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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Forcing The Issue

Forcing The Issue

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!

Plum Blossoms

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 four seasons areas of the country 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
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


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Companion Plants

Companion Plants

About fifteen or so years ago, companion planting was all the rage. Numerous books were written on the subject: Don’t plant onions near beans, squash grows well with corn, etc. It was all so scientific and mind boggling! At times, it was enough to make a gardener throw in the towel in frustration!

Companion Plants

While it is true that some plants make better “marriages” together than others do, the art of companion planting doesn’t have to be complicated at all.

Companion planting can be defined in two different ways: First of all, there are those plants that enhance each other’s growth or add protection to one or the other plant by being planted together. Secondly, there are those plants that make great partners simply because they look good together. Let’s look a little into each of these concepts:

For two examples of the first definition: Plant garlic near roses. Pests such as aphids are repelled by the scent of the garlic. Native American culture that was passed along to the first settlers included the practice of planting the “Three Sisters” together: Corn, beans, and squash. In a symbiotic relationship, beans fix nitrogen in the soil, allowing it to be made available to the corn. In turn, the corn provides support and shade for the climbing vines of the beans and squash.

Herbs are a group of plants that also assist in helping their companions. One of the most classic examples of plant combinations is the pairing of tomatoes and basil. Since most herbs are aromatic, their essences attracts or repels insects, both beneficial and pests.

For a short list of what to grow and what not to grow together:

Hyssop is an herb that will attract white cabbage butterflies. It is a companion to the cole crops, and acts as a trap crop for the cabbage butterfly.

Cabbage and cole crops in general do well in the presence of onions, cucumbers, potatoes, marigolds, beets and bush beans. Interestingly, the cole family resents being planted near pole beans. Strawberries are also a bad combination with the cole crops.

Beets do well with cabbage, onions, radishes, and bush beans.

Basil is a great companion for peppers and tomatoes. Think Italian! Along with cabbage, pole beans aren’t very happy with beets or onions.

The vegetable kingdom loves lovage! It gets along well with just about everybody. About the only plant it has a “rhubarb” with is rhubarb!

Peppers will sulk in the presence of onions.

In addition to garlic, roses also do well around onions and tomatoes.

Artemisia helps to keep aphids off of roses.

Speaking of tomatoes: Don’t locate tomatoes next to corn. They feud.

Slip some chives around your apple trees, including crab apples, to deter apple scab. Other plants protected by chives are roses and carrots.

Garlic will help to prevent borers when planted around fruit trees and raspberries.

Marigolds repel many insect pests and are appreciated by most flowers and vegetables. They also act somewhat as a weed deterrent.

These are just a few of the companions and enemies of some of our commonly grown plants. There are many others, and there are many resources out there, some easy to understand, others more complicated. A good rule of thumb is experience. If you have ever grown peppers next to onions, you will have discovered that the performance of the peppers is less than spectacular. You will not be very likely to grow them together again.

The second concept of companion planting is not so much that it is for the function of a partnership as it is for the good looks in combination.

Roses are usually tops in anyone’s ornamental garden. The problem with roses is that while the tops of the plants are pretty, the bottoms of the plant can be somewhat sparse and leggy. Try to under plant roses with other plants that hide their bottoms. Lavender, catmint, and some of the taller growing dianthus are good companion plants for this purpose. For your taller growing or climbing roses, interplant with clematis. They look good together, and both will benefit from the application of rose food. Parsley is not only good looking and great for hiding the legs of roses, it also acts as a deterrent to insects.

When growing spring flowering bulbs, especially daffodils, add daylilies to the site. As the foliage of the bulbs starts to die down, the foliage of the daylilies will sprout up and hide the yellowing foliage of the bulbs.

Hostas and ferns are classics together in the shade garden. Ditto for hostas, ferns, astilbe, and Japanese Forest Grass, or Hakonechloa.

‘Silver Mound’ artemesia, with its feather-soft silver foliage, lends its naturally rounded form as a softening effect in the garden. Pair it with the exclamation points of ‘Sunny Border Blue’ veronica.

