, Salem, MA

February 28, 2014

North Shore Gardener: Forcing a little bit of spring indoors

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — I’m branching out! I’m forcing spring flowers. I’m going to force branches of flowering trees and shrubs, and then I’ll know that spring will come a little sooner.

It’s already the end of February — early mornings are brighter, days are getting warmer, and afternoons are getting longer. Spring — we’re almost there! We got through Groundhog Day, St. Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, and in another few weeks, we go on to daylight saving time, March 9.

Can spring be far behind? Soon, it will be St. Patrick’s Day, and it will be time to plant peas. I can’t wait! Spring’s coming — I can smell it in the air! The groundhog saw his shadow, but that means there are just six more weeks till spring, no matter how you count.

On the very next day that the temperature is above freezing, carefully take a walk around the still-frozen garden. Put on your boots and mittens, and put your pruning shears in your pocket. Don’t even bother looking down at the snow and mud — we know the garden is still frozen, and there are no snowdrops or crocuses brave enough to be seen quite yet.

Instead, look up to the bare branches of fruit trees and flowering shrubs that are showing their fat buds, just waiting for sunny days to show you what spring is all about. These are the branches that you can bring into the warm house and force to bloom or leaf within a few days or weeks.

Of course you are going to force forsythia and pussy willows. Forsythia and pussy willow are two of the easiest and most reliable branches that you can force. But they are just the beginning — traditional forced flowers include fruit trees, like apple, pear, and the easiest, flowering crabapples.

Q: Can you cut branches right now to force or will you hurt the plant? I plan to do my pruning later in the spring ... your opinion please.

A: You can do a little light trimming now of any flowering tree or shrub. Real pruning of spring blooming shrubs is done immediately after they bloom. But you’re not pruning — just trimming a bit — and you’ll never miss a stray branch or two that you’d prune anyway. It’s the perfect time to cut that stray branch, the one that scrapes the car, blocks a view, or allows the squirrels to climb onto the feeder. The tree or shrub will never know the difference. You can’t possibly have any guilt because the branch will not be wasted. You’re going to take these branches into the house and enjoy them as the tiny flowers and leaves uncurl.

Q: Forcing forsythia reminds me of kindergarten when the teacher had a branch of forsythia blooming on her desk from Valentine’s Day on. What else can you bring indoors to force? What about lilac, magnolias, dogwood, azaleas and rhododendron? I see a few of these at florists, but is it possible to force at home?

A: These later-blooming branches take more time and patience to force successfully. Their branches can be cut after the buds are well-formed, in about another month. It takes weeks of careful climate control and feeding. If the buds aren’t mature, they simply will be too tiny to open and will often yellow and drop before blooming. Try a few stems of these more difficult to force branches, and you’ll understand why the florist can command prices of $3 to $5 per stem for these early beauties. It’s a lot of work and very uncertain. Stick with fruit trees, willow and, yes, forsythia for more dependable forcing.

How to force any woody branch in water, whether it is flower or foliage:

Woody stems need some help to bloom beautifully. Cut the branches during the warmest part of the day. Mash — really beat the stems to a pulp — the bottom 2- to 3-inch ends of the stems with a hammer or rolling pin to allow better water absorption. Place the branch in a bucket of warm water immediately after mashing. If you have room, soak the entire branch in lukewarm water for a few hours (the bathtub is a perfect place). Total submersion will allow branches to take up maximum amounts of water.

Q: How long will it take a branch to bloom? My daughter is getting married, and I want to use these flowers on tables — it’s certainly a lot cheaper than bought flowers.

A: That depends on how close it is to its normal blooming time outdoors. As the spring season gets later, the blooms come out more quickly. You could have flowers on forsythia in as little as a few days, but magnolia or lilac might take a month or more to force into bloom.

Keep the humidity high by misting daily. Your aim is to make the branches think it’s a cool, misty, rainy spring day on the North Shore. Leaves and buds will dry out if the humidity level is too low. Florists often wrap branches in damp newspaper paper to counteract dryness during the first days of the forcing process, especially with the later-blooming flowers.

Keep the branches in a pail of water in a cool, but very bright spot — an unheated porch or hallway might be a good place. No sun is necessary, just very bright light. Change the water in the container every few days, if possible. Branches are thirsty — watch the water level and replace it as it is used. Allow plenty of time for the flowers to develop when forcing.

Think of early spring storms as nature’s way of pruning. Down come dead wood, crossed branches that rub, and branches that are growing at a wrong angle. But why waste a big branch? If an ice storm knocks it down for you, say “thank you” and use it. Even if it’s not going to bloom, tiny leaves will unfurl before your very eyes.

Get wild! Bring in any large branch and stand it in a bucket of water or the Christmas tree stand — treat it just like a smaller branch. In a few weeks, enjoy a little tree as it blooms. You can send it to the compost later.

Q: Can I force whole plants? I know I have too many ferns, so I wouldn’t miss a few. Besides, my neighbor wants some for her garden this year, and I forgot to dig some last fall.

A: Branches aren’t the only spring flowers that you can force into early bloom this month. As the ground thaws out, dig up a tiny early-blooming plant and pot it for the windowsill. Try forcing a violet or small fern. Watch it unfurl on the windowsill where it can be closely observed. Later in the spring, the same plant can be replanted in the garden.

This week’s dirt: In just a week, on March 9, get ready to set your clocks ahead.

It’s spring forward, fall back in case you’ve forgotten.

Daylight saving time began in 1905 in order to give farmers more light hours to do chores in the evening. Over the years, it has been thought to produce power savings and to lower crime and accident rates, but it really didn’t become universally popular until 1918, at the time of World War I.

Daylight saving time, summertime or daylight stretching time — whatever you call it — all are a hint that spring is really coming.

North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at