For Indoor Blooms, May the Force Be with You

The first Valentine's Day cards published in America dates back to the 1870s. Esther Howland created elaborate lace-trimmed cards for the extraordinary price of $5 to $10 each. With even more elaborate ones bringing up to $35. That's huge money for the times.

The first-ever valentine, as far as we know, was said to be sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife, Bonne, in 1415. He was, by the way, a prisoner in the Tower of London at the time.

After the flowers that you or your sweetheart bring home begin to fade, there is another way to brighten up your winter. Right now flower buds of trees and shrubs are fully formed and waiting to burst forth. All you have to do is harvest some and force them to bloom prematurely for some winter bouquets that will recharge your spirits.

A few pointers will help make the project easier and successful. I suggest using a clean, sharp knife or pruner. I carry a bucket of very warm water with me. Before cutting, examine the subject so that your selected cuts will maintain the overall shape and balance of the plant. Cut clean and close to an outward facing bud to promote rapid healing and avoid leaving stubs that might lead to disease and decay. Immediately put the cut end into the water. Move from plant to plant so as not to completely deplete any of all its spring beauty. Plump flower buds are easy to differentiate from leaf buds that are noticeably smaller.

I generally have two or three buckets at the ready. As I return with one full bucket, I take another out with me. First obvious choices are the showy blossoms of the fruit trees, magnolia, redbud, dogwoods, forsythia, pussy willow, shadbush, etc.

Don't overlook some of the simple foliage trees that exhibit subtler changes in coloration and interesting leaf development and expansion. It's a lot like Botany 101 or Photography 101. These mesh beautifully with the slow opening of spring's colorful blooms. So, try a few branches of the more mundane poplar, birch, oak, maples, horse chestnut, hazel nut, or what have you.

Once back inside and warmed up, try to work on a large surface. I'm fortunate to have an eight-foot dining table. I cover it with newspaper. Re-sharpen your knife.

Slit the stems of your cuttings 4 inches up from the end and peel back and remove the bark. Make a fresh cut on the end and place in fresh warm water a second time.

If you can spare a bathtub overnight, the ideal next step is to submerge all cut branches in warm water to replenish the water in the sapwood and soften the dormant leaf and flower buds. Next morning, reset all the branches in buckets or vases upright in clean room temperature water. As long as the ambient temperature isn't tropical (avoid high temperature areas near heaters and wood stoves) buds will continue to swell and develop in size and color.

If you haven't the spare bathtub or other large container to pamper your newly cut bouquet candidates, don't fret. I rarely do this step. Just allow a few extra days before the real fun begins. You will be playing floral designer in no time. You can blend colors and textures or choose monochromes. I like to add a few evergreen branches now and then, and even an occasional mountain laurel or rhododendron branch for later intrigue seldom afforded outdoors.

Change water frequently and/or add floral preservatives to keep bacteria at a minimum and prevent stems from getting clogged. Experiment, keep a notebook of successes and failures, and have fun. Spring is in the air.

Thankfully, the deep freeze that gripped us for three weeks has relaxed its hold a bit and allowed more seasonable temperatures to return. And with a return to more normal winter comes thoughts of spring, gardening, seed catalogs, new plants and tools.

After years as a horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County, I must report that there is an overuse of, or at the very least, an overconfident trust in Sphagnum Peat Moss. There are clearly two sides to the peat moss story.

Sphagnum Peat Moss:

  • Breaks up heavy clay soils
  • Holds together sandy soils
  • Retains and attracts nutrients
  • Is complete organic

BUT, also

  • Has negligible nutrient content
  • Is difficult to rewet if dried out
  • Has low to neutral pH
  • May contain weed seeds, chemical residues, plant pathogens
  • Is not a renewable resource

Compost is a valuable option as a soil amendment for healthy plant growth. The high organic content and microbial populations contribute mightily to the natural defense systems of plants and the diversity of beneficial living organisms that help restore soil systems to their native state. It would be my first choice . Judicious use of peat moss is fine. Heed the "but alsos".


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 11, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.