This is the lone forsythia bush in my yard. Of course, the bright yellow blooms are an awesome, welcome sight in spring for gardeners hungry to get their hands dirty. But I have it there for another reason: it’s a “phenological indicator”. That’s what the geeks say, instead of just calling it a biological clock. It’s long been understood that plants and animals react in predictable ways to warmth, and you can use that fact to help time various gardening activities. In this case, you can use forsythia to time your weed preventer applications for lawns. Crabgrass seeds germinate just about the time forsythia blooms drop from the plant. And you need the weed preventer on the ground before the seeds begin to grow. Many other garden pests can be timed this way too. Check with your local cooperative extension office or master gardener program. They often can tell you when pests typically are active. Just take a look around your garden at those times, and make note of what’s in bloom. Chances are, that will serve as a good guide to when you should apply a controls.
The real reason this is so helpful is that you rarely see pests until it’s too late to control them (or control them easily). Once a borer is inside your cucumber vine, it’s too late. Once weed seeds have germinated, weed preventers are ineffective. So timing is everything.
Gray is a hue I usually associate with the dead of winter, not the advent of spring. By this time of year, I ‘m done with frozen monotones and yearn for a thawing dose of bright colors — the yellow in forsythia blooms, the red in a robin’s breast, the green in early narcissus shoots – that seem to shout, “No doubt about it, spring is here!” But my bias against gray became, well, less black-and-white during a recent a road trip on I-80 in Nebraska, where I witnessed thousands of silver-winged Sandhill Cranes. Their display was anything but drab.
Every March, more than a half-million Sandhill Cranes gather for several weeks in the Central Platte River Valley. Right there, in the heart of Nebraska, they have their crane convention. They dine on the previous year’s leftover field corn and entertain each other with peculiar courtship dances that show off their long, elegant necks and 6-foot wingspans. It’s no wonder birdwatchers flock here to watch the annual migration. Even from a distance, these birds are magnificent.
Before long, nature will cue the cranes to continue northward on their incredible journey, which began as far south as Mexico and will end in their summer nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska. Chances are good that our paths will cross again. Sandhill Cranes have a lifespan of up to 20 years. Their longterm survival, though, depends on conservation of their wetland habitats.
I now see gray in a new way. Silver wings, it turns out, are like silver linings — they signal that brighter days are on the horizon.
Flashy golden forsythias and splashy pink saucer magnolia take center stage in many early spring landscapes. But these leading ladies aren’t the only shrubs that can make an impact in your yard at this time of year. Many other woody plants are worthwhile additions for their vernal display of showy blooms. If you’re looking for something a little more unique, consider one of the beauties shown below.
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.
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.
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Early spring is a great time to prune summer blooming shrubs. Butterfly bush often becomes lank and rangy unless pruned severely, and in Zone 5, it often suffers winter dieback. Solve both problems at once by whacking the entire shrub back to 6 inches above ground line. The photo below shows what a properly pruned butterfly bush will look like after pruning. Don’t worry. It will grow back and bloom beautifully by mid-summer. In fact, it will be more compact and tidy than an unpruned shrub.
You can treat most other summer or fall blooming shrubs the same way. They form flower buds on new growth, so you won’t be sacrificing any blooms. (However, DON’T prune early spring bloomers such as forsythia or lilac now. Wait until they finish flowering to cut them back.) Other examples of shrubs that take well to severe early spring pruning are pink flowered spireas (not the spring-blooming white forms), potentilla, hardy hibiscus, beautyberry, and crape myrtle (in Zones where they suffer winter dieback, and never develop into trees.)
Shrubs grown primarily for attractive stems, such as red-twig dogwood, or colorful foliage, such as purple smoke bush also respond well to severe pruning. Note that pruning the smoke bush will remove it’s smoky plumes, so don’t prune your smoke bush if you want the smoky effect that they provide. The severely pruned shrubs will regrow with renewed vigor and more brilliant color.
So pull out the pruning saw, and start whacking!