Forcing paperwhite bulbs is a family-friendly activity.

Brittnay Haag

Brittnay Haag

Even though it is getting cold outside and snow may soon be covering our gardens, we can still exercise our little ones’ (and own!) green thumbs. Bring the garden inside this winter with fun activities and experiments! Winter is the perfect time for kids to learn basic plant concepts and develop an interest in the garden.

A great family-friendly activity to bring spring inside this winter is forcing paperwhite bulbs. “Forcing bulbs” is a technique that causes them to flower in conditions other than what they would naturally experience outdoors.

Because of their delicate nature, paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) bulbs will not overwinter successfully outside in Illinois. However, they are great bulbs to force inside, enjoy the bloom for a couple of weeks, and then discard plant material. Unlike other bulbs, they do not need a cold treatment before blooming.

To grow paperwhites inside this winter, you need just a few supplies and little care.

1. Purchase bulbs from your local garden center or an online company.

2. Select a 3 to 4 inch deep, clear container with no drainage holes. The container can be a decorative glass or as simple as a plastic cup. The clear sides of the container will give kids a great view of the roots forming from the bulb.

3. Fill the container ¾ full of small rocks or marbles.

4. Place the bulb on top with the tip side facing up.

5. Fill the container with water until it is just barely covering the bottom of the bulb.

6. Place the container in a sunny, warm window.

7. Observe the bulb every day. Make sure to replenish the water as it evaporates or the roots absorb it. Roots and tips will begin to appear in 1 to 2 weeks.

8. When the bulb begins to flower (about one month), move the plant to the coolest area in your house to prolong the bloom. The star-shaped clusters of flowers produce a strong, musky fragrance and are a nice addition to your home décor.

For older children, set up a scientific experiment with multiple bulbs in a variety of situations around your home. Place the containers in shaded versus sunny locations or vary the water levels on the bulbs and see how they grow. Track which situations allow for the earliest or best blooms.

For younger children, this activity also provides the opportunity to learn about the individual partsof the plant and itsfunction. The growing roots and bulb will be visible in the container and exhibit their function of taking up water for the rest of the plant.

Still looking for other ideas for indoor winter gardening activities with kids?Try decorating a flowerpot for the summer patio garden, making a bird feeder with pinecones coated with birdseed, creating a garden plan and ordering seeds, or visiting your local library to read children’s books about gardening. There’s enough fun to stay busy all winter long until we can get outside in the garden again!

Brittnay Haag is a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.


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