REESER MANLEY

Forcing branches of flowering trees and shrubs

Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 3:14 p.m.

By early March, gardeners are aching to be in the garden. Why not get a head start on pruning garden trees and shrubs and, at the same time, bring a touch of early spring into the house? Branches of many woody plants can be forced into early flower in late winter, providing a glimpse of the season ahead.

Trees and shrubs in the garden that lend themselves to forcing are listed in the following table.

Plant, bloom color, time to force

Forsythia, yellow flowers, 1-3 weeks

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood, yellow flowers, 2 weeks

Poplar, long lasting, drooping catkins, 3 weeks

Pussy Willow, catkins, 1-2 weeks

Red Maple, pink to red flowers, 2 weeks

Swamp Alder, long yellow male catkins, 1-2 weeks

Birch, long lasting catkins, 2-4 weeks

Flowering Quince, red to orange flowers, 4 weeks

Hawthorns, white, pink or red flowers, 4-5 weeks

Apples and Crabapples, white, pink or red flowers, 2-4 weeks

Oaks, catkins, 2-3 weeks

Lilacs, many flower colors, 4-5 weeks

Spirea, white flowers, 4 weeks

Serviceberries, white flowers, 2-4 weeks

Beech, flowers in drooping spikes, 3 weeks

Take cuttings from your garden plants on a mild afternoon when the temperature is above freezing and the stems are soft and pliable. This will ease the transition from the cold outdoors to the warm indoors. As you prune to shape the tree or shrub, removing competing, crowding and crossing branches, set aside cuttings of younger shoots at least 12 inches long with abundant flower buds, distinguished from leaf buds by their larger size and rounder shape. If in doubt, cut open a few buds to look for leaf or flower parts inside.

Make sure that you prune with thinning cuts, removing each branch where it meets another branch. Each pruning cut should be through the wood that you are removing rather than flush with the branch that will remain. At the same time, do not leave a noticeable stub where the removed branch once grew.

Select for forcing only branches that are well budded. Also, remember that many fruit trees, such as apples and crabapples, bear flowers on short shoots called spurs.

Once inside with your collection of cuttings, fill both the sink and a bucket with warm (100 degrees) water. Many experts suggest adding a floral preservative (see sidebar for recipes) to the water to promote hydration and retard bacterial growth.

Holding the stems underwater in the sink, cut them at a sharp angle an inch or two above the original cut. Split the stem in half on larger branches (more than a half-inch in diameter) with an inch-long lengthwise cut that exposes more of the water-conducting tissue to the forcing solution. Making these stem cuts underwater prevents entry of oxygen that could block uptake of water.

Immediately place the stems in the bucket of warm water and set it aside in a cool place where the temperature stays between 60 and 65 degrees, then arrange the stems for display as the buds begin to show color. Alternatively, you can immediately create an arrangement and place it on display in a cool location for all to watch as the buds slowly swell and open. Remember, high temperatures speed up bud development, but reduce the size, color and keeping quality of the blooms. Keep the arrangement away from direct sunlight and away from any direct heat source, such as heating vents or the wood stove, that would dry out the buds. A cool location with bright, indirect light is best.

Change the water and add new preservative each week. If the surrounding air is dry (often the case in rooms with a wood stove), mist the arrangement with water several times a day to keep the bud scales moist until flowers or leaves emerge. Once the buds open, a process that can take one to several weeks, the blooms should stay fresh for at least a week and often longer.

For a succession of forced blooms for several weeks, cut a variety of branches at various times. Treat yourself to an early spring.

Homemade Floral Preservatives

You can purchase floral preservatives or make your own. Here are a couple of recipes.

2 cups lemon-lime carbonated beverage

2 cups water

½ teaspoon household chlorine bleach

OR

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon household chlorine bleach

mix with 1 quart water

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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