Spring Fever: How To Force Branches To Bloom Indoors

Why wait for spring when you can force it to come early indoors? Spring flowering trees and shrubs are a ‘natural’ for forcing. Why? Because their buds formed in the fall before they went dormant. Once they’ve been chilled long enough, they’re ready to cut. And for many of us, that time is now.

How long does it take?

Depending on the species, branches can take 2 to 5 weeks to flower indoors. Forsythia, quince, witch hazel and pussy willow are the fastest to bloom at approximately 2 weeks. Cherry and dogwood tree branches, however, can take up to 4 weeks depending on when you cut them. In general, trees take longer than shrubs to force.

HINT:  The closer you wait to the plant’s natural bloom time, the less time you’ll have to spend forcing them indoors.


Step 1

Start by selecting a few healthy, medium-sized branches with lots of buds. The buds should be plump and look like they’re almost ready to open. Cut the branches from the tree or shrub using a clean pair of pruners, making sure to cut on a diagonal. 

Cornus alba buds

Step 2

Remove any twigs or buds on the bottom 6 inches of the branches to prevent rot. Then do one of the following: either slit the branches in several directions at the ends or mash the branch ends against a hard surface. Both methods will cause the base of the branch to splay out and encourage it to draw up more water. It will also keep the branches fresher longer.

Step 3

Submerge the branches overnight in cool to lukewarm water. (A bathtub works great.) This allows the branches and buds to quickly absorb water and begin to break dormancy. 

The furry buds of pussy willow 

Step 4

The following day, remove the branches from their bath and place them upright in a bucket or vase. Next, add warm water no higher than a few inches. Place the branches in a cool location away from direct sunlight. (Warm temperatures may cause the buds to develop too rapidly or fall off.)  Change the water every few days to limit bacterial growth.

Step 5

Once the buds begin to show color, arrange the branches in your favorite container and place in a bright spot out of direct sunlight. This will encourage the best flower color to develop. And keep away from heat sources. Spring flowering branches bloom longer in cooler temperatures. 

Flowering quince

Bonus plants

Sometimes during the forcing process, some branches will form roots. You can grow a new plant by removing the branch from water when the roots are approximately ½ inch long. Pot it up and trim the branch down to about 6 to 8 inches. When warmer weather arrives, plant it outdoors.

Best spring-flowering branches to force and when

Here are a few favorites and the time it takes to force them. This is the long end of the scale, assuming you started cutting some in February. Remember, you can shorten the time it takes to force by harvesting the branches closer to their natural bloom period.


How To Design With Naturalistic Plantings: An Expert Speaks Out

Naturalistic plantings at Denver Botanic Gardens

If you’re used to order in the garden, naturalistic plantings can seem a bit out of control. But installations such as New York City’s High Line are bringing this new, plant-driven approach more and more into the mainstream. That’s according to award-winning designer Carrie Preston of the Netherland’s Studio TOOP. She spoke recently in Maryland on how to incorporate naturalistic plantings into all types of landscapes.

Towards a new way of thinking

For Americans who are just beginning to accept this looser form of design, Preston’s style is unabashedly natural and almost wild to unaccustomed eyes. It evokes the feel of a real landscape. Or as Preston puts it:

‘Nature as we all dream it would be.’

She calls this style a kind of hyper nature. And she credits Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, creator of the High Line, with launching the movement. A leading figure of the ‘New Perennial Movement’, his designs use bold drifts of perennials and grasses in sustainable, naturalistic plantings that teem with biodiversity. 

Naturalistic design by Piet Oudolf

‘Stylized naturalistic gardens like the High Line have accustomed the public’s eye. Now we can move further with more dynamic biodiversity.’ she said. ‘If we can show that it’s deliberate, people can accept it. Step by step, naturalistic advocates are training the eye to see what’s beautiful.’

New York City’s High Line

Why biodiversity is important

Why is biodiversity important? Because it is sustainable. Naturalistic plantings are not only more drought-resistant, they help control invasive species while keeping maintenance and chemical needs low.

