Forcing is the process of conning a flowering plant to bloom before it wants to. It is commonly thought to be advanced horticulture – if that isn’t an oxymoron – but not so. Often nature does it just by accident. Did your forsythia bloom during a tropical spell one January? That’s forcing, and if it can happen by accident, you can do it on purpose. Here’s how.
Put some warm water in a bucket. Go out and cut off a bunch of long branches and put them in the bucket. The forsythia probably needed pruning anyway, so cut plenty. Use pliers or a hammer to smash the cut end. Now they want a period of cool and humid, a root cellar. You don’t have a root cellar, do you. Neither do I. So I fake it.
Put the bucket of cut branches in the coolest part of the basement or in an attached garage. The colder it is, the longer it will take to break dormancy, but the warmer it is, the greater the chance that the buds will blast and you will get nothing. Mid forties is perfect if you can find it. Slip a garbage bag over the top and tuck it under the bucket; that will keep the humidity in.
In a two or three weeks the buds should begin to swell. You’ll need to check every couple of days at this point and catch them just before they open. Choose the stems with the plumpest and moistest buds and throw the rest out. That’s why you cut so many in the first place.
Arranged in a large vase they will give you spring in February or early March. They will also give you an ungodly mess as the petals fall, but who cares. A few moments with the vacuum cleaner is a small price to pay for that precocious display, especially when it isn’t me wielding the vacuum.
Is all that cool room and bagging and checking too much for you? Look for a willow. Pussy willows are outside preparing to bloom right now, if you can call it a bloom. Still, the fuzzy little catkins have their charm. And let’s face it, anything looks good this time of year.
Here’s the drill with pussy willows. Cut the branches, put them in a vase, and put them on the dining room table.
What? You don’t have a pussy willow? Well, you should, if only for these early spring arrangements. But don’t plant it center stage; it a useless shrub for most of the year. Unless you have a rabbit. Rabbits love willow.
I have a fasciated willow, hard to find but a plant worth looking for if you’re a power flower arranger. Many of the stems are twisted and end in a splayed tip that breaks out in a burst of catkins in spring. There is also a contorted willow with stems like Harry Lauder’s walking stick.
Here’s a forcing technique a little more involved but not really hard.
A real gardener moves plants around the way a housewife moves living room furniture. If I’m planning to move a plant in the spring, it isn’t much trouble to dig it up a few months early, during a thaw in February, and put it in a pot. Give it a month of cool but not freezing temperatures, them move it into a bright window. With luck you’ll have blossoms in March. And as a bonus, with the plant in a pot, you can take your time deciding on its new spot in the garden.
This works well with small shrubs like azaleas and miniature roses and with perennials that normally flower in May or June. Or sometimes it doesn’t. It gives me the opportunity to garden in February and a shot at having flowers while there is still snow on the ground. What more can you ask?