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Bringing bulbs to life with the water-pebble method

Tracey FitzgibbonQ. Having run out of “space,” you said you would continue the instructions of bulb forcing, guiding us in the water-pebble method this week. – N.K., Albuquerque

A. You got it! Again this is one of my favorite projects this time of year!

First, I hope you have purchased and are chilling the bulbs you plan on forcing. With the latest round of mandates, I won’t in any way, shape or form suggest you go out shopping.

The list of project needs follows. To create displays of bulbs created in the water-pebble first you’ll need a water-holding container. Through the years I have collected several clear glass baking dishes – at least three inches deep – that have the odd knock or chip in them. Also, I have amassed collections of colored marbles from various craft stores. If you want to start your first forcing, you don’t need marbles. Any smallish stone, landscape lava or even river rock – I’ll call it “media” – from the yard will do.

If you are going to use what you already have, do give it a bath first to remove any dust, dirt or grime from your “media.”

That’s all you need. A container that hold water, media and your bulbs.

Now I want you to look at the bulbs. Imagine them as a globe with two poles – “north” and “south” – and an “equator.”

Do you have that image? Remember it!

First you’ve going to place a layer of your media in the container. Cover the container bottom completely, adding enough to be at least 1- to- 1½-inches deep.

Next, set the bulbs on that media layer, just barely wiggling them in it so the south pole is “cemented” into the media.

Your goal is to keep the bulbs sitting snugly with the north pole headed straight up. With the bulbs sitting on that first layer of media, gently pour in more media so the bulbs get surrounded by it. Your goal is to cover the bulbs so that the equator is covered but the north pole stays exposed.

You’ll gently wiggle the media around them so the bulbs are completely supported and stay standing up straight.

Then you want to pour in enough water so the south pole is standing in water. You can add water to the equator, but not much more than that. The equator to the north pole needs to be above water line.

That’s why I like to use clear baking dishes. You can better see the water level in the container. Oh, and any time you’re adding water, use tepid to just barely warm water. You don’t want to startle the roots with cold water.

Set the container in a place where it’ll get truly bright light and isn’t very cool.

I’ve always had the most success keeping my containers in either south-western or east-south-eastern exposures so they get lots of natural light for the longest time possible. I make it a habit to give the containers a quarter-turn daily so the growth doesn’t stretch to the light.

Here’s a secret too. If you offer just a little bit of clear alcohol (vodka works great) to the container the bulb growth stays shorter, helping keep them stunted so to speak.

It sounds weird I know, but it does work!

Within a few days of being “planted,” the bulbs throw out roots and do begin to show signs of green growth from the north pole.

As the days go by, the bulbs will throw out a blossom stalk and within weeks you should have colorful blooms atop the plants.

Through the years I have successfully forced – using the water-pebble method – short varieties of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. My favorite is the paperwhite narcissus, but finding a short by nature daffodil variety like tete-a-tete has been a joy more than once!

Forcing a container of cheery yellow daffodils or brilliant red tulips always makes the winter months easier to deal with.

I’ve never forced an amaryllis this way because I don’t have a container stout enough or tall enough to hold the weight of one. For amaryllis I’ll always go to the dirt potted method.

It’s the same though. You want to bury the globe so the equator is below dirt level, leaving the north pole exposed.

When this latest, I hate to say it, “lockdown” is lifted, you can get to a nursery and find bulbs galore to force through the winter.

They will help expel some of the gloom and if you’re lucky enough to find scented varieties you get that added benefit. So when it’s safer to shop for bulbs to force, enjoy the process all through this very weird period we’re going through!

Happy Diggin’ In!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to