Treat your customers to the beauty and fragrance of tabletop spring bulb garden. Here’s how we do it, and you can too!

I’ve been so amazed (and thrilled!) with how many fellow growers are now forcing big glorious amaryllis and paperwhites for the holidays, and making some pretty good money doing it during a time of year when sales are typically slim to none. I hope forcing bulbs might be a real niche for our members to fill—for both the holidays and for early spring sales.

There’s nothing quite like bringing fragrant spring bulbs—hyacinths, multi-stem narcissus, double and multi-stem tulips, and multi-stem grape hyacinths—into bloom before they’ll be blooming naturally in the landscape, especially when it’s still dreary, dark and just plan “blah” outside.

We’ve been forcing spring bulbs at Three Toads Farm for a high-end antiques and garden show since 2003. At first it was really scary trying to time all these blooms for ONE weekend in early March. A few years ago we figured out that we should spread this out a bit, and began offering a Spring Bulb Garden workshop prior to the show. We touted it as giving our guests the chance to have “first dibs” on our 4,000 forced bulbs. This year (2020) we expanded it to two workshops and both sold out, with people actually asking (okay, some are honestly begging) to add another one.

This tells us there’s a good market for this! If you have a cooler, it could be a perfect solution for what to do with it during late fall/winter (well, unless you’re holding dahlia tubers in it).

The only competition for forced bulb gardens is grocery stores and big box stores who offer plastic pots in foil wraps of a puny lineup of the most-commonly forced spring bulbs. We’ve found that people crave something that looks like a lush spring garden, full of fragrance, with lots of buds and opening flowers. Then, when you show them how they can also plant the bulbs outside to bloom next year and beyond? Well, they’re HOOKED.

It all begins with choosing the right bulbs.

Since we’ve based our reputation on higher-end specialty flowers, I search far and wide for just the right bulbs to force for these tabletop gardens. Although there are bargains to be had, we very strongly recommend buying from bulb suppliers whose livelihoods depend on supplying superior quality bulbs—especially those who are sponsors and active members of the ASCFG! They make sure the bulbs we purchase are disease free and have been stored under the proper conditions.

Next, size matters! Just as with amaryllis and paperwhites, the larger the bulb, the better the show. Big bulbs produce more stems with bigger, stronger blooms, and more flowers! We buy top-size bulbs for forcing over the less expensive “landscape size.” They are the largest available and each bulb is fully mature and ready to produce a bumper crop of blooms.

The varieties we choose:

•  Naturally bloom in early- to mid-spring so their chilling time is similar (and shorter), and they’ll bloom more quickly in succession. The ones I choose bloom in April, mid-April, late April, and a very few bloom in May.
•  Are multi-stem varieties because each bulb produces more blooms.
•  We always dig deep to find fragrant varieties, even if it’s a tulip with light fragrance.
•  Stem length is always essential for us cut flower growers, but for tabletop bulb gardens, we choose varieties that produce stems no taller than 16-18” max.

How to force the bulbs

We plant spring bulbs just like we do paperwhites for holiday blooms: in deep jumbo 6-packs. This makes it SUPER SIMPLE to pop out a very well rooted bulb and transplant it into any kind of container. We plant one bulb per cell for narcissus, hyacinths, tulips, and snowdrops. With the smaller grape hyacinth bulbs, two or even three bulbs fit nicely into each cell.

We plant them into ProMix, filling each cell about half full, add the bulbs, and cover with more soil. As the bulbs go through their chilling period, we keep an eye on them to be sure they don’t heave totally out of the soil and they’re kept moist. Our hyacinths typically sit on top of the soil in each cell.

Once planted, we give the bulbs a few weeks in the cooler at 50F (to stimulate the root development that takes place in the fall), then 9-10 weeks at 38F (winter) and then, at the beginning of February—or roughly three weeks before we need them beginning to bloom—we move them into our cool, barely-heated greenhouse to mimic cool early spring.

A week before our big antique and garden show, when each bulb is in big bud with a few just a few individual flowers starting to pop open, we pot the bulbs up into all sorts of large and small containers: concrete bowls and troughs, metal and ceramic urns, and other cool, even vintage, planters. My favorite source for new containers is Accent Decor. You can’t beat the concrete bowls and trays, and the newer Winnie Compotes are a huge customer favorite! We have a local floral wholesaler (Dreisbach) that carries some Accent Decor items but I order directly from Accent Decor too to get quantity discounts.

How we sell them

If you’re thinking of forcing spring bulbs for next fall, NOW is the perfect time to look around at your market and decide how you’re going to market your forced bulbs and bulb gardens.

I always get a few requests from designers and others wanting to purchase soon-to-bloom bulbs in 6-packs. I sell them for $12/6-pack of grape hyacinths and $18/6-pack of the other bulbs. In fact, I currently have an order from a designer who’s doing a special installation and she’s ordered $450 worth of bulbs to make kokedamas.

As I mentioned earlier, we sell our spring bulb gardens at a high-end antiques and garden show held the first weekend in March. This will be our 17th year there and it’s always GREAT to have cash coming in this time of year! It’s a three-day show and the organizers now put our booth front and center where people come in. Showgoers LOVE seeing and smelling the breath of fresh air we bring in! Our gardens sell for between $25 and $185, and we typically sell around 100 bulb gardens.

This is the perfect time for you to check out any similar shows going on near you, and talk with organizers about getting involved next year. If you explain you’re a local flower grower, they may even give you a price break on your booth space.

I also mentioned that we now hold Spring Bulb Gardens workshops just before the antique and garden show, giving our guests “first dibs” on the bulbs and containers. For these workshops we charge $135, which includes the container, their choice of bulbs, and a variety of mosses to dress up their creation.

We use three types of moss: Spanish moss, Spring Green reindeer moss, and living clump moss. Clump moss comes dormant in a box that should have come out of the wholesaler’s cooler. I just spread it out (green side up/root side down) in flats and water it well for a few days to bring it to life. It’s really cool and I let customers know they can replant it outside in the shade. I get all of these mosses from local floral wholesalers. Ask them to order it for you.

To help people understand how special these bulb gardens are (and worth the expense!) we always include a card (with our logo, of course) attached to the bulb garden describing the planting—think “spring meadow” or “a sea of blue”—and the varieties of bulbs we’ve included. It’s more trouble to keep track of the varieties when we create each container, but it points out how special these bulb gardens are.

It’s important to also have a handout, explaining how to care for the bulb garden for the longest show and then how to save the bulbs to rebloom next year. We print these two to a page, with our bulb garden info on one side, and highlights about our farm and what we do on the other side, with our logo on both sides.

Finally, promoting your glorious spring bulb gardens, workshops, and where you’ll be selling them on social media is all you need!

I sure hope this gives you a few ideas and inspiration! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to give me a shout.

Valerie Schirmer

Three Toads Farm

Valerie Schirmer Three Toads Farm Contact at [email protected]