Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) stems are great for forcing, and color choices range from orange-pink to red and white. The flowers tend to open on the lower portion of the branch then toward the tip. Make sure to choose flowering varieties as opposed to fruiting varieties, which don’t flower as much. Watch out for spines on the quince twigs.
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellate) flowers are very different from standard magnolias. Star flowers are almost always white, somewhat smaller, with a mild but pleasant aroma. ANDREW MESSINGER
Apple and crabapple cuttings offer both mildly scented flowers and a range of colors. The widest range of colors come from the crabapple group. Long year-old stems cut for shaping and controlling fruiting on standard apple trees are great for forcing. ANDREW MESSINGER
Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) as well as flowering almonds (Prunus triloba) can provide long branch cuttings with colors ranging from pinks in the redbuds to darker and more fragrant flowers in the flowering almonds. ANDREW MESSINGER
Forced cuttings from Rhododendrons can provide spectacular displays, but the stems are usually short and care needs to be taken when cuttings are made as Rhodies recover from pruning very slowly. Look for stems with fat buds. Curled foliage should revive once the cuttings are indoors in water. ANDREW MESSINGER
In the dead of winter, I remember my father suiting up to go out in the cold to cut willow branches. Not just any willow branches, but the branches of pussy willow (Salix discolor). He would cut long single branches with lots of buds on them, bring them inside, then do some magic, and in a few weeks the cute and fuzzy half-inch buds would open, offering a teased view and touch of spring.
Many gardeners have several shrubs or trees planted just so they can take winter cuttings, bring them indoors and force the cuttings into bloom. The colors and scents are just what’s needed in the dull and drab days of February and March. You may actually have several plants in your landscape that cuttings can be taken from and forced indoors, but it’s never too late to plant a few, like mock orange for its heavenly citrus scent, or flowering quince for its bright red, orange and white flowers.
If you’ve got cabin fever and need to get a jump on spring, the branches from flowering trees and shrubs can be forced into bloom easily and inexpensively indoors — and now’s the time. Flowering branches can bring the outdoors inside and add color during the long and very cold winter. These branches also give the floral designer or even a dabbler some unique and inexpensive alternatives for indoor color and fragrance. If you’ve never done this before, you’ve got little to lose, and there’s nothing quite like the scent and sight of apple blossoms in bloom when it’s in the 20s outdoors.
Trees and shrubs that bloom early to mid-spring form flower buds the previous fall before dormancy. Each variety needs a minimum number of “chilling hours” to produce viable flowers but for our purposes after at least eight weeks of cold weather (that’s under 40 degrees so any time after mid- to late-January on the East End) the branches are ready to overcome dormancy and are capable of blooming. By undergoing spring-like temperatures indoors with ample moisture, the flowers are forced open.
Successful forcing depends on the type of plant, cultivar, stage of dormancy, and temperature. What follows are some guidelines for successful forcing, though everyone’s experience will vary slightly. To ensure good results and to be sure that branches have fulfilled their dormancy requirements, it is best to wait until mid-January on Long Island to begin forcing branches.
Carefully prune out branches, taking care not to injure the plant or ruin the shape or rob the bulk of spring buds from the parent plant.
Select branches that are well-budded, i.e., with a large number of flower buds. Best results will occur with younger branches because they have more flower buds. Flower buds are usually larger and rounder than leaf buds. If there is a question, cut a few buds open with a knife or single edged razor blade and look for the flower parts.
Some fruit trees bear flowers on short fruit spurs. Watch for these on apples, pears, and ornamental crabapples.
And don’t limit yourself to fruit trees either. There are the standards like forsythia and pussy willows, but you can also force azaleas, magnolias, dogwoods and Rhododendrons.
In all, there are over 30 different trees and shrubs that can be forced to produce their flowers or catkins. Some are scented and others forced for shape, form and color. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of forcible branches and the time it takes to get them to bloom at: bit.ly/36eqIOo.
Select branches at least 12 inches long, pruning them flush with the trunk or main branch. On shrubs such as forsythias and pussy willows, the branches can be several feet long, but look for the branches that have the highest bud count per foot. By pruning flush, the wound will heal over quickly, with little danger of insect or disease damage. Be sure to use sharp pruning shears to minimize damage.
Once the branches have been cut, bring them indoors and place the stem ends in water immediately. If possible, totally submerge the branches in room temperature water overnight. A washtub or bathtub works well for this. This soaking allows the branches and buds to begin to break dormancy and rehydrate. Following this, place the branches in a bucket or watering can filled with warm water. Water may need to be changed often to prevent it from becoming foul, and a homemade or commercial preservative can be added. Branches cut later in the season will take less time to bloom.
Another method, if soaking isn’t possible, is to place the cut ends of the branches directly into buckets of water and mist the branches frequently the first few days. A piece of damp burlap can also be wrapped around the branches to help maintain high humidity. After spraying or soaking, the branches are ready for forcing.
To develop the flower buds properly, the branches should be placed in a relatively cool place (60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and away from heat sources and sunlight. Higher temperatures will cause the buds to develop rapidly, but size, color, and quality may be sacrificed. Cooler temperatures will slow the process so it’s possible to do one cutting of branches and space the flowering times by subjecting the stems to differing temperature regimes. Along with higher temperatures often goes lower humidity, which may cause buds to dry out and fall off.
Branches need light for forcing, but not direct sunlight. Heat from direct sun is too intense. If you remember the springtime conditions when these plants bloom naturally, it will be easy to remember the conditions they need.
To help the buds open and keep them from drying, mist the branches occasionally during the forcing period. The closer to spring that the branches are forced, the shorter the time required until bloom. Branches of azaleas, forsythia, mulberry, flowering almond and redbud will flower before their leaves emerge while the branches of the fruit trees and pussy willows may often flower after their leaves emerge.
When the flower buds are well developed and showing color, remove the branches from the buckets and arrange them for display. Branches that are removed from the buckets at this stage are less likely to have bruised and broken flowers. Arranging the branches at this stage also allows the enjoyment of watching the flowers open.
Flowering branches may be displayed with other flowers, foliage plants, or by themselves for striking displays. The branches should be kept in a bright, but not sunny location. They will last longer if they can be moved to a cool (40 to 60 degrees) location at night. So, on the next day when it’s above freezing go out and do some pruning, bring the branches indoors and keep growing.
Don’t throw away those wood ashes from your fireplace or wood stove. These ashes can be spread over your gardens, added to your compost pile and even your lawn as the ashes contain potassium and important trace elements. The ashes shouldn’t contain large pieces of charcoal, and always make sure that they are cold to the touch. They can also be stored in metal cans (with tops) for use later in the season.
Late last spring, there was a shortage of several types of garden fencing including chicken wire. Now’s the time to start shopping for these kinds of items that were in short supply last year.
Continue to prune fruit trees, but be very careful not to prune any spring-flowering ornamental trees until after they’ve flowered.
Inspect your houseplants for scale, both hard-shelled types and the soft types like mealybugs. Use a 10x loupe to inspect for spider mites and, if found, wash the foliage with water and repeat every four to five days.
It may already be too late to order some plants and seeds from the internet and catalogs. Seeds that arrive now for later planting should be kept in a cool dry spot and out of sunlight. No need to refrigerate and never, ever freeze them.
We had some pretty cold nights last week, and you may be wondering how this affected your outdoor plants. Most of our plants, even the marginally hardy ones, can handle a few nights down into the lower teens. Of more serious concern are periods of many nights with very cold temps. It’s not so much the cold, but the length of the cold and how far it penetrates into the root zone. Snowcover always helps, when we have it, adding an R factor of 1 for each inch of snow.
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