The weather this year has been a bit of a roller coaster. One day it feels like spring, and the next, we are reminded that we’re still in the middle of winter. Despite some of the warmer temperatures we’ve had this year, we still have a way to go before the warm weather sticks around for the long haul (the median last frost date in Jacksonville is April 19). To help tide you over until spring, you can try forcing some spring-flowering trees and shrubs to bloom early and bring some of those spring colors indoors.
This time of year (February and March) is a great time to get pruning done on many of our trees and shrubs. While it’s typically recommended we prune spring-flowering trees and shrubs after they are done blooming, to avoid removing blooms, they can still be pruned this time of year. Those pruned branches can be forced to bloom indoors.
Plants such as forsythia, redbud, dogwoods, hawthorn, lilacs, pussy willows, and viburnums are good candidates for forcing. Fruit trees such as apples and peaches can also be forced into blooming indoors. These, and other trees and shrubs that produce flowers in the spring, produce their flower buds in the summer, and after they have had enough cold weather are ready to bloom.
When selecting branches to use, try to find branches that have a lot of flower buds. Flower buds tend to be larger, round, and plumper than leaf buds, which are often narrow and pointed. Younger branches also tend to have more flower buds than older branches. Start by cutting branches 6 to 18 inches long (depending on how you wish to display them) while making sure you are using proper pruning techniques. The best time to cut branches for forcing is this when temperatures are above freezing. Keep in mind that any branches you choose to remove will be affecting the plant's floral display come spring. It may be a good idea to take your cuttings from the less viewed side or from areas that have a lot of branches while still trying to maintain a good shape.
Once the branches are cut, bring them inside and submerge them in water overnight. While the branches are submerged recut the stems (diagonally) one inch from the base. After soaking, place your branches in a container, so they are upright and add warm water and remove any buds that are submerged. Place the container in a cool (60- 70 °F), partially shaded location. Change the water every few days to prevent the buildup of bacteria. Additionally, misting the branches several times a day will help prevent the buds from drying out.
Depending on the type of plant you are trying to get to bloom, it can take from one to five weeks for the flowers to begin to open. For example, forsythia and pussy willow generally take only one to three weeks, while crabapples can take two to four weeks. Once they do begin to bloom, the flowers will typically last about a week. To prolong the life of your blooms, keep them in a cool location and out of direct sunlight. Warmer temperatures and direct sunlight can decrease the quality of the blooms as well as reducing their lifespan.
If a branch you are trying to force doesn’t bloom after three or four weeks, don’t get discouraged and try again. The branch may have been cut too early, so collect a few more to try. The closer to a plant’s natural flowering period, the less time it takes to force the cut branches indoors.
Good Growing tip of the week: If you are looking for some other ways to get a jump start on spring attend some of Extension’s garden days: Gardener’s Palette in Quincy on March 7, 2020; Gardener’s Day in Jacksonville on March 28, 2020; and Gardener’s Day in Macomb on April 4, 2020.
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