Notes From the Garden: Getting Through the Winter Doldrums
When pruning a Merrill magnolia last November, I brought home a few stems that had nice fat flower buds and put them in a vase of water. I put them in a south-facing window and pretty much forgot about them. From time to time I admired the smooth gray bark and handsome branching patterns. But then in the first week of January, those stems developed lovely green leaves. And the flower buds are swelling and look as if they might bloom, too — but even if they don’t, my spirits are lifted by seeing some green leaves.
Forcing blossoms of tree branches (making them bloom early indoors) is normally something I do in March, when I am pruning apple trees. I always bring in some branches and enjoy both the leaves and flowers of stems I have cut. At that time of year the trees are already “thinking” about opening up their buds, and it only takes a week or two for them to open up on a sunny windowsill.
But this year, I am going to cut apples, forsythia, lilacs and other spring-blooming trees and shrubs starting now. Each week I shall snip a few branches and experiment with forcing. I have never tried forcing lilacs, for example, and since they are mid-to-late-spring bloomers, I would normally hold off until nearer the time that they normally break dormancy — perhaps in April. But why not try now? I have read that one can encourage branches to break dormancy by submerging them entirely in a bathtub of water and will give that a try.
When you select branches for forcing, be sure to pick some that have flower buds. Flower buds are generally fatter than leaf buds. On apple trees, flowers are generally found on fruit spurs. These are 2- or 3-inch-long stems that end in fat buds. The buds contain both leaf and flower buds. For many varieties, fruit spurs must be more than a year old to produce flowers (and hence fruit). Last year’s water sprouts (vertical whips) on apples will produce leaves but not flowers.
Almost any tree can be forced, but many do not have flowers that are colorful, so we often ignore them. Do you know what a maple or poplar blossom looks like? Their small green flowers are not much appreciated — and I have never cut them to put in a vase. You certainly recognize pussy willows as signs of spring, but do you think of those furry fellows as flowers? They are, and can give me as much pleasure in February as my roses will later on.
For best results, you should probably cut stems of trees according to their natural schedule. That means picking early bloomers now and later bloomers in February and March. Here is a rough schedule: In January cut forsythia, willows and poplars. In early February cut red maples, alder, quince, birch and cherries. Later in February try rhododendrons, azaleas and pussy willows. Then in March try cutting branches of hawthorns, shrub honeysuckles, apples, crabapples, mockorange, lilacs and spirea.
Elsewhere in the house I was recently surprised by a tomato plant that appeared in a pot where I have an avocado growing. The avocado was one that I dug out of the compost pile last fall — along with a tomato seed, apparently. Most grocery store avocados do not have viable seeds, as the seeds need to be fresh (picked within three weeks of planting) in order to grow.
I remember as a boy suspending an avocado seed in a glass of water by toothpicks. It sent roots down into the glass, and then sent up a stem. I planted the seedling in a pot, creating a nice houseplant with glossy green leaves. But since the avocado industry now stores and sells avocados all year, the seeds are usually too old to grow. But I guess last summer I threw a few fresh avocado seeds into the compost because three seeds grew.
But what about that orphan tomato growing with my avocado? I am going to give it every benefit of the doubt. I have heard about people who have gotten tomatoes to bloom and produce fruit indoors in winter, though I have never done it. To help mine along I have hung a light over it in the window where it is growing. I am using an LED light that uses very little energy and produces a lot of light from its 45 little LED bulbs. It’s produced by Sunshine Systems (www.sunshine-systems.com) and uses just 28 watts of power while providing the light of a 250 watt HPS lamp.
I realize that my tomato might not produce tasty fruit even if it produces any. It all depends on the seed: it will be fine if it came from an heirloom tomato (which is mostly what I grow), but if it’s from a hybrid tomato plant, it might produce an undesirable fruit. Hybrids most often revert to the parent types, which may not be tasty. Still … it’s winter, and I’m game to try almost anything to feel like a gardener.
Henry Homeyer is the author of four gardening books and lectures on gardening throughout New England. He can be reached at email@example.com.