Until recently in America, the tendency has been to go all out in one look. The Dutch, by contrast, marry different styles in one garden. They have no problem contrasting differing historical perspectives with more wild plantings. 

So how do you make naturalistic plantings appeal to viewers who are accustomed to a single look? Or as Preston puts it, make them legible? It all starts with structure.

Clear structure tames naturalistic plantings

Successful gardens are all about balance. And a clear structure is essential to supporting and creating contrast to unstructured, naturalistic plantings. Hard landscape materials and clear lines keep the viewer from getting overwhelmed. 

One has only to look at the Dutch countryside, where drainage ditches are an iconic feature of the landscape. Long lines are part of the collective unconscious. Even the famous Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, reached a point where his art was reduced to simple geometric elements. “You learn to love lines here,” Preston said.

Drainage ditches are an iconic feature of the Dutch landscape

Preston uses strong lines to punctuate the landscape and add ‘anchors for the eye’ so the rest of the stuff can do what it does naturally. She advocates establishing clear lines with patios, walls or walkways, then blurring them with wispy, cascading plantings.

‘Think of structure as the lines in a coloring book, then color outside them,’ she said.

Below, hard lines soften wispy plantings in this simple design by the late mother of modern Dutch garden design, Mien Ruys. 

Photo: Monument | Tuinen Mien Ruys

A clear hardscape and strong structure also make messiness seem deliberate. Preston often imagines a garden as totally paved. Then she takes parts out and adds back in the plantings. ‘It’s not about what you use, but how you use it’, she said.

Studio TOOP design/Photo: Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD)

Vertical lines attract the eye

Vertical elements help to break up the view and lead the eye around the garden. According to Preston, they also help unify a design and ‘contain’ the exuberance of naturalistic plantings. Vertical elements can be massed trees, hedges, architecture or art. They can even be functional features like lamp post lights.

Below, a section of Washington, DC’s Federal Reserve Board Garden designed by Oehme van Sweden exhibiting strong verticals and the aforementioned long lines. 

The Federal Reserve Board Garden/Photo: The Cultural Landscape Foundation

A limited palette enlarges the space

Most Dutch gardens are tiny, averaging about 600 sf. To make designs more effective, Preston recommends limiting the palette to visually enlarge the space. ‘It’s all about the palette, it’s not about the palette’ she quipped.

A naturalistic garden can be scaled up or down. It all depends on what plantings you choose and your attention to details. By combining different textures, mixing the familiar with the exotic and keeping the color palette simple, you can make a small garden appear much larger. Preston likes to use one plant to hold the composition together. She calls this the ‘dough’. 

‘Grasses work great for this,’ she said.

Below, foxtail lilies provide the ‘dough’ and the sculpture serves as a vertical at the Denver Botanic Gardens. 

Many point to the revolutionary landscapes created by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden as the epitome of this kind of garden style. Characterized by broad strokes of naturalistic plantings, they include fields of perennials and grasses. Instead of the usual 5 or 7 plants, though, the groupings sometimes consist of as many as 3,000. Large swathes of same species enlarge the space visually, while repeated patterns help create rhythm and flow. 

Naturalistic landscape designed by Oehme van Sweden

Another plus is that, no matter what the size, naturalistic landscapes remain interesting all year round. In the winter, dried grasses turn a beautiful burnt gold and faded seed heads serve as receptacles for the first flakes of snow.

Great plants for naturalistic landscapes

Here are some common grasses and perennials that make great naturalistic plantings:

Amsonia (Blue Star)

Baptisia australis (Blue False Indigo)

Cranesbill (Hardy Geranium)

Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)

Feather Reed Grass

Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed)

Liatris spicata

Miscanthus sinensis (Maiden Grass)

Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan)

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Preston grew up in NJ but moved to Holland. Over the past 10 years she has become one of the Netherlands top landscape designers. In 2016, she received the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) Designer of the Year Award for her ‘Inclusive Garden.’


