When sorting through nursery catalogs and sketching your planting plan for spring, pencil in early-flowering trees and shrubs. Even before outdoor bloom time, though, you can pluck bare-but-budding branches, and with a gentle nudge and a few weeks, they'll brighten interior landscapes with towering sprays of pale pink, deep rose, red, white, or yellow blooms.
Use the chart below to determine shrubs and trees that are terrific for early blooms. The chart provides a general time line; shrubs and trees may flower earlier or later depending on climate and growing conditions. The closer to a plant's natural bloom time you harvest its branches, the quicker the flowers will sprout indoors. Prune branches on a day that's above freezing to ease the transition between outside and inside temperatures.
Depending on where you live and what you plant, you can start hauling in armloads of Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), forsythia, vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), and pear tree branches as early as January.
In February, gather branches from flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.), rhododendron, pussy willow (Salix discolor), apple and crab apple (Malus spp.) trees, and cherry (Prunus spp.) trees.
Continue the chain of soul-lifting spring color with March-clipped boughs of magnolias, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), lilacs, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), mock orange (Philadelphus spp.), bridalwreath (Spiraea prunifolia), Deutzia, and Fothergilla.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), blooming pink in mid- to late spring; serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), bearing white flowers in early spring; and the dogwoods, with their white to pink blooms in late spring, add height in shade gardens. Magnolia, apple, crab apple, pear, cherry, and plum trees can be planted individually, in an orchard row, centered in a ring of annuals, or as a supporting player in a border that blends deciduous and evergreen shrubs, perennials, and other mini trees.
More expansive, old-time favorites such as bridalwreath, mock orange, and flowering quince create stand-alone centers of attention near walkways or in patches of lawn.
As a lot-line hedge, consider marshaling a row of golden forsythia; red- or yellow-blooming witch hazel; white, pink, or purple lilacs; or white-blossoming honeysuckle. Or, mass tall, wide, and pink-flowering beautybushes as a privacy screen.
Place the catkin-bearing pussy willow at the back of borders, where its less-than-stellar form adds behind-the-scenes structure and height.
In the forefront of beds, opt for rhododendrons, blooming in a kaleidoscopic range of hues; mountain laurel, with flowers ranging from white to rose; and Fothergilla, boasting white bottlebrushlike spikes. These shrubs will spark close-to-home interest when planted near foundations.
Step 1: Select pencil-thick branch sections 12 x 24 inches long that boast numerous plump buds. Using a sharp knife or hand pruner, cut the branch, making an angled cut at the base. Immediately place each branch in water.
Step 2: Bring the branches inside, then strip buds, twigs, and leaves from lower sections that will be under water. Use a utility knife to pare away an inch or two of bark from the base. Smash woody bases with a hammer. These openings enhance water absorption.
Step 3: Place branches in a water-filled container set in a bathtub, and give them a long, tepid shower. Wrap branches in wet newspaper, then place them in clean, lukewarm water. Move to a cool, dark spot; mist branches and change water daily. Unwrap after two or three days.
Step 4: Once the flowers have started to pop, arrange branches in a tall, water-filled vase or pitcher, and bring them into the spotlight. Set the arrangement in a bright-but-cool spot out of direct sunlight. The cooler the spot, the longer the branches will bloom.