Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2005
Regional Report

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The brilliant yellow of forced forsythia is breathtaking, but I also love those tiny green leaves!

Bring Spring Indoors

As soon as we get even one day of late-winter weather when the temperature is inviting, I begin rambling about the yard. This is the time of year when vernal witch hazels begin blooming, which always reminds me that it's time to bring in some flowering branches to force.

Forsythia is, of course, one of the standards, and a vase full of the bright yellow flowers can bring untold happiness. My kitchen windowsill has a huge bouquet right now, and I think the part that makes me happiest is the sprouting of tiny green leaves. Yes, the blossoms are divine, but those shiny, rich green leaves are even more of a harbinger of the spring to come.

I've been forcing branches for years, and have had some great experiments as well as some failures. One of the things I've learned is that it really is too early to try this in December. Even January is pushing things since the buds may just not be far enough along to open properly. February and March are the perfect months. And then in April, they begin to bloom outdoors!

Force a Variety of Plants
I've tried forcing almost every type of flowering shrub and tree, as well as some shade trees. We don't often think of maples or oaks as having attractive flowers, but they are absolutely beautiful when viewed up close. One of my all-time favorites is red maple (Acer rubrum). These delicate, red flowers dangle at the ends of chartreuse stems, adding a spectacular oriental touch to an arrangement.

Other branches that force quite well are crab apples, apples, plums, and cherries. But you don't have to stop there! Apricots, peaches, and pears also force well, and since they need to be pruned every year any way, why not bring in the prunings and enjoy them really early in the season? Even cotoneasters will bloom indoors with delicate, pink, rose-like flowers. Other good choices include redbud, flowering quince, hawthorn, honeysuckle, and lilac. Also, don't forget the catkin producers, such as pussy willow, alder, poplar, and birch. The dangling, soft catkins are luscious additions to a flower bouquet.

When choosing what to cut, be sure to select early spring-flowering plants. Those that bloom later in the summer will not have their flower buds ready for blooming. Choose branches with plenty of plump flower buds. Of course, you can always just force branches for their leaves, another thing I love to do. The delicately lobed oak and maple leaves are quite lovely, as are viburnums, hypericums, deciduous holly, and witchhazel.

My Technique
As you begin to snip, keep in mind the overall shape of the plant. Use good pruning principles, such as not leaving stubs, taking branches all the way back to a main branch, and pruning evenly from around the plant instead of all on one side. Use sharp pruners and immediately bring the plants indoors into the warmth.

Some sources recommend pounding the ends of the branches with a hammer or slitting the stem up a few inches before putting in water, but I've found that merely giving them a clean cut and putting the entire stem in the bathtub in a few inches of warm water for a few hours works quite well.

When you are ready to arrange your stems, make another clean cut, remove any stems or buds that will be below water level, and put them in a vase of warm water. Be sure to choose a sturdy vase because woody stems are quite heavy and can tip a vase easily. Change the water every few days or use a floral preservative. Make a clean cut each time you change the water, and in two to four weeks, you should have blossoms to make your heart stop!

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