Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

February 2012

By late February nearly everyone is ready for spring to arrive. Cloudy, gloomy days bring a yearning for the bright colors and happy thoughts of spring. You can speed the process along by forcing flowering branches indoors. Even in a mild winter such as this one, by now most spring-flowering shrubs have received enough hours of cold to break dormancy once warm temperatures arrive. You can trick them into blooming early by cutting stems with plump buds (flower buds are thicker and rounder than leaf buds), and taking them into the warmth of your home.

The pink double blooms of flowering cherry pair with a rosy ranunculus in this spring bouquet.

Prune off pencil-width stems full of buds. Plunge the base of cut stems into warm water after stripping buds from the portion of the stem that will be under water. Keep the cut twigs at room temperature or slightly cooler to force them into flower. Change the water twice per week to keep it fresh. Within a few days to several weeks, depending on the time of winter and species of flowering shrub, your spring-in-a-vase will burst into bloom–an event that’s sure to bring smiles to the faces of those who see it.

Trees and shrubs that bloom earliest outdoors are the easiest and fastest to force indoors. Forsythia, flowering quince, redbud, pussy willow, and serviceberry are good choices for first-time forcers. But crabapple, lilac, and kousa dogwood will work, too. They just take a little longer.

This year I’m getting a jump on spring by forcing forsythia branches. The shrub needed pruning anyway. Rather than tossing the branches in the woodchip pile, I decided to enjoy them in flower first. I’m having fun watching the progression of swelling buds, and can hardly wait for the first bud to burst into full flower.


Combine Tete-a-Tete daffodils with pussy willow branches for an instant spring garden.

The bright yellow blooms of forsythia are some of the easiest to force into bloom.

For an Asian influence, back a windswept flowering quince branch with a bamboo screen.

The pink or white blooms of a forced crabapple add a delightful fragrance to any indoor setting.

Even though the temperatures are warming, the hellebores are still buried beneath the melting snow in my front yard. The only sign of botanical life are the gently unfurling tassels of the coppery-orange witch hazel outside my living room window. So it’s especially sustaining to remember my scouting trip last September to Hot Springs, Arkansas, a charming Victorian town complete with ornate bathhouses atop a system of 47 hot springs that produce thermal waters that originated from 4,000-year-old rainfall and flow out of the ground at a temperature of 147° F. and are rumored to have therapeutic powers. Smack-dab in the middle of the town is Hot Springs National Park itself—not only the oldest in our National Park System, but also the smallest. The park boasts 26 miles of walking and hiking trails and multiple public fountains where the thermal waters can be bottled and taken home.

Located on a peninsula on nearby Lake Hamilton, I was excited to hlke Garvan Woodland Gardens, Arkansas’ premier botanical garden. Originally a native pine and hardwood forest, more than 70 species of birds can be seen in the adjacent 60 acres set aside as the Hamilton Woods and Bird Sanctuary and Preserve. Everywhere I looked in this 210-acre preserve surrounded by 4 1/2 miles of lake shoreline, I could spy our native violet-fruited beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), above. Built upon the vision of Verna C. Garvan, who donated the property to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture in 1985, the gardens have grown to become a not-to-be missed botanical destination.

But the highlight of my too-short visit had to be my impeccable accommodations at Lookout Point Lakeside Inn. Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains overlooking a serene bay of Lake Hamilton, the inn—built in 2003 in the Arts and Crafts architectural style—is surrounded by pretty manicured gardens and pathways and waterfalls that lead to the lake itself, where turtles gently paddle near the water’s edge. Innkeepers Ray and Kristie Rosset have created a labyrinth for guests to explore, above. (Remember, you get lost in a maze and find yourself in a labyrinth.) While I slowly followed the twists and turns of the labyrinth, hummingbirds were busy sipping nectar from the many flowering shrubs and perennials that line the paths that crisscross this idyllic getaway. Like I said, it’s especially comforting to reflect on just such an escape at precisely this time of year.

