January and February are months of restlessness for Yakima’s Zone 5 gardeners. While the winter wonder of bark and berries, conifers and cones and frosted foliage is appreciated, I find myself yearning for something fresh and alive. Even the dried arrangements that were stunning centerpieces in my home in November have lately lost their luster. The good news is that gardeners in cold climates like ours can gain an early glimpse of spring thanks to the age-old process of “forcing.”
Forcing tricks barren branches into thinking it’s spring, so they’ll unravel silk blossoms and verdant green leaves when taken indoors. Spring-blooming trees and shrubs form their flower buds during fall, and after at least eight weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees, their branches are capable of blooming if you can provide them with the perfect environment. Here are some simple steps to follow:
Using sharp pruners, make an angled cut on pencil-thin branches with enlarged flower buds (which tend to be rounder and larger than leaf buds.) Do this on a sunny afternoon or when temperatures are above freezing. Bring the cut branches indoors and strip the buds, twigs and leaves from lower sections of the stem that would eventually be underwater when placed in a vase. Make a slit or two in the bottom of the stem in a star or cross pattern before putting stems into a bucket of water (or, if possible, submerge the entire stem in the bathtub overnight). This begins to break the branch and bud’s dormancy. Then move the branches to a cool area (60 degrees) in indirect light. Warmer temperatures and brighter light can cause buds to develop too rapidly and prevent them from opening properly.
Change the water every two to three days to keep it fresh. The low humidity in Yakima homes may cause the buds to fall off, so try to keep the branches misted (and, if you can manage it, wrapped in wet newspaper). Depending on the type of branch and when you cut, you should see buds swell and begin to open within one to six weeks.
At this point, move the stems to a brighter location and use them in arrangements. Cool temperatures around 65 degrees will prolong the blooming period.
A word of caution before you dash out the door, pruners in hand: There have been memorable years when I was a bit overzealous in my harvest of dormant branches. While they were thrilling in my indoor arrangements, when May arrived the donor plant looked like the victim of a very bad haircut that took a whole season to grow out. Be prudent when pruning, always maintaining an attractive shape for your blooming shrubs.
Remember too that when it comes to fruit trees, the blooms you remove in February were destined to be the summer or autumn harvest. Avoid those awkward conversations like I’ve had with my husband, when he wonders why there are so few apricots and plums. Where did they all go?
For cutting as early as mid-January, try forsythia, witch hazel, poplar and willow. These take 2-3 weeks to force and are easy. In February, add maple, alder, apple, crab apple, quince, cherry, apricot and pear to that list. In March, try hawthorn, honeysuckle, mock orange, lilac, spirea, magnolia and dogwood. These March varieties are a bit more difficult and may need a month or more to bloom, so be patient while you await your reward: the almost magical emergence of fresh flowers and foliage in the harsh days of midwinter.