Springing Into Spring
Winter’s tantalizing weather likes to keep us guessing, switching from grey to golden and back again in dizzying flip-flops. If spring is definitely flirting with us, there are still weeks if not months of dim and chilly days to get through before her long awaited abundance of blossoms appears. Can’t wait? Though we can’t speed up the seasons (and really shouldn’t try), we can persuade some willing woody plants to offer a little preview of coming attractions. Fruit trees are already plumping up their buds, as are willows, forsythia, and camellias. With a little encouragement, corylopsis, viburnums, daphnes, and some magnolias will flower indoors long before they would in the garden. When spring remains cold and long drawn out, even the sight of fresh green (or purple or pink or copper) foliage is as welcome as rain after a drought.
Fortunately, creating an indoor bower of bloom is very simple. For starters, fill a deep bucket with tepid water, grab your pruners and head for the garden. Already, many a flowering shrub or tree is preparing to burst into blossom, as you can tell by the swelling of their buds. When you find likely candidates, cut long stems, at least 18 inches, or as much as 3-4 feet long for the most dramatic displays. Plunge them into the bucket immediately to keep the cut ends from starting to seal over, which makes it harder for the stems to take up water. If you have a larger tub available (long under-the-bed storage bins work well), arrange the cut stems in it and add water until stems are completely submerged. Let them soak overnight or even for a couple of days before preparing them to shine indoors.
Tall, narrow containers are ideal for keeping cut stems well hydrated indoors. Before making an arrangement, strip off any buds that would be below water level in the vase, since they’re prone to rot. Trim stem ends again to suit your containers, angling the fresh cuts to expose more inner bark, which helps stems absorb more water. If woody stems are hard, bang the cut ends gently with a hammer to mash them a bit, which also promotes water uptake. To avoid damaging fragile emerging flowers, arrange the stems while their buds are still closed. Florists’ frogs will help: these flat bottomed devices of metal or glass have wire mesh or tubular holes on their top surfaces that help flowers stand up straight. When leggy stems want to flop, a sturdy frog will keep them elegantly composed.
Whether for flowers or foliage, expanding buds need plenty of water, so check water levels daily and top them off as need be. Also, mist your arrangements with fresh tepid water once or twice a day to keep them from drying out as the buds open. If you have extra packets of florists’ cut flower food, add one to each vase. If not, add just a few drops of bleach to each vase, change the water often and re-cut stems a bit every time you change the water. Until the blossoms open, keep arrangements warm but not hot, preferably between 55 and 65 degrees F. If the vase water becomes discolored over time, change both the water and the vase and rinse the stems before putting them in a clean container. If stems feel slimy, rinse them thoroughly, gently brushing them with a soft nail brush. Next, re-cut them a little, removing perhaps half an inch of old stem each time you change the water.
Breaking Into Beauty
Buds usually begin to break open within a few days, though tighter ones may take a week or so. Once open, most of these early bloomers will last in beauty for a week or more, especially if you keep your house on the cooler side. To prolong the display, place cut arrangements out of direct sunlight and well away from forced air heaters. Placing the containers outside in a covered area at night will also help keep the flowers and foliage in good condition. When the flowers start to flag, cut a new batch of stems and start again. You’ll probably notice that the next batch of stems open sooner than the first ones, since spring has been quietly encouraging those outdoor buds to open, though more slowly than your indoor crop.
By February, you’re likely to find fattening buds on both ornamental and edible fruit trees, notably cherries and plums, as well as pears, apples and crab apples. Witch hazel, forsythia, and dogwoods are also good candidates for February forcing, as are quince, Deutzia, and hawthorn. Mid-month, corylopsis and fothergilla buds may already be starting to pop, along with star magnolia, redbud, and all sorts of pussywillows. Since all willows will happily root in water, add a few stems of curly willow to give arrangements pizzaz, and pot up the rooted cuttings when the blossom show is over. Those forsythia stems are also eager rooters, and they too can be potted up as gifts to your garden or to share with friends. Onward!