Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Bring Branches in and Force Spring a Little Bit Early

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: garden, winter, pussy willow,

Cindy MurphyA string of sunny days the first week in February had me itching to start working in my gardens. But with only two days with temperatures above freezing and everything still covered in snow, there was little gardening work to be done. I sat on the back porch with my chin in my hand, pondering what I could do to relieve my gardening itch. Then it hit me – though it was still winter outside and spring seemed far away, I could have it come early inside the house.

The pussy-willow in the ravine already had nice, big fat buds – perfect for bringing indoors to force. Pussy-willows (or any Salix species) and forsythia are natural choices for forcing; they will bloom indoors so easily it’s nearly foolproof. The only effort involved is cutting branches after they’ve gone through a sufficient period of dormancy – generally anytime after January is acceptable – and putting them in a vase of water. They’ll not only bloom, but often grow roots as well. With a little more effort though, the branches of nearly any dormant deciduous tree or shrub can be forced indoors.

Pondering what to do in the snow

Species such as magnolia, flowering quince, American spice bush, flowering dogwood, redbud, crabapple, vernal witch hazel, and lilac are just a handful of flowering trees and shrubs that make good candidates for early indoor blooming. But don’t discount non-flowering species either. Birch and willow provide catkins, and their slender branches make a graceful arrangement. Shrubs with variegated leaves have interest, as do those with dark leaves such as sand cherry or purple-leafed plum. Even those that just leaf out a bright green will brighten any room during the late days of winter.

I’ve been tempted to force branches from my fothergilla; I like the fluffy white, early flowers that Keith calls “bunny tails.” But the shrub is slow growing, and cutting branches to force would have ruined its structure aesthetically. It’s important when cutting branches for forcing not to go hog wild. Cuttings suitable for forcing should be at least a foot long, and consideration should be taken if removal of such branches would disfigure the tree or shrub’s overall appearance.

Pussywillow

When making your selection, choose branches with well-developed plump buds. The plumper the bud, the better chance of success you’ll have in forcing it to bloom. Plants closer to their normal bloom or leafing out period outdoors will be quicker and easier to force indoors. The earliest flowering shrubs, such as forsythia, American spice bush, and quince, will generally only take one to three weeks to bloom. Later blooming species should be forced closer to their natural bloom – if brought indoors too early, the buds may dry out and wither before having a chance to open.

The trick to successful forcing is providing constant, sufficient moisture and humidity. If the buds become dry, you’ll end up with nothing but a vase full of dead branches. Your inside environment should mimic that of early spring outdoors. Keeping your cuttings out of direct sunlight and away from heating vents will minimize the chance that they become desiccated. Temperatures ranging from the low to mid-sixties are best.

There are different methods for forcing branches. The simplest method is to just put them in a vase of water – this is recommended for only the most easily forced species such as forsythia and willows. Other methods are more complex and involve completely submerging the branches in water for 24 hours, mashing the stems with a hammer, then wrapping the length of the branch in plastic wrap for another 24 hours to produce humidity before placing the stems in water. That may seem like a lot of effort to go through to have blooms just a few weeks earlier than nature would normally produce them; it seems so to me anyway.

But there is an easier method that works well on most species. Once you've chosen your branches and placed them in a vase, just make sure to change the water every two or three days, making a fresh cut on the bottom of the stems as you do so. Always use well-maintained pruners or a sharp knife to get a clean cut – those made with dull blades can inhibit the branch’s ability to take up water. Keeping the buds moist with daily misting helps to prevent drying. The forcing process can take from one to six weeks depending on the species and how close it is to its natural bloom period.

A bouquet in winter using forced pussy willow

The pussy-willows opened in a little under two weeks. I added some yellow-twig dogwood branches, boxwood, and variegated euonymus to the bouquet for color-contrast and interest. It’s not the most flowery of displays; the flowers of viburnum, chokeberry, and lilac branches will come later. But with a fresh layer of new snow outside, it’s nice to see a bit of springtime from my gardens inside.