The Best Hellebore Varieties For Your Winter/Spring Garden

February can be a bleak time on the East Coast. Days are short and the sky hangs low on the horizon. But there’s a small-sized perennial whose early, colorful blooms never fail to lift my mood. It’s the lovely, cup-shaped flower called hellebore, commonly known as the Lenten Rose.

The four main species

The hellebore genus consists of approximately 20 species. Of these, four are typically available to the consumer. All are evergreen, deer-proof and frost-resistant. And depending on climate, they bloom anytime from mid-winter to early spring. 

The Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) has nodding, pale green flowers and holly-like foliage. At almost 4 feet tall, it is the largest of the genus. It is also the most sun-tolerant. 

Corsican hellebore

The 1 to 3-foot tall Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) bears large clusters of drooping, bell-shaped green flowers. Its unusual, deeply-cut foliage (also called Bear’s Foot) will survive winter, but often needs shearing come early spring. 

Stinking hellebore

The 12 to 15-inch tall Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) produces large, flat flowers with centers of bright yellow. Unlike the other hellebore species, its flowers lay close to the foliage. Blooms age from white to soft pink over time.

Christmas Rose

But of all the hellebore species, the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) lays claim to the showiest flowers. Its many hybrids produce spectacular blooms in all colors, shapes and sizes. It grows to just 12 to 15-inches. 

Lenten Rose

Lenten Roses also make great cut flowers. Add them to an arrangement or float them in a bowl. They’ll last for days.


Here are a few of my favorite Lenten Rose varieties:

CONFETTI CAKE (Wedding Party Series)

Part of the Wedding Party Collection, Confetti Cake features large, upright-facing blooms on sturdy stems. Other colorful members of the Collection include Maid of Honor, Dark and Handsome and True Love.

Double hellebore ‘Confetti Cake’ 


If you like deep-hued flowers, the large, purplish-black double blooms of Onyx Odyssey are the ticket. Moreover, the flowers won’t fade over time, making this variety a long-lasting companion to other spring-blooming bulbs and perennials.

Onyx Odyssey/Burpee.com


Part of the Winter Jewels Collection consisting of spectacular single and double varieties, Golden Lotus features fluffy, double lemon yellow petals often streaked or edged with burgundy. Pair it with Onyx Odyssey for a striking effect.

Helleborus Golden Lotus/Perennials.com


Shorter and more compact than the other hybrids, the deep pink buds of Ivory Prince open to single white blossoms touched with rose and chartreuse. The upward facing flowers make a soft statement in the garden. 

Helleborus Ivory Prince/Walmart.com


Part of the Winter Thriller series, Red Racer features oversized velvety-crimson blooms over dark mahogany foliage. It is regarded as the truest red variety around. 

Helleborus Red Racer

Where and how to plant

Hellebores are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. However, they perform best in partial shade. All species will expand exponentially each year, achieving a small, shrub-like shape over time.

As is the case with most plants, well-draining soil is key. Avoid planting in saturated soil. And make sure to bury the crown slightly beneath the surface, but not too low or it will hinder flower production. 

In addition to good drainage, your hellebore will benefit from an annual application of manure or compost to boost flower production. 

Caring for hellebores

Maintaining your hellebores is easy and rarely requires more than removing dead leaves. I trim off last year’s foliage just as new shoots are appearing. As a result, the flowers bloom ahead of the leaves. Hellebores look especially attractive when combined with other spring blooming bulbs, like snowdrops and daffodils.

New shoots and blooms of a purple hellebore variety

Hellebores are toxic if eaten

Like many ornamental plants, hellebores can be moderately toxic if eaten in large quantities. On the other hand, their unpleasant taste tends to deter animals (including deer!) Although rarely fatal, large quantities can prove noxious. For more information about pets, the hellebore genus and false hellebores, check out wagwalking.com’s comprehensive information


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