Forced branches can bring a bit of early spring into your home

Spring creeps slowly into the garden until it doesn't creep at all, then all is a rush of leaf and bloom. But that's at least a month away. For now, it creeps.

There's a bird outside practicing his arpeggios, soon to join the dawn chorus. The daffodils are in bud, and the snowdrops are long in bloom. In winter's twigworld, the buds are swelling even if their protective scales are still tight, and the overall effect is still one of hibernation.

But the buds of some trees and shrubs are now primed, and if we cut a few branches and bring them into the warmth, they can give us a jump on spring. It may take a week or two to coax them along, but when they open, that big, glazed vase on the coffee table becomes a real-life Japanese print, with dainty blossoms on dark stems. Spring has arrived, serenely.

There are many candidates for this branch forcing, all of them woody plants that naturally bloom in late winter and early spring. The choices include forsythia, various willows and Japanese flowering quince, as well as a range of prunus, specifically Japanese flowering apricot, flowering plum, flowering cherry and fruiting peach. If you have room, you might want to create your own little hedgerow of such plants tucked away in a sunny location just for this purpose.

All of these plants are programmed to bloom after relatively few winter chilling hours. The earlier you cut them, however, the longer it takes for the buds to fully develop indoors. Another consideration: Some varieties of the same plant bloom earlier or later than others.

Richard Uva, who supplies East Coast flower wholesalers from his 36-acre Seaberry Farm in Federalsburg, Md., begins to cut quince and pussy willow in early January, forsythia and witch hazel later that month, plum and peach in February and flowering cherry around now. Count on waiting two to three weeks from cutting to flower, he said.

The twigs should be in water that is changed every few days. It also wouldn't hurt to snip an inch off the bottom of each branch weekly to freshen the cut.

The Japanese flowering apricot, now in flower outside and, indeed, beginning to wind down, can be cut starting in late December.

Bob Wollam, who runs a cut-flower farm, Wollam Gardens, in Jeffersonton, Va., said he harvested an early-season variety of quince named Nivalis in late December, and it bloomed the third week of January. Its white blossoms "lasted at least two and a half weeks," he said. Next came a red-flowering variety, Texas Scarlet, in flower for Valentine's Day. You can delay bloom by keeping the branches in a cool room, but let there be light.

The sequence continues with a later variety named Toyo-Nishiki, which has pink and white blossoms on the same branch. This is followed by Cameo, with semidouble apricot blossoms.

Like a lot of plants, quince blooms sequentially from the bottom up. Barbara Lamborne, whose Greenstone Fields flower farm is in Purcellville, Va., likes to take branches when the bottom flower buds are well-formed "but the top ones are still wintry." If you wait too long for bud development, she said, the vase life is shortened.

Apart from getting the lovely jump on spring, branch forcing is a way of salvaging blooms that are about to get zapped by a freeze - an issue especially for the flowering apricot, because it blooms so early, and for deciduous magnolias, which crisp in the slightest frost.

There is another good reason to harvest branches, and that is simply to heighten your appreciation of some of these plants. I love flowering quince, but it has its limitations as a garden shrub. It can get much larger than desired, and left unpruned, it devolves into a thicket of twigs and angry thorns. In the vase, the ugly duckling turns into a swan. This transformation is even greater for the forsythia.

It may still have value in northern states, as a bright promise of spring after a long winter, but in the Mid-Atlantic, the forsythia is a one-trick pony. After flowering, it resorts to being a dull, twiggy shrub for 50 weeks of the year. But inside, in generous display, its brassy blooms work their magic. You might also lump the potently fragrant wintersweet into those shrubs that are nondescript garden plants but are perfect for cutting and forcing.

There's no rule that says you have to force things into bloom weeks early. For any spring-flowering branch, you can cut it just as it is about to flower, and over the next month or so, that includes star and saucer magnolias, flowering dogwood, redbud and crab apples.

The trick is to take enough branches to make a show without disfiguring the plant. One of the easiest plants to harvest is the pussy willow. Once the roots are robustly formed after a year or two, the winter pruning will only stimulate more growth for next year. Willows will even grow in wet soil, making them perfect for a corner of the yard where little else will thrive.

"You can cut it as much as you want, and it'll grow back," Uva said. "You can't hurt it, really."

Gardening tip:

Early March is the optimum time to start tomato and pepper seedlings, which should not be planted out until May, when frost is past and the soil has warmed. Pepper seeds may take two weeks to germinate without bottom heat to the seed tray. Keep the growing medium moist but not wet.