Revised by David Trinklein
Horticulture Extension State Specialist
Division of Plant Sciences & Technology

Bulbs made to flower at other than normal times are said to be forced. The practice of forcing is commonly used to flower daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, crocus and other spring bulbs during the winter (Figure 1). With proper planning and care, bulbs can supply color for the home from late November until early April, when they begin to flower normally outdoors.

DaffodilFigure 1
Daffodils are relatively easy to force and can bring the beauty of spring indoors in winter.

Forcing bulbs in containers

Steps for forcing include selecting the most suitable varieties, potting bulbs properly in well-drained potting medium, providing proper cold-temperature treatment, bringing bulbs into a cool room, and placing the plants in a display location when well-developed.

Stage 1

Any spring-flowering bulb can be forced, but to be successful, select types and varieties known to force well. Hyacinths and daffodils are generally the easiest to force. Tulips are slightly more difficult, but with proper treatments they can be forced successfully. Many small bulbs such as crocus, grape hyacinth and snowdrops also may be forced.

The general procedure for forcing all these bulbs is similar. Begin by buying only top-quality, flowering-size bulbs for indoor forcing. Good bulbs contain food reserves necessary for successfully producing roots, leaves and flowers.

Hyacinths are usually the most easily forced spring bulbs. They may be forced in water or potted in a container. Potting should be done in late September or early October. Plants will flower about one month after being brought indoors from the chilling treatment. Earliest bloom from bulbs can be expected about mid-January.

Specially prepared, or pre-chilled, bulbs are available for forcing into bloom by Christmas. Specific directions are supplied with these bulbs if they are prepared for early forcing.

Table 1 lists hyacinth varieties most suitable for forcing, along with the appropriate potting and forcing dates.

Daffodils (Narcissus)
Many varieties of daffodils can be forced; Table 2 lists some of the more popular ones. Paperwhite Narcissus are suitable for earliest forcing either in pots or in water.

Table 3 suggests tulip varieties suitable for forcing, but many others may be used.

All varieties should be potted before the end of October for adequate root growth and chilling. Dates listed in the table are the earliest that bulbs planted in October should be brought into forcing conditions. Most varieties flower about one month after being brought indoors, although timing varies due to varieties and individual forcing conditions.

Table 1 lists hyacinth varieties most suitable for forcing along with the appropriate potting and forcing dates.

Table 1
Hyacinth varieties for forcing

Variety Color Pot no later than Earliest date to bring indoors
Early forcing Anne Marie bright pink Oct. 1 late December
Delft Blue porcelain blue Oct. 1 late December
Jan Bos red Oct. 1 late December
L'Innocence white Oct. 1 late December
Mid-season forcing Carnegie white Oct. 1 early January
Myosotis pale blue Oct. 1 early January
Ostara dark blue Oct. 1 early January
Pink Pearl pink Oct. 1 early January
Late forcing City of Harlem yellow Oct. 15 mid-February
King of the Blues deep blue Oct. 15 mid-February
Lady Derby rose pink Oct. 15 late January


Table 2
Daffodil (Narcissus) varieties for forcing.

Variety Color Forcing dates
Accent white; salmon cup March to April
Barrett Browning white; orange cup January to April
Bridal Crown golden yellow March to April
Carlton double white; orange center January to February
Cassata creamy to pale yellow January to April
Dutch Master golden yellow January to April
February Gold bright yellow January to February
Flower Record white; orange-rimmed cup January to February
Fortune yellow; coppery-orange cup January to April
Ice Follies white; yellow cup January to April
Las Vegas white; lemon yellow cup January to April
Mt. Hood ivory white January to April
Tete a Tete yellow miniature January to February
Unsurpassable yellow March to April


Table 3
Tulip varieties for forcing.

Variety Color Earliest date to bring indoors
Apeldoorn orange-scarlet early February
Apricot Beauty salmon-rose early January
Attilla purple violet mid-January
Bellona golden yellow early January
Blizzaard creamy white early February
Christmas Gold deep yellow early January
Christmas Marvel cherry pink early January
Couleur Cardinal cardinal red early February
DeWet (General) orange early January
First Lady reddish-violet early January
Garden Party white-edged red early February
Gudoshnik pale yellow streaked; rose pink early February
Jewel of Spring yellow-streaked red early February
Kansas white early January
Make Up red-edged white early February
Merry Widow white-edged red mid-January
Olympic Flame yellow-flamed red early February
Orange Nassau double-orange scarlet mid-January
Orange Wonder bronzy-orange mid-January
Paul Richter scarlet red early January
Peach Blossom double deep rose early February
Preludlum salmon with white base early January
Queen of Sheba mahogany-edged orange early February
Westpoint yellow early February
Stage 2

The following materials will be needed for potting bulbs:

  • Pots 4 to 8 inches in diameter. Short pots known as azalea or bulb pots are preferred.
  • A well-drained potting medium such as a blend of Sphagnum peat, vermiculite and perlite. High fertility is not essential, but good drainage is important. No fertilizer is needed at potting time.
  • Wood, plastic or metal labels.
  • Thermometer for checking temperatures.

