Forcing Glorious Blooms for Holiday Sales—Could This Be Right for You?
I’m surprised how many calls and emails I received from fellow flower farmers about forcing bulbs for holiday sales after mentioning it in one my recent Regional Reports. I have to admit, I love forcing bulbs, period. Thank goodness, forcing specialty bulbs—namely big, bold, beautiful amaryllis and paperwhites—for the holidays can really pay off. If you haven’t tried it yet, or if you’re thinking about doing it again, there’s still time to give it a go this year!
When you think about how to sell bulbs, there’s more than one way to do it. Here’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years.
Amaryllis Forcing Kits
This all-in-one forcing kit is a great grab and go gift and one of our featured projects in our day-long Flower School that’s all about bulb forcing. There’s nothing extra to buy; everything is inside our hand-painted clay rose pot: a coffee filter covers the hole, there’s totally dry ProMix (if it’s the least bit damp, the bulb can start growing), the amaryllis bulb is pre-planted in the soil with the “neck” exposed, surrounded with Spanish moss, and our growing advice is folded on top. We include growing instructions inside the pot, cover the pot with a painted clay saucer, tie it all up with a satin bow, and add our variety-specific Three Toads Farm gift tag. We sell about 125 of these for $45 each.
Amaryllis or Paperwhites in Burlap Gift Bag
These U-LINE burlap bags are a simple, cost effective way to package ready-to-grow bulb gifts. We add a bit of the “straw” that comes in the bulb crates as cushioning and include growing instructions in the bag. This is either one 36+ cm amaryllis or 10 large paperwhites with our growing instructions, tied with a satin bow, and our variety-specific gift tag is attached. We sell these for $25 each.
Soon-to-Bloom Budded Amaryllis or Paperwhites
This has gotten to be a really big seller for us in the past two years. We start all the paperwhites in deep six-packs (just like we do for spring bulbs) because it’s super easy to select bulbs that are all at the same stage, pluck then out of the six-pack, and pot them up in any kind or size of container. In the last two years we’ve also sold the paperwhites at the budded stage in their six-packs for $18 each during a two-day open house at a wonderful specialty store where we give several demos on how to “bring the outside in” by using growing, natural ingredients in holiday decorating. Each year, we’ve sold every single six-pack we have at that price: it’s that instant gratification and convenience that people crave. It takes 3-4 weeks (depending on variety) to get the paperwhites to this stage.
We offer a range of containers; each includes a satin bow and one of our Three Toads Farm gift tags:
• An 8” hand-painted clay pot of paperwhites, topped with Spanish moss, sells for $35.
• A 10” birch or concrete bowl of paperwhites, topped with either Spanish or reindeer moss sells for $75.
• A fabulous gold urn packed with paperwhites, topped with beautiful living clump moss sells for $165. While we don’t sell many of these, it’s a real showstopper that some folks just have to have in their home, or give as a special gift. We’ve found that if you include a few really high-end gifts, it makes the middle-range ones even more buyable.
For amaryllis, we start all the earlier-blooming bulbs in 4” or 6” green plastic pots. It can be tricky to get amaryllis to break dormancy, so we soak the base of the bulb in tepid water overnight to soften the roots and help the bulb wake up. Amaryllis need to be potted up with one-half to one-third of the bulb exposed. To sell amaryllis already growing (and it’s always best if they are showing buds), it’s very important to get the bulbs in a warm place, such as 70-80F, or even more. Putting them on a heat mat is perfect—honestly, you can’t keep them too warm. Give them lots of light once they begin to sprout. As for pricing, our most popular item is three of the amaryllis bulbs in the 10” birch or concrete bowl, with either Spanish or reindeer moss, at $85. One thing to keep in mind is that the amaryllis that can be forced for the holidays are generally quite a bit less expensive than the larger Dutch varieties—more on that next.
Which Bulbs Perform the Best?
Since we’ve based our reputation on higher-end specialty flowers, I search far and wide for large bulbs, and the more unusual and unique—specialty!—amaryllis and paperwhites. As for where to get them, I recommend supporting the bulb suppliers who support us. Their livelihood depends on superior quality and they will get you the best bulbs, in the world.
