to bloom early

Forcing bulbs inside is simply a way to ‘trick’ spring bulbs into flowering early, allowing you to get a burst of spring colour in the depths of winter.

“By autumn, I miss the vibrancy of the garden in spring and summer – and come November, my colour withdrawal symptoms are at their strongest,” says Tom Brown, award-winning head gardener and writer.

“Forced bulbs bring a riot of colour and scent.”

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How to force indoor bulbs

Make sure you let your bulbs chill

Forcing bulbs isn’t an expensive way to get your quick fix of flowers during the festive season. You’ll find a few ready-planted, indoor bulbs in supermarkets and garden centres through the winter – Paperwhite and ‘Tête à Tête’ daffodils, or candy-colour hyacinths.

But by following this simple technique, you can easily force a far wider range of plants into bloom earlier than usual, and at much less cost – giving you home-grown flowers for the festivities and beyond.

They also make perfect presents on a budget.

  1. Choose bulbs that are firm and have no signs of mold or rot.
  2. Plant the bulbs in pots with drainage holes, using a well-draining potting mix. Plant the bulbs with their tips just below the surface of the soil.
  3. Water the bulbs well.
  4. Place the pots in a cool, dark place for the required chilling period. This can take anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks, depending on the type of bulb.
  5. Once the chilling period is complete, move the pots to a bright, cool location indoors. Water the bulbs regularly, but be careful not to overwater them.
  6. Within a few weeks, you should see the bulbs sprout and begin to flower.

Issues with forcing indoor bulbs

Step away from the water

Both Sarah Raven, gardener and author, and Brown have trialled forcing bulbs extensively in their respective Sussex gardens, Perch Hill and West Dean.

They both agree on the biggest culprit for when it goes wrong.

“Over-watering is the mistake most people make,” says Tom.

“There’s already enough moisture within the bulb to initiate growth, so hold back,” adds Sarah.

“Water in when you plant but very little after. Hyacinths in particular don’t need much water – they rot easily.”

If you’re blooms aren’t lasting long, it may be that your house is too warm.  Bulbs grown at temperatures above 70°F will have short-lived flowers.  Find a cooler place to keep your bulbs and this will ensure a longer-lasting bloom.

Both Raven and Brown also say that an initial period of darkness and chilling after planting also generates the biggest blooms.

Expert tips for the perfect festive bloom

Think scent

“I want scent more than anything at Christmas, so I always grow Paperwhites,” says Raven.

“I love ‘Woodstock’ hyacinths for scent, but they’re difficult to buy ready-forced, so I force my own. Muscari look lovely in repeating pots. For my centrepiece, I’ll do a big bowl of three to five amaryllis.”

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GreenBrokers Amaryllis Red Lion Gift Box (1 Bulb) Pot & Compost

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“We also have a lovely family tradition at Christmas of displaying forced bulbs like a tiered wedding cake,” she says.

“I use three tiers, with a mini pot, mid pot and a decorative base pot. I plant them with Paperwhites that grow to a metre high, supported by a woven hazel structure. These flower for up to six weeks if you keep them cool, rather than ten days in a warm room.”

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Jamieson Brothers Narcissus Paperwhite

RRP: £11.99

Jamieson Brothers Narcissus Paperwhite

Visit the glasshouses at West Dean Gardens, near Chichester, this winter –and  Sarah Raven holds regular open days.

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Written by Lucy Hall

Updated: