Do you need to refrigerate daffodil, tulip bulbs before forcing them indoors?

daffodil at Buffalo Botanical Gardens by Connie Oswald Stofko
Photo copyright by Connie Oswald Stofko

I got this question from reader Trudy Stern:

“I have a daffodil question: Should I keep them in the deep freeze for awhile before I force them indoors in January or February? Tulips? Any special tips? I am looking forward to having some bulb beauty in my house throughout the winter.”

I thought this was a question many readers might be interested in, so I contacted Jeff Thompson, director of horticulture at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Each year  the Botanical Gardens does a lavish Spring Flower Show that takes place before tulips and daffodils and other spring bulbs are blooming outdoors in Western New York. They force hundreds of bulbs to to bloom indoors for the show, so they know what they’re doing.

The bulbs need a cold period, but you don’t want to freeze the bulbs, Thompson said. Put them in your refrigerator, not your freezer.

Place the bulbs in an opaque plastic bag that is open at the top and put the bag in the crisper drawer. That will do two things: keep your bulbs from drying out and protect them from the light that pours in every time you open the door.

The bag has to be open so you have some air circulation. If the bulbs get moist, mildew and fungi could grow and kill the bulbs, Thompson said.

A paper bag will also work when storing bulbs in the refrigerator, as David Clark, horticulturist and national garden speaker, told us this fall. But make sure you don’t store bulbs in your refrigerator if you have apples in there. Apples release ethylene gas, which can kill the embryonic flower inside the bulb. See more tips on planting spring bulbs in your garden here.

After the bulbs have been in the refrigerator for a few weeks, plant them in pots, water them, and place the pots back in the refrigerator. Don’t water them again while they are in the refrigerator.

“What you’re trying to do is to trick them and make them believe they’ve gone through winter,” Thompson explained.

About three or four weeks before you want the plants to grow and bloom, take the pots out of the refrigerator, put them in a warm area, give them light and water them.

The Botanical Gardens staff has had some bulbs all potted up and in the cooler since Nov. 25 in preparation for the Spring Flower Show that won’t be held until March. The reader who asked the question wants to have them bloom in January or February. If you haven’t already started refrigerating your bulbs, you might be able to shorten your simulated winter and still get results, Thompson said.

Thompson noted that you might find potted paperwhites, hyacinths and narcissus in the stores now. Those have already been cold tempered by the growers, so you don’t have to refrigerate them.

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