Many people plant rhododendrons, but shy away from planting other companions with them. Hostas, Dwarf mountain laurel, and ferns all make wonderful companions.

Monarda and feverfew are wonderful together. The red upright flowers of monarda blends well with the tiny, white, daisylike flowers of feverfew.

The blue of a German or bearded iris is stunning when planted with the bright orange of the Oriental poppy. Not only is the color combination spectacular, but the contrast in foliage form and color is also complementary, as well. The swordlike green of the iris pairs wonderfully with the feathery soft green foliage of the poppies.

There are many other plants that work well together. Whether grown together as beneficial partners or for artistic effect, try out a few of them. Not only will your plants thank you, but you can show off your green thumb and make your neighbors green with envy!

The Cutting Garden

The Cutting Garden

Mention a cutting garden, and perhaps the vision of orderly rows of flowers in a corner of the vegetable patch spring to mind. Certainly, this is how cutting gardens originated, but cutting gardens can easily be incorporated into an existing perennial bed or border.

The Cutting Garden

Flowers for the cutting garden

The plants used in a cutting garden are lovely to behold, and the flowers used offer double-duty both in the display bed and in the vase.

You probably are already growing many plants that work well in arrangements. Shasta daisy, tall coreopsis, and garden phlox are a few examples of plants that many of us grow that work well in flower arrangements. No surprise, peonies and lilacs can also double as extras in the cutting garden.

The principles are the same as when planning any garden site: Prepare the soil, add tons of organic matter and compost, use a balanced organic fertilizer, water, and mulch.

When harvesting flowers from the cutting garden, or areas of your perennial bed that have flowers you are going to harvest for arrangements, remember to cut blooms during the coolest part of the day, in the early morning. Keep a bucket of lukewarm water handy to plunge the cut ends of the stems in the water immediately. Some flowers begin to seal over the cut almost immediately, which will definitely shorten the lifespan of the flower in the vase. You don’t need to add a floral preservative at this point, just keep the stem ends immersed in water until you get back inside to arrange them in the vase.

Here are a few plants to consider for the cutting garden:

Ammi, Bishop’s Flower Asters Astilbe
Achillea, Yarrow Bells of Ireland Bachelor’s Buttons
Celosia plumosa Celosia, Cockscomb Carnations
Coreopsis, taller types Cosmos Calla lilies (tender bulb)
Garden mums Campanula, Bellflowers Digitalis, Foxgloves
Delphiniums Daisies Dianthus, Taller pinks
Echinops Echinaceas, Coneflowers Gypsophila
Gladiolus (Tender Bulb) Gaillardia Helichrysum
Heuchera, Coral Bells Heliopsis Lilies
Larkspur Liatris Lavender
Nicotiana Nigella Peonies
Snapdragons Statice Scabiosa
Sunflowers Sweet Peas Salvias, Taller Types
Tulips Tithonia Zinnias

A few things to keep in mind when selecting plants for a cutting garden: Choose plants that are taller varieties. For example, if a label states a snapdragon is a good bedding plant, it might be a smaller or shorter form. Tall varieties are what we are generally looking for. Another thing is to plant a large grouping of a particular plant. It is better to grow only three or four particular plants for cutting in a larger mass than a little bit of this and that!

Try adding a few annuals to the border that are also good for cutting. When spring comes, sow seeds of some zinnias, annual bachelor’s buttons, and other flowers for cutting among your perennials. Not only will they be there for your indoor bouquets, they will also help to carry over the color show as the different perennials finish their bloom cycles.

Once you have your flowers indoors, cut another quarter inch of stem off and plunge them into a 50:50 solution of lemon-lime soda and water with one or two drops of bleach to the gallon. This same solution can be used to feed the flowers in the vase, and will keep well in the refrigerator. Change water daily, and be sure no leaves or flower buds are left underwater in the vase to decay.

Grow your own flowers for arrangements! Cutting gardens are a great way to enjoy your flowers in the home as well as outdoors, so share your place and space with a few flowers for cutting!