Finally, at the middle of February, the days begin to grow noticeably longer and we begin to anticipate spring. Of course, there are still several weeks of winter in front of us with the potential for more snow and ice. But I prefer to be proactive about spring activities and get started early by forcing some flowering branches.
Most spring-flowering shrubs can be forced into bloom indoors by easing them out of dormancy over a period of one to three weeks. I begin in mid-February with Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia), redbud (Cercis canadensis) and forsythia. I cut a second batch of branches at the beginning of March from mock orange (Philadelphus spp. and cvs.), shrub honeysuckle (Lonicera spp. and cvs.) and February daphne (D. mezereum). The younger branches of woody plants usually carry the most flower buds, which appear more round and puffy than the slimmer leaf buds. If you’re unsure, use a razor blade to cut a bud open and look for recognizable flower parts inside.
With a sharp knife or secateurs, cut a cross into the bottom inch of each stem to encourage water uptake. Put the cut branches into a basement utility sink or bath tub overnight, submerging them completely, if possible, in cold water for 12 hours; then stand them in a bucket or vase containing water, and set them in a cool, bright location, away from direct sunlight. (Too much heat or sunlight can cause the buds to drop.) Change the water every other day to keep it fresh and prevent bacteria from entering the stems. A floral preservative in the water will help to prolong the display.
Soon the buds will begin to swell and crack open, and then the branches can be arranged in vases wherever you want a display of flowering branches. Moving the arrangements to a cool place at night will help the flowers last longer. I’ve noticed a difference in petal colour as the result of maturing indoors, away from ultraviolet light. For instance, deeply coloured flowers like red Japanese quince (Chaenomeles spp. and cvs.) may fade to pink, although they’re still lovely.
All kinds of branches can be forced. If you have access to fruit trees, try apple, apricot, pear and peach branches. Smaller spring-blooming shrubs like azalea, cotoneaster and deutzia are pretty in mixed arrangements. Foliage branches are also beautiful to have indoors, and you can try any kind of beech, Japanese maple, willow and dogwood. Be careful where you cut and don’t take too much. It requires only a few branches to make a beautiful vase display that will gives weeks of pleasure while real spring is developing outside.
Planning for hummingbirds
Recently, I’ve spent more time than I care to mention watching an Internet web cam focused on a hummingbird nest in southern California, where the days are balmy and warm. Two tiny eggs hatched into Lilliputian-like chicks that quickly grew and fledged. The hummer mother has been nesting in the same large rose shrub since 2007. Who knew a hummingbird could live so long? This delightful experience has piqued my interest and I want to encourage more hummingbirds to visit this summer.
In recent years, a hummingbird has appeared in my garden in early spring, and then again, in early autumn. The hummer stays for just a day or two, and then swiftly disappears to a more choice destination. This is a big family event, and everyone rushes around trying to find the camera, though it’s nearly impossible to catch the image of a little bird beating its wings 53 times a second. But this hummer’s memory of a migratory flight path is bringing it back to my garden twice a year, and I wonder if I can extend his visit by providing a better choice of floral food sources. (See page 9 of the Spring 2011 issue of Garden Making for more about catering to hummingbirds.)
Male hummers usually fly ahead of the females to scout out good feeding and nesting areas. They require flower nectar for energy and insect protein for growth. Certainly red flowers (or anything red, like garage door handles) will attract their attention, and I’m planning to have lots of red and deep pink colours in my containers and borders this summer. A North American migration chart (hummingbirds.net) indicates hummers arrive in southern Ontario between April 1 and 15. I can’t be sure of dates, but I think my hummer visits the garden in mid to late May, and then again in late August.
I’m planning to have a large red hibiscus in a container, and ‘Gartenmeister’ fuchsia, ‘Lady in Red’ salvia, ‘Empress of India’ nasturtium, Lobelia cardinalis, ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ morning glory, annual cardinal climber vine and ‘Ultra Red’ petunia elsewhere in the garden.
I’ll also put up two hummingbird feeders with nectar solution made from one part granulated sugar and four parts water boiled and then cooled. The feeders have to be cleaned with hot water twice a week, and refilled when they’re low. My friend Marjorie Mason has hummers galore at her Uxbridge garden and they buzz after her when the feeders need filling. I hope my little hummer gets the idea to stay on for a while, and buzz after me, too. Ah, spring—it’s never too early to plan for a red garden.
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