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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chapin

Bringing Spring Indoors

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

For gardeners, this time of the year can be downright depressing! Cold temperatures, snow, freezing rain, and ice can make spring seem like lightyears away. We can buy amaryllis, paperwhites, and hyacinths to brighten up our homes, but there is also a very economical way to raise our spirits while our gardens lie dormant under blankets of snow. I love to begin the day with a cup of coffee at our breakfast table and watch the daily progress of forsythia buds as they swell and burst open with cheerful golden blossoms. It’s only one of the flowering shrubs or trees commonly found in area gardens that can easily be awakened from their winter sleep to cheer us up weeks before warm spring breezes arrive.

Spring-blooming shrubs and trees set their flower buds in late summer or early fall the previous year, just as daffodils and tulips hide their fully-formed flower buds deep within their plump bulbs. Both bulbs and buds must go through weeks of cold dormancy before they are stimulated into bloom by warmth and moisture. In late winter, we can fool them that it’s spring inside our homes. Late winter is a fine time to prune flowering shrubs and even deciduous trees. Some of the easiest to use for forcing are pussy willows, forsythias, witch hazels, flowering cherries and redbuds. You can also try dwarf lilacs, quinces, PJM rhododendrons, dogwood, and even magnolias. And, don’t forget the more humble trees such as red maples, birches, and willows for their small but interesting flower bundles and catkins.

Taking advantage of a mild winter afternoon when the temperature is above freezing, with sharp pruners in hand, look for branches with lots of plump flower buds (compared to smaller, pointed leaf buds). The best branches for forcing are no more than about 1/2 inch in diameter, but you can cut them to any desired length. Quite long branches can be used, if you have the room, to make a dramatic display indoors.

Here’s what you do with your freshly-pruned branches: Fill a sink with very warm water, as hot as you can stand it without scalding your hands. Holding the stems underwater, recut each at a sharp angle, just above the original cut. For larger branches, you can split an inch or so of the end of each stem to allow more water to be absorbed. (The old method of smashing the ends of stems is not as effective.)

It’s recommended to then transfer the prepared stems and branches to a bucket of warm water and set aside in a cool place, like a protected porch or garage, where the temperature will stay under 60º for about 10 days, until the buds show color, upon which they can be arranged for indoors display. However, I prefer to go ahead and arrange the branches in a favorite vase or decorative container so I can watch the complete emergence of flowers and leaves. Add some flower preservative if you have some. Either way, to keep the branches healthy, change the water, and add new preservative each week. Keep the arrangement away from direct sunlight and direct heat source for the longest floral display.

Your blooms should look great for up to a few weeks, and branches that you force for their foliage will last even longer. By pruning a few branches weekly, you can have a continuous show of color well into March, when Mother Nature will take over in your gardens.

Happy gardening!

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