Bringing Spring Indoors

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

I’m trying something new today. If you’re like me, you’re going a bit loopy by mid-February. The snow just keeps on falling, you have no more room for new houseplants, and you just want to see some green or flowers. Two years ago I went to visit friends in Florida and it just rejuvenated this gardener’s soul to see the two Gs – green and growth, plus some beautiful flowers like these.

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Starburst (Clerodendrum quadriloculare)

Where was I? (distracted by looking through all my February Florida flower photos!). Back to the blog topic at hand.

Often people force bulbs like paperwhite narcissus, muscari and hyacinths in mid-winter, but in many cases that requires remembering to put the ones that require a cold period in the fridge or other cold spot (and I never remember).

Then I saw someone “forcing” flowering shrub branches and I said “I can do that!”. The key is to cut branches and fake them into thinking it’s spring and time to flower.

Under normal conditions, warming spring temperatures and lengthening days trigger flower buds to swell and open.

The process is fairly straightforward:

  • Head outside in your garden, preferably when the temperatures are above zero Celsius and it is sunny
  • Using sharpened secateurs, look for branches with plump buds and cut branches about a foot or so in length; make sure to use clean pruners and proper cuts to protect the rest of the plant
  • Plunge the branches immediately into a bucket of very warm water inside (about as warm as you can stand on your hands); the water helps move that first burst of moisture up into the stems; some people advise submerging the entire stems in water in a bathtub overnight
  • After 6 hours, make fresh cuts (see next bullet) and move branches to water-filled vases. Use narrow necked vases, bottles, or mason jars to keep the branches standing upright
  • Don’t smash the branch ends (old advice) – make a slit or two in the bottom of the stem so it looks like a cross or star pattern from the bottom.
  • Add floral preservative to the water or 1 tablespoon of antibacterial mouthwash per quart of water to prevent bacteria growth
    • Another option is to leave the cut branches in the original bucket of water until they bloom. Then they can be moved into vases, as needed
  • Keep in a cool area (no more than 18 degrees Celsius/65 degrees F) and in indirect light (warmer temperatures cause buds to develop too rapidly and not open properly and direct sun can cause bud drop)
  • Change the water weekly (adding new preservative). If the water discolours or begins to smell replace it, and in 2 to 4 weeks, the dormant flower and leaf buds should open
  • Mix the blooming branches with a cut evergreen branches for a free bouquet

Branches that are a half-inch or less in diameter work best, as do plants that flower earliest in spring. Make a fresh cut whenever the cut ends are exposed to the air for any reason – that exposure will lead to healing, and when the cut end seals, it can’t take up new water.

Among the best bets? Plants that naturally flower before May – things like fruit trees, lilacs, azaleas, rhododendrons, redbuds, witch hazels, forsythias and magnolias – species that produce their flower buds the year before.

It helps to understand each species’ different “chilling” requirements before buds are in position to open. Chill time occurs at 4 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) and less. Most spring bloomers are ready to flower after about 6 weeks of chilling, but some late-spring bloomers need eight or 10 weeks*.

* Trees and shrubs suitable for forcing from January on: Cornelian cherry dogwood, filbert, forsythia, fothergilla, witch hazel; from early February on: apple, cherry, crabapple, ornamental pear; from mid-February on: beech, birch, Japanese maple, lilac, magnolia, quince, red maple, serviceberry, willow.

What a perfect way to brighten your house in winter while impressing everyone with your gardening expertise. And best of all it’s free..

I’ll be planting some witch hazel this spring to be ready for next year!

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Here’s some other great suggestions from Ottawa Master Gardener Kira Burger on things gardeners can do to keep occupied until the snow melts.

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