If you’re ready for spring to arrive, but the weather isn’t quite cooperating, why not plan and plant an indoor garden project? During a photo shoot last week for an upcoming book on indoor gardening, I completed several projects featuring bromeliads and a couple involving converted indoor fountains. Use your imagination to come up with unique containers for terrariums and dish gardens. The results will enliven your indoor living spaces and help bridge the time until you can dig in the garden outdoors.

This former slate fountain now houses 'Bright Star' dieffenbachia and 'Brasil' philodendron. 'Millenium' variegated English ivy trails from the top of the fountain.

This wreath of air plants (Tillandsia spp.) is easy to make with a double-wire wreath ring, a hot glue gun, a collection of air plants, and a wreath hanger.

A former slate waterfall fountain cradles air plants (Tillandsia spp.) at each level. The plants need only water and bright light to thrive.

These air plants (Tillandsia spp.) were glued to a piece of wood and propped up in a tall vase that serves as a terrarium. The glass marbles prevent the stick from shifting.

Earth stars (Cryptanthus bivittatus) are terrestrial bromeliads. Here they're planted with moss and decorated with glass marbles in a shallow microwave baking pan.

Bromeliads are easy-care indoor plants that pack a punch of color for months on end. Rather than giving your valentine flowers with fleeting color, consider giving a lasting gift of one of these beauties. (While you’re at it, pick up one for yourself too!)

All that these undemanding plants require is bright light and occasional watering. The varieties that form cuplike rosettes make watering a snap. Simply fill the “cup” with water, allowing a bit extra to drip down to the soil. Types with scaly silvery foliage (sometimes called air plants) thrive with twice-weekly misting or dunking.

Because they are tropical in origin, bromeliads appreciate comfortable room-temperature conditions. You can move them outdoors to a shaded location for the summer, but protect them from frost.

'Valentina' is a new variety of guzmania, appropriately named for gift giving to your sweetheart. Its combination of green straplike leaves, bright red bracts, and tiny white flowers is stunning.

Blushing bromeliad (Neoregelia carolinae 'Tricolor') develops a reddish pink blush on its green and white striped leaves when it blooms. The flowers are often hidden in the plant's vase, but the colorful foliage steals the show anyway.

Silver vase plant (Aechmea fasciata) pushes up a starburst of pink bracts and small purplish blue flowers from its silvery vase of foliage.

Pink quill (Tillandsia cyanea) is an air plant bromeliad. Its bright pink bracts remain even after its purple flowers fade.

Earth star (Cryptanthus bivittatus) makes a sculptural statement in a mixed planter. Its cream, rose, and green stripes attract attention.


Here are portraits of some of the Under the Sea Series of coleus. Top row l. to r.: Bonefish, Gold Anemone, Hermit Crab. Bottom row: Lime Shrimp, Moten Coral, Sea Scallop.

Coleuses have undergone an amazing transformation in the past few years. No longer relegated to the dark corners of the garden (although they still fill that role admirably too), the brightly colored foliage of coleuses can now take center stage in full sun thanks to numerous sun-tolerant introductions. At this year’s American Nursery and Landscape Association Clinic, the Under the Sea Series of coleus from Hort Couture won the Garden Idol award, meaning it was the favorite of attendees. Plants in this series are characterized by extreme frills and dazzling colors reminiscent of life on a coral reef. The ones that I’ve seen growing in the garden add an exciting element of texture paired with stunning colors.

The aptly named Under the Sea coleus series takes my thoughts back to the days when The Little Mermaid movie was first released, and the song, ‘Under the Sea’ was popular, at least among the elementary and pre-school set, of which my daughters were a part at the time. I remember them performing that song with their friends at a 4-H talent show. They didn’t come away with any American Idol awards, but getting up on stage and performing was a good experience for them. As they sang,
“The seaweed is always greener
In somebody else’s lake…
Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?”

Indeed. I have a bench of coleuses in my greenhouse, just waiting for spring to arrive. I can’t wait to create islands of color with them in the landscape. Look for Under the Sea coleus at independent garden centers this spring.


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