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A House Full Of Blooms

It's that time of year when most of us are yearning for warm weather, but are still faced with chilly days.

While you can't change the weather, you can brighten up the last gloomy days of March by forcing some of your favorite trees and branches to bloom early - inside.

House & Garden magazine's gardening editor, Stephen Orr, visits The Early Show on Wednesday to tell us all about forcing branches.

"Forcing is a rather brutal term for a technique that yields such delicate results," Orr writes in the magazine. "In this easy process, dormant branches of trees and shrubs are carefully cut, brought indoors, coddled a bit, and encouraged to bloom weeks before they would normally in the garden."

The process takes some patience, but it's very easy to do and the results can be dramatic. One stem of cherry blossoms or forsythia in a vase makes quite a statement; arranging flowers doesn't get any easier.

You'll have more success forcing some trees and shrubs than others. Basically, think about the first signs of growth that you see in your yard and you'll have a good idea of where to start.

The pussy willow is one of the most familiar harbingers of spring. Fruit trees (think DC's cherry blossom festival), magnolia trees and bright yellow forsythia bushes are not far behind. All of these are candidates for forcing, or "coaxing," as Orr prefers to call the process.

The closer you are to a plant's normal blooming time, the easier your coaxing process will be. For example, forsythia and quince are both early season bloomers, making them some of the easiest plants to coax. If you live in the South, where plants are already in bloom, you may want to try forcing something that is yet to bloom, such as magnolia or lilac.

Here's what you need to do:

  1. Never, ever, start before January; plants do require a chilling/dormant period. Ideally, you want to trim your tree or shrub when midday temperatures are above freezing.

    Note: If you do cut your branches while temperatures are below freezing, bring your branches inside and submerge them completely in a tub of cool water for several hours or overnight to prevent the buds from breaking.

  2. Use sharp pruning shears or a knife to cut branches that have fresh-looking buds. Choose carefully so that you don't harm the plant's appearance; nobody wants a lopsided shrub in the yard!

    It is possible to hurt a young plant by stripping it of too many branches, but it's unlikely you'll harm any established tree or shrub. However, be sure to make a "healthy" cut. Cut the branch off at a slight angle, and cut it off the main stem at the point where the two branches meet in a "V." If you have a shrub that grows straight up, without branching "Vs," simply trim off the tops.

  3. Place the branches in three or four inches of warm water mixed with a floral preservative. Using warm water kick-starts the coaxing process. Plants will eagerly suck up the warm water, and it helps convince them that warm weather has arrived.
  4. Keep the branches in a cool, shaded place such as your garage, basement, or a drafty room. Change the water every day or every other day to prevent decay. You do not need to use warm water each time; only when you first bring the branches inside.

    Note: If, after a couple of weeks, you don't see any activity on your branches, (they look exactly as they did when you first brought them inside), you can again try placing them in warm water and trimming an inch or two off the branch's bottom.

  5. Depending on how far along your buds were when you brought your branches inside, expect the coaxing process to take anywhere from one to three weeks. When you notice that the buds are beginning to open, arrange the branches in a vase and move them to a warmer, brighter room. Avoid overly sunny, hot or dry locations. These conditions may cause the buds to fall off the branches before they fully open, a huge disappointment after weeks of work!

    If you don't place your branches in an overly hot spot, the blooms will last for weeks. The good news about forcing branches is that they look beautiful throughout a variety of stages. The branches themselves are architectually interesting.

    Once the buds have gotten big, right before they burst into bloom, they start to look colorful and pretty. Of course, once they actually are in bloom, they are gorgeous. Chances are good that the buds on your branches will bloom at different times, over a period of time, which further extends the amount of time you can display the branches.

Design tips:

Here's the most important thing to keep in mind: It's hard to make these branches look bad. Almost any way you arrange them will look good.

  • If you don't have a lot of space, just a single small branch or two in a small vase can look nice. If you go this route, Orr suggests grouping three small vases together.
  • A large clump of blooming branches is a strong statement. Be sure to vary the heights of some of the branches to add interest.
  • Other plants have such architectually attractive branches, and you don't need to put them in a big grouping to make them look beautiful.
  • Choose a container that echoes the color of your blooms.
  • Simple containers work best.

The following plants were featured on The Early Show.

Pussy Willow

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