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"Forcing Branches" For Early Spring Delight

It is now March and it seems we are all ready for an emotional, if not floral, uplift.  While "spring" has not officially arrived, we all know the reality of living in the north: it’s not really spring season yet, in fact, we may just have a “Vermont style” spring season this year, which means mud, and alot of it.  While we may already see stirrings of daffodils peaking up out of the snow, we’re still weeks away from those true harbingers of warmer weather – apple blossoms, forsythia, and lilacs.  But, don’t despair.  You can easily “force” branches of your favorite bloom inside your house – and brighten your rooms (and mood) considerably.  Step outside your front door and clip a few branches for a great deal of personal pleasure.  Whether displayed alone or with fresh flowers you will not be disappointed.

Coincidentally, late winter is the best time to prune deciduous trees and large schrubs.  I usually head out into the yard with pruners in hand starting in January.  I get a jump-start on pruning along with an early gift of spring color inside the house.  I prune  trees and schrubs for shape and remove crossing branches and old or diseased wood.

 “Forcing” branches is a rather harsh word for a technique that I like to think as “gentle coaxing” – it is persuading branches into believing that their time to bloom has finally arrived.  You can “coax” many different types of flowering shrubs and trees – but timing is everything.  First, the plant needs to be out of its dormancy phase (right now most plants are).  Second, the closer the ornamental is to its real blooming time, the less time you have to wait for forced blossoms.  

Here are some local favorites you might want to try:
Apple, Crabapple, Cherry, Pear

While forcing branches is simple to do, there are a few guidelines for helping the process along.

1.  Pick a day to cut branches when the temperature is above freezing. Forcing can be done as soon as the plant is out of dormancy. This may be as early as mid-January for forsythia and pussywillow and most everyone has forsythia.  However, for the more difficult to force ornamentals (such as crabapple, dogwood and redbud) it’s best to wait until mid-March or longer.

2.   With pruning shears or a sharp knife cut branches that have numerous flower buds (you can tell flower buds apart from leaf buds by the larger size of the flower bud).  Cut the branches like you are pruning the tree or bush – don’t disfigure the ornamental (you want it to still look pretty when the time comes for it to bloom naturally).

3.    After you bring the branches inside, split open stem bottom with clippers about 1 inch.  This will help the branches absorb water.  You may also want to re-cut the bottoms a bit to ensure that air hasn’t blocked the cut end.  Remove any buds or twigs that will be under water to prevent rot.

4.     Place in a vase of warm water.  Place in a cool location away from direct sunlight.  Higher temperatures will cause the buds to develop rapidly, but you’ll sacrifice its size, color and quality. Branches need light for forcing, but not direct sunlight. Heat from direct sun is too intense, and often drying. Remember, they need springtime (not summer) conditions to bloom.  You can also mist them occasionally to prevent drying.  You can add a floral preservative or a drop of bleach to help control bacteria.  Change water 2-3 times a week.

5.    Forsythia and pussywillow are the easiest to work with and generally take only 1 to 3 weeks to force.   Flowering fruits like apple, crabapple, pear and cherry can take up to 4 weeks.   Dogwood and lilacs can take 5.

6.    Sometimes the buds are stubborn and take longer to open.  And occasionally some buds don’t respond even to the tenderest loving care…but you can almost be certain you’ll be rewarded with bright green foliage for your efforts.  
7.    Once the blossoms are out, you can move the branches to a sunnier location.   They’ll last longer if you keep them away from heat vents at night.


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