2016-02-25 / From The Garden


A Little Spring in Winter
By Cynthia Gibson

Winter-weary gardeners can force branches for a taste of spring. Winter-weary gardeners can force branches for a taste of spring. We are slowly getting closer to spring: You can really feel the warmth of the sun these days–as can the soil, shrubs and trees.

You may not be able to fool Mother Nature, but you can certainly speed the process. For centuries, flower bulbs and branches have been brought indoors to bring in the special fragrance of apple blossoms or the sight of pussy willows.

In February your best branches to bring indoors for forcing are rhododendron, cherry, pussy willow, apple and crabapple. The branches are the most beautiful when the flowers are blooming in contrast to the dark brown or green branches. The exception to that is the rhododendron, the great shrub that does not lose its leaves, which adds a great bonus of green leaves to the burst of color. That is a look unto itself; however, the starkness of cherry or apple blossoms against dark wood stems is far more dramatic. Chinese and Japanese brush paintings immediately come to mind, as the beauty of the branches and blossom is breathtaking. When you are forcing these beautiful flowers, you get the added pleasure of their scent.

The basics of forcing branches are quite simple.

. First, do not choose branches from shrubs or trees that have been in the ground for less than three years. If you do, you will be pruning all of their early growth and strength.

. Take a bucket of water outdoors with you, along with a very sharp knife or sharp pruning clippers. Make your cuts on an angle. Select branches that are the width of a pencil, full of buds, and 12 to 24 inches long. Places the branches in the water. You will need 12 to 20 branches for a lovely display.

. Place your bucket of branches in a sink, and with a very sharp knife peel off the dark brown bark from at least two inches from the base of each branch, placing them back into the bucket. When finished give them a warm shower from the nozzle on your kitchen sink. In lieu of a nozzle, hold the stems horizontally and give them a warm bath under running water.

. Using your knife either slice the base of the stems vertically or smash them with a hammer. Either method will help the branches to increase their water intake.

. Wrap the branches in newspaper, fill the base of your bucket with warm water and place it in a cool dark place. (Reading these instructions will take longer than the entire process). Mist the branches (the newspaper will help keep dampness around the branches as you spray). Change the water daily and after three days take them out of their dark hiding place.

. Within in a week you will begin to see the buds swelling and turning into flower buds. By week two, the flowers should be turning either pink or white. The color of the flowers depends on the variety of tree.

. Once your flowers start to open, put them in a container of your choice and place them on a table away from direct sunlight. Within days, all of the blossoms will pop to create an early sensation of spring in your home. The cooler you keep the vase of branches the longer the blooms will last.

If this bouquet does not get your spirit in the mood for spring, I do not know what will! A reminder: Easter is early this year, so prepare your branches well in advance to ensure your centerpiece provides your house with an early breath of spring.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport.

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