Forcing Plants to Grow

It sounds rather pushy, “forcing plants to grow,” but this particular kind of forcing is fun! Who knows, if we nurture an interest in gardening early, maybe we won’t have to “force” our kids to help with weeding later? Ha! Wishful thinking! Simple activities like forcing plants to grow help spark children’s curiosity about the natural world.

green leaves and hyacinth flower blossom sprouting from bulb

Flower bulbs are the most commonly forced plants. No doubt because we want their lovely color and fragrance in winter when nothing else is growing. That’s all that forcing is, making something grow or bloom out of its natural season. But in addition to flowers, there are other fun things you can get to sprout and you need only look as far as your refrigerator’s veggie drawer! More on that later…

Forcing Flower Bulbs

The only catch with forcing hyacinth, tulip, narcissus or most other spring-blooming bulbs is that those bulbs have to be chilled. Exceptions to this rule are amaryllis and paperwhite bulbs which naturally grow in warm climates. In other words, bulbs that naturally grow in cold ground all winter have to “think” they have been through a winter in order to bloom.

This means to plan ahead by tucking bulbs away in the fridge in fall or early winter. You can also plant them in soil in a pot and leave it outside so the bulbs will actually experience a few cold months outdoors. More detailed instructions for forcing bulbs can be found HERE. But if you didn’t plan ahead, don’t despair! In late winter/early spring you can usually find prepped bulbs at your local Trader Joe’s or other stores.

If you do plant your bulbs in a pot, simply bring the pot inside after at least 12 to 15 weeks of cold, when you’re ready to encourage the flowers to sprout. The drawback of planting bulbs in soil, however, is that you and your young scientists can’t see what is happening underground. 

Forcing Flower Bulbs in Water

We prefer using a clear hydroponic vase (simply a vase shaped so the bulb sits at the top without falling in). Fill the vase with water to the narrowest part, sit your bulb on top then double check that the water level is right. Only the bottom portion (less than a half inch) of your bulb should be sitting in water. If more of the bulb is under water, you run the risk of allowing mold to form and your bulb could rot. 

forcing plants to grow hyacinth bulb in clear glass container

Sit your bulb vase in a sunny window. Replenish the water level as needed so it stays in contact with the base of the bulb. Keep an eye out for signs of life! Before long, you will see little root strands coming down from the bulb into the water. In the other direction, it won’t be long before green leaves start to poke out from the top of the bulb. Each type of flower is different but soon, after multiple leaves are developed, a flower bud should start peeking out. Before you know it, you’ll have a gorgeous spring flower to enjoy!

forcing hyacinth flower bulb

No Flower Bulbs on Hand? Root Veggies to the Rescue!

You won’t get a showy flower from this process but you may still be pleasantly surprised. Search your fridge for a root vegetable such as carrot, beet, turnip, rutabaga, radish, kohlrabi, or parsnip. Trim a thin slice of the top portion from any of these root veggies. Take that slice and place it in a shallow plate of water. Assuming that these vegetables haven’t been in your fridge longer than a few weeks, leaves should start forming atop the little veggie heads within a few days. (If they’ve been in the veggie drawer a while, this process may have already started.) Either way, it’s another fun way to show kids that there is still life inside those veggies. 

turnip top sprouting

I always feel like there is something therapeutic and hopeful about seeing bright green little sprouts in the dead of winter. Forcing plants to grow is a quick and easy way to enjoy “gardening” even when the ground is frozen solid.

And yes, by the way, that is snow in the background. Snow in March is unusual for the Seattle area but this year it just keeps on coming. Take that, winter. Since it’s still too early to start planting seeds, we’ll grow our strange and wonderful little sprouts inside no matter what you send our way!

forcing plants to grow in windowsill carrot top sprout