All bulbs are normally potted in October.

  • Add enough soil mixture to fill the pot so bulbs are placed as follows:
    • Hyacinths and tulips: Allow only the tip of the bulb to show above the soil line.
    • Daffodils: Plant so about one-half of the bulb shows above the soil line.
    • Small bulbs (crocus, snowdrop, grape hyacinth, etc.): Plant so they will be about one inch below the soil line.
  • Set the bulbs in the pot. One large bulb may be placed in each 4-inch pot. Use six tulips, three hyacinths, five daffodils or 15 crocuses (or other small bulbs) in each 6-inch pot. All bulbs in a pot should be of the same kind and variety to ensure uniform flowering. Place tulips with the flattened side of the bulb toward the outside of the pot (Figure 2).

PlantingFigure 2
When potting tulip bulbs, place the flat side of the bulb toward the outside of the pot.

  • Fill around the bulbs with potting medium to the proper height. Firm the medium with light pressure, but avoid tight packing. After planting, the final potting medium line should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch below the rim of the pot.
  • Label each pot with variety of bulb, date of potting and expected date to begin forcing.
  • Add water until it drips through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. After about one hour, dump out any water remaining in the saucer.
Stage 3

After potting, keep hardy bulbs where temperatures range from 35 to 48 degrees F; 40 degrees F is ideal. These temperatures may be found in a cool north room, basement, crawl space, bulb cellar, outdoor trench, refrigerator or cold frame.

An unheated basement or storage cellar is most convenient because temperatures don’t fluctuate greatly and the cooling is quicker and more satisfactory. An old refrigerator may be used for a few bulbs.

A cold frame is easily built outdoors and may later be used for other gardening activities. Place the pots to be forced in the cold frame and cover them with sawdust, straw, leaves, peat moss, shredded styrofoam or other material. The cold frame should be in a shady place or on the north side of a building so the soil is as uniformly cool as possible in October and November. No sash is needed on the cold frame. For more information on cold frames, see MU Extension publication G6965, Building and Using Hotbeds and Cold Frames.

When preparing only a few pots, place them on the surface of the ground close to a building. Cover them with peat moss, leaves, straw or similar material and invert a box or bushel basket over them for protection.

Bulbs stored outdoors will normally get sufficient moisture from the soil around them after initial watering. Indoors, bulbs should be kept moist at all times. Overwatering, however, may cause bulb rot.

Roots should develop soon after potting. Excellent root growth is essential to good growth and flower formation. Potted bulbs should be placed outdoors at least three weeks before the first hard freeze is expected. This is an important period for good root development.

Stage 4

A few varieties may be brought indoors after about 12 weeks of cooling, but most will require 13 or 14 weeks to develop the necessary roots and top growth. Indoor forcing takes three to four weeks. To extend the bloom period, remove potted bulbs from storage at weekly intervals.

If potting medium and tops are frozen when plants are brought indoors, place plants in a cool room (about 40 degrees F) for two or three days to thaw out slowly. Don’t touch the plant tops when they are frozen.

If plants are not frozen, bring them directly to a cool, bright window where temperatures range close to 60 degrees F. Don’t place them in direct sunlight. Keep bulbs watered, but fertilizer won’t be needed.

Stage 5

When flower buds are almost fully developed, pots may be moved to the area in the house where they are to be displayed. Avoid placing them in full sunlight or close to a heater. The life of the flowers can be lengthened by placing the plants in a cool room at night.

Bulbs that have been forced indoors are usually of little value for outdoor planting and should be discarded.

Forcing bulbs in water

Tender types of Narcissus such as Paperwhite and Soleil d’Or don’t require cold treatment before being forced into bloom. These are the most popular and dependable bulbs for forcing and may be grown in water with pebbles for support.

Hyacinths can be forced into bloom in containers that will support the bulb with only its base touching the water. Bulbs should be cleaned before placing them in glasses. The best time for starting the bulbs is in October.

Keep the glasses containing the bulbs in a cool (45 to 50 degrees F), dark location until tip growth is 3 to 4 inches long and the flower cluster emerges free from the bulb. This may take 8 to 12 weeks. When the top growth is well-developed, move the glasses to a cool, bright window.