Down to earth – when spring drags its feet … force it.

(Originally published March 19, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Forget what I said about savoring the last weeks of winter. I’m over it now and I know you are too. Spring can’t come fast enough. Sunshiny days in the 50s and 60s are just a wicked tease arriving as they still do between snow showers and polar vortices. We’re all ready for the tug of war to be over. Ready for the grass to green up and the daffodils to peak. Ready for spring to show in the trees the way it sounds in the birds’ songs. At least we can be pretty sure by now that winter’s muscles are weakening. And spring has the stamina gene. It will win out. Eventually.

Snowdrops are a very good sign that spring is on its way. They’ve been blooming for a few weeks already. Crocus is an even more gratifying sign and I did spot a few of the sweet little wild looking ones (Crocus tommasinianus) open on the last warm day. The honeybees were out that same day, working the witch hazel. And the skunk cabbage are up. It really can’t be long now. But any time the temperatures dip back down to (or below) freezing and snow shows up in the forecast, winter begins to feel interminable again. Until spring wins the tussle once and for all, I say we might as well force it.

I remember my mother displaying vases of bare sticks and twigs in our house when I was a kid. We’d chuckle and snort for weeks about how “pretty” her arrangements were (sarcasm runs in the family) until suddenly they actually were pretty—beautiful even—studded in spring flowers. Given my wonky sense of humor, my perennial disaffection for winter past February, and my vocation as a gardener, it’s no wonder that the practice of tricking tree and shrub branches into an early spring stuck with me. Also, it’s easy.

Simply cut a few budded branches, preferably those that needed pruning anyhow. Because pores close quickly, the stem ends will need a fresh cut, just like flowers do, right before putting them in a vase or bucket of warm—almost hot—water in a bright room. Woody stems need a little extra incentive to draw as much water as possible to the buds, so expose plenty of pith (the tissue under the bark) either by cutting on a sharp angle, or by using your pruners to split the stem an inch or two straight up the middle. Martha Stewart offers a third method involving a hammer. I’m all for finding ways to alleviate the maddening symptoms of spring fever, but the practice of stem smashing seems more likely to damage tissue than open its watery pathways. I could be wrong.

Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 -- 2 weeks to bloom
Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 — 2 weeks to bloom

Next, wait and watch. Change the water periodically and make fresh cuts whenever you feel especially impatient. Depending on the plant and the calendar, your vase of sticks should pop into flower in two weeks to a month or so.

Forsythia is the fastest to force and will be especially quick now that we’re only weeks away from its actual huzzah. It’s not my favorite spring blooming shrub out in the landscape mostly because it’s so common—if yellow is to be the official color of early spring, why not plant acres of fragrant lime-yellow winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and northeast native spice bush (Lindera benzoin) too? But my mom and I can tell you there’s almost nothing more hilariously cheerful in the living room than a giant vase of forsythia sticks in full bloom. Except maybe a vase of winter hazel, spice bush, crabapples, quince, or magnolia. So if spring can’t come fast enough for you, go ahead and force it.


Magnolia stellata in budThere are still summer (and spring!) blooms in my garden which is really inappropriate for a mid-November Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (Thank you, Carol for hosting).  But what really excites me are the buds revealed on my newly naked star magnolia (Magnolia stellata).  This was the first thing I planted after my Z and I bought our house two years one year, 8 months ago* and like our kids (Nino and the kittens) it was a rescue.

The magnolia was offered to me by a co-worker whose parents moved into a new home and rather than keep this stellar shrub, they preferred to junk it and plant a Rose of Sharon instead, no lie.  (The horror!)  Z and I drove over to Portsmouth to check it out – it was a good 5′ tall, 4′ wide, beautifully shaped and fully budded; we dug it up; tortured it by driving it unwrapped over the Mt. Hope bridge; planted it in terrible soil with little amendment and I proceeded to half forget about it during a drought year.  The poor thing.  Last year’s buds were pathetic and few and I hated myself for being a terrible gardener/plant slayer.  I really thought it was a goner.  But it survived.  Bloomed even.  And now it’s entirely budded up in a promise of spring splendor and I couldn’t be more relieved.

Here is further evidence that plants are forgiving of a lazy gardener:

opportunistic Tassel flower (Emilia) in a driveway cracksometimes Forsythia blooms again in the fallPurple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) - blooming when it should and going bya lonesome scuttle of peppers ('Fish' I believe)Salvia leucantha and protected Profusion zinnias

By sending this GBBD post off to May Dreams Gardens, I am also making a sort of promise to keep writing about my own garden.  And that means I’ll have to keep gardening (as if I could ever not have a garden) and maybe even follow through with all the promises I made to myself about the garden when we bought this place.  Do you find that blogging about your garden helps you keep your promises?

*time flies but not always as fast as it feels…  Hey, maybe I am still 28!