For amaryllis, you can get bulbs that are faster to force in time for the holidays: the Israeli, Peruvian, and South African (Hadeco) amaryllis. I’ve used all of them with varying results over the years. The first time I tried any of these, it was the Hadecos. Since then I’ve used both the Israeli and Peruvians several times, and this year I’ve gone back to the Hadecos for 100 percent of my early-blooming order. We’ll see how it works. The Hadecos are the largest bulbs, due to their long growing season, and the plants will rebloom more than the average, and have more flower stems—both key selling points for us.
There are also the Dutch amaryllis which are not harvested early enough to bloom reliably for the holiday, but still make GREAT gifts. We use Dutch amaryllis exclusively in our forcing kits because they are much more likely to remain dormant until the gift is given, the top taken off, the bulb watered, and then put in a warm place to start growing.
Let me say this: the size matters. The larger the bulb, the more stems and blooms you’ll get. Of course, the larger the bulb, the more expensive it will be, but go for the largest size you can afford. It will definitely make a better display and you can charge more while using fewer bulbs.
For Dutch amaryllis, we’ve tried the jumbo sizes but we now use mostly 36+ cm bulbs. That can be too large for the forcing kits, so we also order 34-36 cm bulbs for those. The Israeli, Peruvian, and South African bulbs are all going to be smaller than the Dutch bulbs, because they’re harvested earlier. I was really lucky this year to be able to get both 34-36 and 30-32 cm size Hadeco bulbs. Usually, the “Christmas flowering” amaryllis will be more around the 28-30 cm size or so.
For paperwhites, I’m an absolute sucker for 19+ cm bulbs because they throw off so many stems/flowers, and the larger bulbs are much more of a wow factor when people see them. But I couldn’t get my favorite variety in that size bulb this year, so I had to settle for the next size down. Dang.
Our Favorite Varieties
Let’s start with the paperwhites, because it’s simpler. We don’t sell ‘Ziva’—by far the most commonly available paperwhite—because the strong fragrance is just too off-putting for too many of our customers. After trying out every variety I could get my hands on over the years, the one I’ve landed on is ‘Nir’, which has larger flowers, slightly shorter stems, and a softer fragrance. It can also be forced equally well in water or soil. That’s just my personal favorite though; your customers may love ‘Ziva’ or the other less common varieties all have a softer fragrance, too.
As for amaryllis, we stay FAR away from the varieties commonly available during the holidays, especially the ones at big box or grocery stores. For our soon-to-bloom forced amaryllis, the majority of my order this year is a big double, almost triple bloomer called ‘Alfresco,’ followed by the candy-cane stripes of ‘Razzle Dazzle.’ Both should be perfect for our holiday sales.
Most customers who purchase our Dutch bulbs and forcing kits naturally lean to the whites, reds, and red/whites. However, in my demos and our workshop I like to bring up that while it’s tempting to have these gorgeous traditional-colored blooms during the holidays, it’s all the more special to give a vibrant-colored amaryllis that will bloom AFTER the holidays, during those dark dreary days of late winter. It’s for that reason that our order of Dutch bulbs is pretty evenly split between double whites and reds, great big red/whites (such as ‘Clown and ‘Magical Touch’), and the varieties that bring so much cheer in February and March, including ‘Gervase,’ ‘Terra Cotta Star,’ and everything in the Nymph series, which are all simply and truly magical.
How to Sell Them
Specialty shops are a prime customer in our area and we’ve found there really isn’t much competition beyond our local floral greenhouse, plus, there’s plenty of business for us all to share. If a specialty shop is hosting an open house, offer to provide a demo. It’s a great draw for them to include in their advertising and social media, and you’ll sell more if you’re there.
Put together a one-page description and call on the best local interior designers, architects, and landscape designers/architects. What you have to offer is the perfect over-the-top “thank you” for their best clients. It’s fun and easy to deliver these bulb gardens in a warm car.
Finally, promoting your glorious holiday bulb gardens and gifts through your social media will send people knocking. After Thanksgiving, people go into overdrive.
Hope this has given a few ideas and inspiration! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to give me shout.