In the near future, when the weather is just right, gardeners will be out getting that dormant pruning done. This includes the both fruit trees and flowering shrubs in your yard. Out there in the home orchard, pruning is for structural reasons, maintaining the scaffolds that will hold the fruit. In the home landscape, dormant pruning is for structure, as well insect and disease management.
For those that bloom early spring, gardeners have the chance to bring that beauty inside to enjoy before the outdoor spring show. After the needed pruning, look at the branches you have removed and find some with lots of flower buds. Those are the branches to bring inside to “force” blooms.
Hint: Flower buds are going to be plump and bigger in size compared to foliage buds. Flowering buds can be located on the end of a branch (as with lilac and most viburnums) or up and down the stems (like with forsythia).
Outdoors, flower buds are ready to go as soon as nature provides the right signals – both warming temperatures and the right number of “chilling hours.” (Fruit trees and flowering shrubs have different chilling hour requirements.) Those with a low number of hours will want to bloom early, think peaches for example. Those requiring many more hours will bloom later, think apples and flowering crabapples. For landscape shrubs, Alpine currant is an early bloomer, and lilacs are later.
Once inside with your selected branches, the general steps to follow are:
- Make a new cut on a long diagonal to expose as much tissue for water absorption as possible
- Wrap the branches in a wet towel or submerge them overnight to soften the bud scales
- Once in the vase keep the flower buds moist by misting one or more times a day so the bud scales do not harden and prevent flower emergence
- Keep away from a direct heat source and sunlight
- Be patient; it usually will take one to three weeks for blooms to show up, depending the plant.
- Change out the water before it gets cloudy (NO additives are needed, just fresh, clean water)
Once in bloom, flowers will last about a week. If you want that bloom show to last longer inside, cut and add more branches on a weekly basis for a succession of bloom. Flowering shrubs can take as little as a week to bloom indoors, while flowering crabapples and fruiting apples are in the two- to three-week range (and may sometimes take up to four weeks). Hint: The closer you are to the plant’s normal bloom time, the more successful you will be and the less time it will take indoors before you see flowers emerge.
With pruners in hand, head out to get the job done, knowing you’ll also bring in a little reward for your hard work now and that you'll enjoy even more when spring arrives.
About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.