Forcing Paperwhites and Amaryllis in Potting Medium

by Peter B.


During the winter months, cold temperatures and bad weather force outdoor gardeners inside. One way to cope with a long winter is to force bulbs for indoor bloom. The top choices for forcing are bulbs that are native to warmer climates.  Because of this, they do not require a cold period to initiate blooming.  Paperwhite narcissus such as ‘Ziva’ and amaryllis dominate this category because they are very easy to cultivate.  Another form of narcissus called Chinese sacred lily is a popular option.  Ironically, these bulbs are neither Chinese, sacred, nor a lily.  Instead, they look similar to paperwhites but with a unique yellow center.

Amaryllis 'Exotic Peacock'
Amaryllis ‘Exotic Peacock’

Follow these directions for indoor bulb planting:

Selecting the perfect bulb is an important first step when forcing.  For best results for paperwhites, look for healthy top-sized bulbs that are at least 12 centimeters in circumference.  For amaryllis, I prefer jumbo bulbs as these often produce three or more scapes and multiple flowers.  Jumbo bulbs can be up to 40 cm, while standard bulb sizes are usually 32-34 cm, in circumference.  When shopping, avoid supermarket and big box store kits.  While these may seem like a bargain price, the bulbs are often undersized with no guarantee of bloom.  For both paperwhites and amaryllis, bulbs should be firm, blemish free and have a brown, dry skin.


Amaryllis 'Moonlight'
Amaryllis ‘Moonlight’

Once you have your bulbs picked out, the next step is selecting a good container.  Look for sterilized containers with large drainage holes.  Terracotta azalea pots are my go to choice.  These are shallower, so they provide more stability as the bulbs grow taller. (Remember: you will likely need to stake your paperwhite stems as they mature!)  The terracotta clay also helps wick excess moisture from the soil which prevents the bulb from rotting.  Cover drainage holes with a small piece of screen to prevent soil from running out.  You can also add a layer of stone or broken pottery shards before adding soil.  Fill pots about halfway full with a sterile, well-draining potting medium.  I have success with a blend of pro-mix with perlite, vermiculite or sand to improve drainage.  Place bulbs on top of soil and then, leaving half to three-quarters of the top of the bulb visible, tightly fill in with additional soil.  Once planted, take pots to the sink and totally saturate the soil.  Make sure you see water draining from the bottom of the pot as you water.  Don’t forget to label pots with the bulb variety and date planted.  Finally, place bulbs in a bright, warm space and watch them grow.  You can expect paperwhites to bloom in roughly four weeks, while amaryllis typically take about eight weeks.  Try to be patient as you look forward to colorful, fragrant and unique blooms brightening your home all winter long!