Marilyn's Musings

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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Forcing The Issue

Forcing The Issue

Spring Blossoms

Spring Blossoms

If you have a firm case of the winter doldrums, here is a little antidote for your blues: Force a few branches of flowering shrubs and trees into bloom! Many different types of woody plants can be coaxed into an early floral display by cutting them and bringing them indoors.

Pussy willows are perhaps the easiest to force. Trim a few branches, plop them into a vase of tepid water, and Presto! Instant spring! Others are a bit more challenging and take a little more prep work to trick them into flowering. But, don’t let that discourage you. Just read on a little more to learn how to successfully force branches into bloom.

Most buds are set on woody plants during the fall of the previous year. After a period of winter cold dormancy, they will flower the following spring. One rule of thumb is to harvest cuttings closer to the plant’s normal bloom season for quicker and easier forcing. For example, if you cut the branches of a lilac in January, chances are you will have a difficult, if not impossible, chance of forcing this early May bloomer into flowering. However, if you cut the branches of early-blooming forsythia in February, your chances of successfully forcing the buds into flowering will significantly increase.

Mid to late winter is an ideal time for taking branches for forcing. This is when many of those who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region tackle pruning chores. Instead of taking those clippings to the compost pile, take the thinned cuttings of fruit trees, shrubs, and ornamentals indoors to force. Here is the general technique that works for most of these branches:

1. Prune during the warmest part of the day and on a day when the temps are above freezing. Force these branches no earlier than about six to eight weeks before their normal bloom period. For example, if forsythia normally blooms for you by late March, then wait until very late January on to harvest the branches.

2. Cut and prune just above a bud or node. Take care to prune using good technique and sharp pruners to avoid injury to your plant. About 12 inches is a good length for your cuttings.

3. Avoid withered-appearing cuttings or those with dried buds. Flower buds should be firm to the touch. These are generally larger, plumper, and more rounded in appearance than leaf buds. Once again, the closer to normal bloom time, the quicker and easier the branches will be to force.

4. Once indoors, recut the stems, about a half-inch, under warm water. You can also hammer the ends of the branches to splay them open to receive water. Immerse them in 3 to 4 inches of very warm water for about 1/2 hour. Place in a vase. Fill with warm water and add a few drops of household bleach or hydrogen peroxide to to prevent bacterial contamination. Plan on replacing the water with more of the same solution every two days

5. Keep the branches in average warmth but away from bright light. Mist the stems to prevent excessive moisture loss. It might take between one week and a month for them to respond, depending upon the type of cutting and when it was harvested. Continue to follow this routine and they should break dormancy and bloom!

6. Once the buds are swollen and they begin to break, move them into bright, indirect sunlight. Enjoy the preview!

A Timetable For Forcing Branches For Indoor Bloom
(The Southern Great Lakes Region)
Plant When To Take Cuttings
Forsythia Harvest cuttings from late January on
Plum and
Pussy Willow
Harvest cuttings from early February on
Witch Hazel Harvest from early February on
for winter or spring flowering varieties only
Viburnum Depending upon species, cultivar.
late February to early March
Rhododendron and
Harvest cuttings from late February on
Apricot and Peach Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Redbud and
Flowering Almond
Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Pear, Apple, or Crabapple Harvest cuttings from early March on
Dogwood and
Harvest cuttings from early March on

He just might save one more life…

Sometimes we are faced with situations in life that are sad beyond belief. I faced one such situation this weekend.

My best friend lost her grandson. The details weren’t very specific in the obituary.  His name, age, the family members were all listed. Preferred memorials were to the family, so that did not give any indication of the cause of death.

His memorial reception and service was on Sunday. My husband and I went to the reception before I went into work.

My best friend could not attend the memorial because of her own health issues.  I did get a chance to speak with my friend’s daughter, the grieving mother.  It was then that I learned of why this healthy and vibrant young man died.

