How to Force Bulbs Into Bloom
Pungently fragrant paperwhite narcissus are easy to force. You can start them from October through January―enough time for several batches of blooms if you plant bulbs every few weeks (always store unused bulbs in a paper bag at room temperature). There are a number of popular varieties, such as Ziva (shown), Galilee, and Ariel.
How to plant: A tall glass or ceramic container with no drainage holes is best. Pour in two inches of pebbles that have been rinsed free of dust. Add a tablespoon or two of rinsed aquarium charcoal (so the water won't smell "off"), then more pebbles. Place three bulbs, root-side down and almost touching one another, on top. Add enough tepid water to reach just below the bottoms of the bulbs. Replenish when the level falls by a quarter inch.
You'll see blooms: In four to six weeks. Once the blossoms die, toss the bulbs; they won't flower again. Reuse the pebbles for the next batch.
Christmas Pearl (shown), with its dainty pale blue flowers and lovely scent, is the one variety of grape hyacinth that doesn't need a chilling period. Plant it in any shallow container with drainage holes, like this fruit crate.
How to plant: If the container has a slatted bottom, line it with unbleached coffee filters, which will retain the soil while allowing water to drain. Fill the container halfway with a blend of potting soil and orchid mix. Place the bulbs (as many as will fit) root-side down and almost touching, then barely cover with potting mix. In a sink, soak the container well with tepid water until water drains out the bottom. Set on a waterproof tray beside a window. Water again when the top inch of potting mix is dry.
You'll see blooms: In six to eight weeks. You can keep growing the bulbs until spring, then replant outdoors. They should flower again next year.
Like paperwhites, an amaryllis can be grown in a watertight container. (You can buy an inexpensive enamelware pot like the one shown here at many hardware stores.)
How to plant: Layer pebbles, rinsed aquarium charcoal, then more pebbles, until you've filled about two-thirds of the container. Pour in enough tepid water to just cover the pebbles, then add another thin layer of pebbles. Set a single bulb (or more, in a larger container) on top, root-side down; be sure to leave on the fleshy roots for quick, healthy growth. Scoop in more pebbles, until they reach the point where the bulb narrows; this will help stabilize the plant as it grows. Once a week, work a finger down to feel the roots; if they don't touch the water, add more.
You'll see blooms: In six to eight weeks, sometimes sooner. Once a bulb has been forced, you should discard it. Getting it to bloom again can be difficult.
Purple shamrock, also known as oxalis, has tiny pink flowers and cloverlike leaves. It needs drainage, so you'll have to perforate the container if it's watertight, as with the pitcher here. (For a ceramic container, mark the center of the base with masking tape, then drill a hole there with a 1/2-inch carbide-tipped bit; wear goggles for protection. Rinse off any dust afterward.)
How to plant: Fill three-quarters of the container with potting mix. Set the bulbs (as many as the container will hold) on top, then scoop in more potting mix, to about an inch from the rim. Douse the bulbs with tepid water, then don't water again until you see growth, in about three weeks.
You'll see blooms: In about eight weeks. Purple shamrock will grow indoors year-round if you give it three or more hours of sunlight a day and water when it's dry to the touch. Or replant outdoors; it should survive winter in all but the coldest climates.