I noticed this morning that the yellow-twig dogwood branches have started to break bud! It’s a pleasant surprise – though I brought them in at the same time as the pussy-willows, I really didn’t expect it to bloom, thinking it was it too early. The open buds reveal two tiny leaves on either side of a lime-green composite flower. The flowers will change to creamy white about the same time the pussy-willow catkins turn fuzzy yellow with pollen. Maybe in the meantime, I’ll start forcing forsythia to add in the vase too, for a whole new look. Experimenting is half the fun.

cindy murphy
3/6/2009 5:35:35 PM

Yep - there are different types of begonias; tuberous and fiberous are only a couple. Fiberous begonias are also called wax begonias. Dimissing them in the past in favor of more flashy, new and exciting bedding plants, I started planting them a few years ago. I got frustrated with those flashy exciting plants withering and looking anything but exciting once the typical droughts of July and August set in, preceded of course, by the feeding frenzy of Japanese beetles. There's a reason they've been around forever and are old-fashioned favorites - nothing bothers them...except frost and too much water. Annuals, they don't like the cold weather at all; if you buy them before your typical last frost date, keep them in the flats and move inside an unheated garage if freezing weather, or frost is predicted. They'll turn to mush otherwise. Same with too much water; you'll end up with snotty-runny begonias. Yuck. Even Grandma would turn her nose up at such things. Sixty degrees and sunny here too today, Dave! (The high temperature was in the teens earlier this week!) My youngest daughter and I went to the beach when she got out of school. No, no - it's not time for sunbathing yet; no sense in rushing the season. We collected buckets of zebra mussel shells.....for another gardening project.


nebraska dave
3/6/2009 8:52:38 AM

Cindy, I thought Begonias had a familiar ring to it. I tried to overplant the dreaded front door weed patch with begonias one year. No one told me that a Begonia is not just a Begonia. As it seems with the flower kingdom there are always different kinds of each plant. I think the Begonia I tried to overplant with was the tuberous Begonia which resulted in a viney growth crawling over parts of the bare dirt. Now after reading your advice and doing a little research, I find that tuberous Begonias do best in hanging plant baskets which allow the vines to hang down over the sides. As with all plants, there are hybrid Begonias which by your comment about finding the kind Grandma used to grow rules out those as being the best to grow. This brings me to the fibrous Begonias which from what I have read are best suited for outside flower beds as well as container planting. I am actually getting excited about Begonias. From what I read Begonias don’t tolerate cold too well either. We always seem to get that last frost some where in the first half of May. Real gardeners, which I am slowly heading toward, have ways of covering or moving plants to warm places to keep them from succumbing to old Jack Frost’s wintery breath. Yard clean up usually begins here in the latter part of March. An occasional snow will happen in April, but it usually is wet sloppy and lasts only until the next day. We just had another couple 60 degree days so all the snow that fell last week has melted and we are left once again with the ugly bare-tree brown landscape. I am so ready for Spring to pop. This time of the year I like to cruise through the local nurseries and look at all the wonderful plants and smell all the wonderful Spring smells.


cindy murphy
3/4/2009 6:45:02 PM

I definitely agree, Dave - there are much better ways to spend time than on money and its management. Worthwhile endeavors such as helping in disaster areas, (very cool - kudos to you!), or even the simple pleasures of listening to bird songs, smelling a spring rain, and feeling the soil with the warm sun at your back, is well worth the time spent. Oh, and coffee...sipping coffee while watching the sun rise, waking up the world outside the door is a morning pleasure that beats pouring over the Wall Street Journal in my book any day. I've never had farm coffee, but I do make a mean pot of "sludge".