He was  18 years old, a beautiful young man inside and out.  Like most of us at that age, he probably felt he was invincible and nothing would happen to him. Most of us have been there. We have done stupid, illegal, or dangerous things when younger that we now look back on and think, “I can’t believe I took that kind of a risk.” Maybe it was drinking at a party and then driving home. Maybe it was engaging in some reckless activity that could have caused great bodily harm. This young man, who wasn’t really into drugs, decided for whatever reason to try to get high on a Fentanyl patch.  It only took that one time of risk-taking behavior and experimentation to be fatal. Due to his inexperience, he ingested the whole patch at once, overdosed, and slipped into a coma. Two days later, he was declared brain dead and a day later the family had to face the nightmare and heartbreak of giving permission to turn off life support, a decision no parent should ever have to face.

There was so much potential and promise of a life that will never be.  He was working at enlisting in the military.  Ironically, on the day after he slipped into a coma, a letter came from the US Air Force informing him that he was eligible for enlistment.

His mother told me that his life wasn’t in vain. He died, but lives on through the organ donations that his family authorized.

One thing she said that stuck with me since yesterday’s memorial was that through his death, her son has saved other lives. It came to me that perhaps by writing this, he will continue to save lives in another way. Perhaps there is a young man or woman who is curious and wants to experience and experiment with drugs or engage in some other risk-taking activity. Perhaps there is a parent who is concerned about their son or daughter. Perhaps they will stumble across this commentary and if so, perhaps this young man’s death will help others to make a life-saving decision. Even if  just one person  reads and takes this to heart,  through his death, he just might save one more life.

Chicken & Stuffing Casserole

Chicken & Stuffing Casserole

chicken & stuffing casserole

chicken & stuffing casserole

My mother-in-law made this with a loaf of day-old bread, torn to small pieces. You can do that, or substitute a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix or another stuffing mix for convenience.

Don’t be put off by the Miracle Whip. It really adds to the flavor blend and sets it apart from other chicken & stuffing casseroles.

Try it, I think you will like it!

Chicken & Stuffing Casserole

1 pkg. Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix
1/2 stick melted butter or margarine
1 c. chicken broth
1-1/2 c. cooked, cut up chicken (1/2 whole chicken or 2 breasts)
1/4 c. chopped onion
1/4 c. chopped celery
1/4 c. Miracle Whip
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
3/4 c. milk
1 can cream of celery or mushroom soup
Optional: 1 cup of cooked chopped broccoli
1-1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese

Mix stuffing mix, butter, chicken broth, chicken, onion, celery, Miracle Whip and salt. (Add broccoli if desired)

Spread  in a buttered square pan.  Beat the egg and mix with milk. Pour over top of mixture and let stand in refrigerator overnight or at least 6 hours.

Take out and let stand 1 hour at room temperature. Spread on 1 can of cream of celery or mushroom soup.

Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes in preheated oven. Remove and sprinkle cheese over top. Return to oven until cheese melts (10 minutes).

Marilyn’s Lasagna


Mmmm Good! Lasagna

Ah, Lasagna! Pasta, yet not quite. It is in a class all by itself: Layers of cheese, sauce, and noodles all fused together to make one beautiful culinary delight!

There are those who make their lasagna with cottage cheese and those who prefer ricotta. Personally, I like the smooth and creamy taste and texture of ricotta. It isn’t as wet as cottage cheese and spreads a little easier and doesn’t leave lumps like cottage cheese does. But, in a pinch, cottage cheese will do. Just drain it very well and run it through the blender to smooth it out, and it will work nearly as well as ricotta.

The ingredients are fairly flexible. The main thing is the sauce, the cheeses, and the noodles. Add meat, spinach, and mushrooms or not. It makes a great lasagna either way.

This makes quite a bit of lasagna. If you are expecting more guests, double the amounts.

