Tuesday, January 26, 2021 9:50 AM
The old-time dairy farmers I once knew in Vermont always said they aimed to have half their hay still in the barn by February. By this calculation, we have just about reached the midpoint of winter, but as this has been a mild one, and an open one thus far, it hasn’t been as confining as a winter with three or four feet of accumulated snow and sub-zero temperatures. Walking the edges of our field on a recent warmish day, checking the wild apple trees for broken branches, I remembered that it’s possible to prune any month with an “r” in it — which is another way of saying don’t prune May through August — and almost got out the electric chain saw and loppers, looking for excuse to stay outside for a few hours. But the sun went behind the clouds, the impulse passed, and the temperatures dropped once again.
However, if you’d like to spend just a bit of time outside, it’s not too early to cut branches to bring inside for forcing. After at least eight weeks of below-40-degree temperatures, the branches of spring-blooming trees and shrubs can be coaxed into bloom if you provide the right conditions. To make sure they’ve experienced enough cold, branches shouldn’t be cut until after January 1 in a “normal” year or after January 15 in a “mild” year, such as this one. Many of the branches you can force right now will result in catkins, not blossoms, but they still feel like harbingers of spring once inside, and can be combined with a few purchased flowers if you want a splash of color.
For cutting right now, consider cornelian cherry, with yellow flowers, taking two weeks to force into bloom; forsythia, whose yellow flowers take one to three weeks to force; witch hazel, with yellow or orange flowers that take one week to force; or even the lowly poplar, whose drooping catkins take three weeks to force, or willows, whose catkins take two weeks to force.
Later on, in February, you can still cut these same trees and shrubs, but add to them red maple, which offers unusual pink to red flowers followed by leaves, in two weeks; alders, whose catkins take one to three weeks to force; amelanchier or serviceberry, with white flowers appearing after one to three weeks of forcing; and apples and crabapples, with white, pink and red flowers that take two to four weeks to force with doubles slower than singles. Birch, with catkins, takes two to four weeks to force; the red and orange flowers of quince take four weeks to force; cherries, with white and pink flowers, take two to four weeks to force; and pussy willows, whose iconic furry flowers are synonymous with spring, take just one to two weeks to force.
When you’re ready to get out there and spend some time cutting, prune carefully so as not to injure the plant or ruin its shape. Use sharp pruners, and cut branches at least 12 inches long with a large number of flower buds. These are most often found on younger branches. Make sure you are looking at flower buds and not leaf buds; flower buds are usually larger and rounder. If you’re not sure, cut a few buds open to see if they contain leaf or flower parts inside. Branches force more readily if cut on a sunny afternoon or when temperatures are above freezing, which is, happily, the time you most want to be outside anyway. Bring the cut branches indoors, placing the stem ends immediately in water. If you put your branches in a bucket, mist them frequently the first few days or slip them in a plastic bag, keeping them out of direct sun. If possible, submerge the whole stems in water in a bathtub or laundry sink overnight. This allows buds and stems to quickly absorb water and begin to break dormancy.
The old recommendation to improve water uptake by the stems was to smash their ends with a hammer, but this technique can have the opposite effect if you mash too hard, and the mashed ends may make the water dirty, which will decrease water uptake. It’s better to make a slit or two in the bottom of the stems before placing them in the water. I usually place branch ends on a cutting board and use a sharp knife or cleaver to do this, aiming for about a two-inch cut if possible. After cutting, place branches in a bucket of water in a cool area (60 to 65 degrees). Change the water every few days to ensure it stays clean.
Warmer temperatures may cause buds to develop too rapidly and not open properly.
Low humidity, common in many homes in winter, may cause buds to fall off, so try to keep branches misted. Direct sunlight can also cause buds to fall, so keep your container in bright but indirect light.
Once the flower buds show color, your branches can be used in arrangements. As with purchased bouquets, using floral preservatives can increase their vase life, as will changing the water every few days. Moving your arrangements to a cooler location at night (40 to 60 degrees) always helps them to last longer.
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