As American horticulturist and writer Elizabeth Lawrence once said, a garden is beautiful in all seasons. While some may dispute that statement, if planted with thought and purpose, a garden truly can provide some form of beauty year-round, even when the flowers have perished.
For some budding gardeners, that concept may require time and an adjustment of perspective, yet for more seasoned gardeners, finding the beauty in a garden’s skeletal remains and shadows comes naturally. After all, a true gardener is not ageist, just patient and accepting of nature’s life cycle.
But sometimes patience wears thin, and smart gardeners know there are tricks to make spring come a little early. Through the technique of “forcing,” eager flower lovers can prune spring-flowering trees and shrubs to bring inside and bloom. The term “forcing” may sound severe, but it is a harmless and easy, time-tested process that can cut the waiting time by weeks and even months. While it is not complicated, it is important to follow the process properly to avoid harming the plant.
The first step is determining what tree you want branches from. You may be limited by what you have growing in your yard. If you only have forsythia but you love quince and your neighbor has one, ask if you can prune the shrub. It is the best way to get a nice bunch of branches while helping the plant grow for the upcoming season. Coincidentally, February is an excellent time to prune trees back for the spring, so you’d be doing them a favor.
How to correctly prune a tree or shrub:
• Make sure the temperature is above freezing. Pruning in milder temperatures helps ease the transition the branches must make from outdoors to indoors.
• Use a pair of clean, sharp garden pruners; you do not need lops unless the branches are long or thick.
• Cut from the bottom or back, selecting branches that will not interfere with the shape or form of your shrub or tree. Cut branches that are at least one or two feet long for the most impact.
• Choose branches with lots of buds, especially if they are starting to swell, which means they will bloom faster.
• Always cut branches on the diagonal. Cutting on an angle ensures proper water uptake.
How to force branches like a pro:
• Bring branches inside and place in a bucket and fill 3-4 inches with room-temperature water. You may place them in a cool area or in a heated room, but not by a heater.
• With a florist knife or your pruners, make several slits just up from the cut, approximately 2 inches; this will increase water uptake, which they will need to bloom.
• The next day, either leave branches in the bucket or place in an appropriately sized vase. Change water and recut the ends on a slant.
• Place container with branches in a bright room but not in direct sun.
• Every few days, change the water to prevent bacteria growth. Do not add any floral preservatives.
• Once the buds begin to crack, spray the blossoms with a mister and continue changing the water.
By following these steps, your branches should start to show color within a few weeks. Larger trees often take more time to bloom than shrubs.
Here is a list of the best trees and shrubs for forcing with the estimated average time it takes for blooming indoors:
Forsythia — 1 week
Lilac — 4 weeks
Cherry — 4 weeks
Crab apple — 4 weeks
Flowering almond — 3 weeks
Flowering quince — 4 weeks
Redbud — 2 weeks
Spirea — 4 weeks
Wisteria — 3 weeks
Every now and then, a branch just won’t bloom even after you continue to re-cut the stems and that is OK. Just go back and try again but make sure not to cut too many branches unless your goal is to prune back the plant.
Forcing branches now will give you a little preview of what’s around the corner, depending of course on the weather. It is also a fun activity to do with children. How exciting it can be eating breakfast while staring at a vase of fresh-cut branches, waiting for the buds to swell and finally catching that first glimpse of color.
Carole A. Langrall has been in the floriculture industry for over 20 years, from working with South American flower growers to opening floral event studios in Santa Fe and Baltimore. As a Master Gardener, she educates and lectures on the importance of native plants, beautification projects, and environmental art. She is available for demonstrations, classes and special events; see flowerspy.com