Marilyn’s Lasagna

1 lb. lean ground beef
1 lb. good quality sweet Italian sausage in bulk
1 lb. of ricotta cheese (16 ounce container)
2-1/2 to 3 cups of GOOD QUALITY “fresh” Parmesan cheese shreds–My rant: Don’t ruin it and don’t even bother trying to make this with that stuff in the green container that passes for Parmesan. Don’t go cheap on this particular cheese!!
3 cups of shredded Provolone cheese
3 cups of shredded Mozzarella cheese
1 lb. box of lasagna noodles
4 to 5 cups of your favorite homemade or good-quality spaghetti sauce
a splash of wine for the sauce (optional)
mushrooms (optional)
3 TBSP Italian broadleaf parsley, finely chopped (can substitute regular parsley–try for fresh if you can find it)
2 cloves finely minced garlic cloves
1 egg

1. Start browning the Italian sausage until no longer pink–don’t allow it to crisp. Drain well. Follow with the ground beef and brown but don’t allow it to crisp.

2. Add the spaghetti sauce at this point and maybe 1/4 cup of wine (optional). Also add clean and chopped mushrooms (optional)

3. Add 1/4 cup GOOD quality Parmesan cheese shreds. Allow to simmer for flavors to blend.

4. In the meantime, get a big pot of water on to boil. Add about 1 tsp of salt and a splash of olive oil.

5. Once boiling, add the lasagna noodles carefully. Gently push them into the water without breaking and allow space between them. Occasionally stir the pot to keep them from clumping together. Cook until just barely done–to the “very chewy, firm” stage. Just enough to be pliable. Trust me. They will finish cooking during the bake time.

6. Drain well–rinse under cold water, gently separate the noodles if necessary. Set aside.

7. Mix the ricotta, egg, parsley, 1/4 to 1/2 cup of that good quality Parmesan shreds, garlic and blend well.

Now here is the fun part:

In a large baking dish, add some of the sauce on the bottom of the pan–about 1-1/2 cups of it. Spread it around to coat

We will be building 3 layers:

Add the first layer of noodles–you may have to cut them to fit.

Now, add a layer of ricotta mixture, 1/3 of it. “Butter” the noodle layers with it.

Sprinkle generously with 1/2 cup of Provolone shreds add 1/2 cup of Mozzarella shreds.

Add 1/3 of the remaining sauce, spread evenly.

top with 1/2 cup or more of Parmesan shreds

Add the second layer of noodles in the opposite direction. Again, you may need to trim the noodles to fit. Repeat with the ricotta, Provolone & Mozzarella, sauce and Parmesan cheese layers.

The last layer is where we get a little more wicked. After adding the noodles in the same direction as the first layer, the ricotta, cheeses,and sauce, add about 3/4 cup of Parmesan shreds, 1 cup of Provolone shreds, 1 cup of Mozzarella shreds as the final topping. You want to cover the top very thoroughly.

Cover loosely with aluminum foil

Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes and remove the foil and bake until the top has a nice golden brown crust.

Now, the secret to help this slice into squares without turning into a sloppy mess: Let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

March Gardening Calendar

March Gardening Calendar

March brings with it a sense of change, a feeling among all that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While there will still be plenty of cold days and nights ahead, and undoubtedly some more snow before it is all finished, all can sense that true Spring is just around the corner.

While most of us might hardly notice the passage of Fall into Winter, we all notice the first day of spring this month. Be it balmy or blustery, the first day of Spring marks a mental turning point: Warmer days are ahead. March is also a time when the pace starts to pick up for those of us who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region:

1.  If the weather stays consistently moderate, gradually start to remove mulch from early flowering perennials as they break dormancy.

2.  If you haven’t already done so, finish removing foliage and dead flower stems from your perennials beds. Also start trimming ornamental grasses: Remove the dried plumes and foliage. Place back any perennial that has heaved out of the ground.

3.  Although it might be tempting, leave the mulch and soil mounds around roses for a few weeks longer. There are still plenty of opportunities for more cold weather and snow in the weeks ahead.

4.  Continue to prune fruit trees and grapevines this month. Finish this task by the second week of the month at the latest.

5.  When the temperatures are above 50, apply dormant oil spray to fruit trees and deciduous ornamental shrubs and trees.

6.  Look around your yard and see where things are starting to grow. Look to see where similar plants are still dormant. These are microclimates, and by observing frost patterns and where plants break dormancy early or not, you can use this information when siting new plants.