nebraska dave
3/4/2009 8:27:28 AM

Cindy, I am back. I have a passion in life to help with rebuilding in disaster areas. I was in Texas by the gulf with a team of 50 doing electrical wiring for a church. The word detective website was really cool and I did get lost in it for some hours. If I’m not careful I can truly get addicted to those kinds of sites. As far as a Latte’ goes, I can’t believe people actually pay $5 for a cup of coffee that they have to rattle on for 60 seconds to order. If you really want to have fun, go into Star Bucks and order coffee black. They start searching for the key on the cash register for that and can’t find it. I can see why people put all that stuff in a Star Buck’s coffee. It’s so strong that water could be added to make an entire pot of coffee. Even farm coffee isn’t that strong. Now the Wall Street Journal, I think I once touched one. Financial wizard I am not. There’s more to life than money management. Anyway back to the flowers and things. Fiborous begonias are the ticket huh. Indestructible sounds good. If I remember right I think Lowe’s might have those already in bloom when Spring flowers go on sale. The container idea is great. That way if I happen to kill them I can hide the evidence and no one will ever know. I haven’t given up on flower gardening. Just not by the front door. I was born with this bull doggish determination that once I set my mind to so something, I’ll keep after it until I figure it out and make it work. And besides there’s just something therapeutic about digging in the dirt. The warm Spring sun, the sound of birds, watching the squirrels play in the trees all just make a body feel good inside. I really like the earthy smell after a nice Spring rain and the feel of nice rich soil under a spade. So worry not, Cindy, my escapades with flower gardening are far from over. Maybe with a little help from friends like you, I too will have flowers flourishing in my yard.


cindy murphy
3/3/2009 8:18:47 PM

Dave! You're back! Sheesh, last I heard from you, you had wandered into the Word Dectective, and mentioned something about sending the hounds after you if you didn't resurface soon. I was just getting ready to let them loose. Forget about reading the Wall Street Journal and sipping Latte - both have been proven bad for your health these days. In comparison, it's a scientific fact that gardening and even being around flowers improves both mental and physical health. Here's what you do - get a pot and plant it full of begonias. Fiborous begonias - the kind your grandmother used to grow. They are indestructable; sun, shade, drought - they'll withstand almost anything, except extreme wet. Set them on your poor man's brick patio, and gaze out at them while sitting on your veranda. You'll feel better than you would reading the Wall Street Journal anyway. Have your Latte, and drink it too. The benefits from the flowers cancel out the negative effects of the Latte. That's what I'm going with, anyway....because I'd never give up my coffee, and I drink it out on the front porch watching my gardens grow.


nebraska dave
3/3/2009 6:14:02 PM

Cindy, you are indeed a master at gardening. Being from farm country, I know how to raise corn, beans, and small grain. My Mom always had a garden on our first farm so I have a little instinct about growing tomatoes, sweet corn, beans, peas, and pumpkins. Of course they practically grow themselves with little attention. My first attempt to master flowers was not so good. Who would know that there are tall ones, short ones, wide ones, skinny ones. Some flower early, some flower late, and every where in between. Then there the ones that grow in full sun, partial sun, and shade. However full sun doesn’t mean all day sun but 4 to 6 hours of sun. I decided the best place for a flower garden was by the front door. I chose flowers that I really liked such as Tulip, Daffodil, Crocus, and Iris. I turned the soil, blended in organic compost from last year’s yard waste, planted the bulbs and was quite proud of my accomplishments. Then I waited……and waited…..and waited. Nobody told me that bulbs had to be planted in the fall to flower in the Spring. Next Spring the Crocus came up through the snow and were gorgeous. Then came the Tulip, Daffodil, and Iris. All right finally, I’ve got a flower garden to show for all the effort. Then came the dog days of summer and all the nice pretty flowers faded away and the stalks dried up and I thought they died. All I had left was a few fat bug eaten blades of Iris stalks a stickin’ up in the air and eventually the weeds took over the whole patch. Lovely sight for right by the front door. Years went by and I tried my best to over plant when the Spring flowering was done, but never did I come up with a solution to the front door weed patch. This last year I finally gave it up and ripped out the garden and installed a poor mans brick patio so now I can sit on the front veranda sipping on my Latte’ while reading all about my fortune slipping away from the Wall Street Journal. That is so not me.