For inspiration and tips on how to get a jump on the season, we turned to floral designers Joyce Holland and Steven Clouthier at Stoneblossom in East Greenwich. If they can’t find what they want at market, this talented duo forces a bunch of early blooms. Known for their artful and unusual arrangements, the designers incorporate flowering branches in a number of ways: with other flowers for added interest or simply alone, staged in see-through containers. “By themselves in clear glass vases of various heights, branches create a dramatic look,” Clouthier explains.
Branches: do it yourself
Most flowering shrubs, like sunny forsythia, develop their buds in the fall and can be forced after they’ve experienced a cold, dormant period. Woody branches, such as cherry, are best coerced after buds begin to swell, normally several weeks ahead of their natural bloom time. Here’s what our experts advise:
• Select branches with plenty of flower buds (flower buds are larger than leaf buds). Using a sharp knife or pruning shears cut each branch at least twelve inches long.
• Bring indoors and remove lower leaves. Smashing stems may help speed the process along, but according to Clouthier it can also lead to bacterial growth and impede water uptake. Instead, ‘”make small slits in the end of the stems in a star-shaped pattern,” he says.
• Stand stems in a bucket of tepid water and place them in a brightly lit room, not direct sunlight, at a temperature of about sixty degrees. Mist every few days to prevent the buds from drying out.
• If they’re for a special event, branches can be stored, once they’re open, in a cool area (forty-five to fifty degrees) to keep the flowers looking their best. For greater longevity, add a floral preservative to the water.
Rule of thumb: the closer the bud is to its normal blooming time, the shorter the wait. Try your hand with any of these candidates:
Witch hazel The earliest of all; yellow flowers.
Dogwood Large pink or white blooms.
Magnolia Either saucer magnolia or star.
Pussy willow Easy and long-lasting. Consider drying when blooming is over.
Cherry, plum, peach Petite fragrant flowers.
Apple and crabapple White, pink or red.
Mock-orange Drop-dead scent.
Pear Tufts of white.
Japanese quince Brilliant red-orange flowers.
Cornelian cherry Yellow.
Honeysuckle White or pink and perfumed.
Lilac Force for brilliant green leaves.
Redbud Rosy pink.
Bulbs: do it yourself
“It’s best to plan ahead if you wish to force spring bulbs during the winter,” says Clouthier. Usually bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths are potted during October since most bulbs require a cold period. Pretty hourglass vases designed for forcing allow you to see the whole picture, including roots. Create one arrangement today and another next week for a succession of blooms.
• Unlike bulbs planted outdoors, forced bulbs sit on or just below the soil’s surface.
• After potting, store them in an unheated attic or garage, anywhere that’s above freezing but below forty-eight degrees. The fridge also works. Pop the pots in plastic bags (punch a few air holes) and tuck them in a corner far from fruits and veggies.
•In ten to twelve weeks, move the pots to a cool (about 60 degrees), sunny room. Water as needed. Pots should remain slightly damp, but not wet.
• Paper whites and soleil d’or, which don’t require chilling, can also be forced in water. Set the bulbs on pebbles or gravel in a shallow container. Add water just to cover the bulbs’ bottoms. Store the bulbs in a cool, dark room until roots develop; then move to a bright locale.
Sadly, most bulbs that have been forced won’t flower again after they’ve used up all their stored energy. One exception is amaryllis, which will bloom again with a little coddling:
• After the flower dies, trim the stalk back to one inch atop the bulb. Don’t trim leaves. Keep watering and feed regularly with a houseplant fertilizer.
• Around mid-August, begin withholding water. Let foliage die back naturally. Store the bulb in a cool, dark spot for at least eight weeks.
• Five to eight weeks before you want a flower, repot in fresh potting soil and water sparingly until sprouting begins. Increase water; place in a cool room with bright but indirect sunlight.
Tip: Check nursery catalogs for bulb varieties that are best for indoor use. White Flower Farm (www.whiteflowerfarm.com) and Dutch Gardens (www.dutchgardens.com) carry pre-chilled bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and anemones.