7.  Continue to start seeds indoors.

8.  Towards the end of the month, start removing your windbreaks around such plants as your rhododendrons. Keep your hydrangeas macrophyllas covered a little while longer.

9.  As leaves of your spring flowering bulbs start to emerge, scratch in a little bone meal or organic fertilizer in the soil around these plants.

10. Get the lawnmower and other power tools ready to go for the upcoming season. The time to mow will come sooner than you think!

11. Take advantage of pre-season sales to purchase yard maintenance equipment.

12. If you didn’t do this last fall, now is a good time to empty your soil from your pots and hanging baskets. Add the old soil to the compost pile or your gardens. Clean and sterilize your containers before using, and buy new containers while the selection is still good.

13. Get bids for any big landscaping projects. If you use a lawn service, now is a good time to get bids from several different services before the busy season begins.

14. Maintain your cold frame. Keep it open on warm, sunny days to prevent the plants from getting too warm.

15. Continue to take branches of early spring flowering bushes in for forcing. The closer to the time when they normally bloom, the easier they are to force.

16. Pot up some pansies for early outdoor color. They can stand it down to about 30 degrees. Bring them up to the porch or another protected spot if the temperatures threaten to dip lower.

17. Scratch in some cottonseed meal or other organic fertilizer around your azaleas and rhododendrons as their buds begin to swell.

18. Start your summer bulbs indoors such as dahlias and begonias the last two weeks of this month.

19. Don’t forget to keep feeding the birds!

20. Take in a flower show. Many cities host many home and garden shows. It is a great way to spend a weekend day. Also take a simple walk around the yard to see what’s cookin’. You might spy a crocus or more already in bloom!

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus




Many people have their own ways of measuring when the change over to spring is imminent. Perhaps it is the migration of the geese. In California, it might be the return of the swallows at Capistrano. For me, it is when the first cheery blooms of the crocus appear.

True, there are plants that have already started to bloom by the time the crocus get with the program: Winter aconite, snowdrops, and even some shrubs have already started to bloom in our region. But, my personal sign that the arrival of spring is just around the corner is when these friendly little cupped flowers start strutting their stuff.

Crocus come in what my kids used to call, “Easter colors”:  Sky blue, striped purple on lavender, white, lavender, deepest purple, and buttery yellow, and all with the pretty orange stamens. They probably remind me so much of Easter merely by their colors, that this is the reason why I consider them to be spring’s calling card.

Crocus vernus, or Dutch crocus, are those huge, goblet-shaped crocus that most of us are familiar with. Planted in drifts, they are a sight for sore eyes after a long, harsh winter. Planted in the lawn, they are stunning! The only drawback is that lawns cannot be mowed for about six weeks after bloom time. The crocus are forming little cormlets. They are also storing food in the mother corms for next year’s bulbs. That is not a practical situation for many homeowners. So, naturalize them in the woods, or in the flower beds. They are just as stunning!

Those little bunching crocus, Crocus chrysanathus, or the Snow Crocus, have daintier flowers and are also smaller than the Dutch crocus. They are little miniature bouquets. Usually at least three flowers will break from one corm. They are also a bit earlier to bloom than the larger Dutch varieties. Another small variety to consider is Crocus tommasinianus, which sports many lovely blue and purple flowers.

Looks are deceiving! These perky little posies are anything but dainty! Often, as is usual in this neck of the woods, a warm stretch of weather late in the winter will coax them into blooming. Just as they start to hit their stride, they will often get walloped by a cold snap or snowstorm. Or so it may seem.

These little plants are so resilient, that only a truly bitter spell will cut their season short. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often this time of the year. Dips into the low twenties and snow on the plants usually won’t stop them once their blooming cycle is underway. When I think about it, that is precisely why I consider them to be the true heralds of spring!

Planting is easy:  Just plant them in the fall, and the following spring, they will arrive. The first year they might wake up a little later than usual, but after that, they will greet you when you need that shot-in-the arm the most! Like any endearing plant, they will spread and grow, but never become a nuisance. What a better way to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring than with a few cheerful crocus!