Winter weary gardeners can force branches for a taste of spring

January 23, 2013 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Sue Barton explains how to get a splash of color with winter plantsMany plant lovers need an early taste of spring to raise their winter-weary spirits.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t ready to oblige; the yellow blossoms of witch hazel and winter jasmine, both non-natives, won’t appear until mid- to late February. As for natives, serviceberry – one of the earliest native bloomers – won’t be out until early April.

But gardeners can get that splash of color they crave now by forcing branches.

Most ornamental trees and shrubs set their flower buds during the previous season, notes Sue Barton ornamental horticultural specialist for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. These buds must undergo a period of dormancy – usually about six weeks of cold temperatures – before they can bloom.

Gardeners can force forsythia, pussy willow, redbuds, crabapples and many other deciduous branches. But, keep in mind that since it’s only mid-January; not all species are ready to force.

Plants that gardeners should have luck with now include Cornelian cherry (a type of dogwood), forsythia, fothergilla and witch hazels. By the end of the month and into early February, they can start forcing cherries. By mid-February, a plethora of choices opens up – Eastern redbud, lilacs, magnolias, quinces, red maple and serviceberry.

However, these dates aren’t set in stone. What really matters is whether the flower buds have swollen. As soon as gardeners see signs that the buds are starting to expand, they can cut branches and bring them inside. Barton has a magnolia in her yard that already is showing buds. She plans to clip a branch or two to see if she can get it to flower inside now.

Throughout the winter months, Barton keeps an arrangement of forced branches on a stainless steel bar that divides her kitchen from her family room. “I want the flowers to be the first thing you see when you come in the front door,” she says. “If I have an arrangement on the dining room table for a dinner party, I always move it to the kitchen after the party is over. Keep spring blooms out in a spot where you’ll see them often.”

Dare to be different and try something unexpected. Like red maple, suggests Barton.

“Red maple blooms are some of my favorite for forcing,” she says. “Out in the landscape, on a large tree, the budding flowers may not look all that spectacular. But when you have just a few branches inside, in a vase, you can really appreciate the clusters of tiny red flowers and long stamens on this native species.”

Blooms aren’t the only thing that helps Barton banish the winter blahs. She also cuts branches with catkins, from willows (pussy willows are very easy to force), as well as from beeches and birches.

She likes to force leaves, too.

“I often force beech buds,” she says. “Beech buds are pointy and when the leaves unfurl, the pleated leaves look as pretty as any flower.”

People should take time cutting and choosing their branches, even if the cold winds are blowing and they’re anxious to get back inside.

“Remember that you are changing the shape and look of your bush, so try not to take all your branches from the same side of the bush,” advises Anne Boyd, a Master Gardener with New Castle County Cooperative Extension.

“Select long, thin branches that have buds on them and cut them off near a junction,” she says. “Once you are back inside you can look them over and trim any that are too long or too branched.”

Not long after the holiday decorations have been taken down at Hagley Museum, staff horticulturalist Renee Huber starts cutting branches to brighten the Visitors Center, Belin House café and other public areas.

“Bringing in a handful of branches and watching them progress with either leaves or beautiful blossoms really gives you hope that spring will come,” says Huber.

After she cuts the branches, she puts them in warm water in a spot out of direct sun. She likes to add a bit of bleach to the water – around one tablespoon per gallon – to control bacteria.

Eileen Boyle, who also is a horticulturalist at Hagley, prefers to place branches in a garage, cellar or other cool, dark spot overnight after she has cut them for forcing. Then, on day two, she re-cuts the stems and places the branches in tepid water.

“Keep an eye on water level, changing the water daily,” she says.

Depending on the plant, buds need up to two weeks before they’ll bloom. Cherries may start flowering in just a few days; forsythia is another quick bloomer.

For those who don’t see any blooms after two weeks, they goofed. They may have cut the branches too early before the buds were properly formed or they may not have kept the water clean enough and bacteria rotted the opening of the stem. Perhaps the water level wasn’t adequate. Or, if the vase was in too hot of an area, the flowers may have opened but not fully or they faded fast.

But this kind of gardening goof is easy to fix. “Just go out and cut some more branches and try again,” says Barton.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Delaware nature-lovers share their favorite places to enjoy summer in the state

June 27, 2012 under Cooperative Extension

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time. — John Lubbock

Officially, June 20 was the first day of summer, even though the unofficial signs of the season — flip flops, hammocks, water ice — blossomed weeks ago. For most of us, the workaday routine means we’re stuck inside a lot more than we’d like. When the weekend rolls around, we’re itching to get outside.

So where should we spend our precious free hours? We asked area birders, entomologists, horticulturalists and other nature-lovers about their favorite places to enjoy summer in Delaware.

Here’s what they told us:

Nature with a side of history 

My favorite spot is Brandywine Springs Park, which was an amusement park in the early 20th century and is now a county natural area.  I enjoy the sound of the water rushing through Hyde Run, a tributary of the Red Clay Creek, as I take long walks among the old trees. Since I am a history buff and a member of Friends of Brandywine Springs, I especially like the historical aspect of walking the old boardwalk area. Spending a few hours taking in the sights and sounds there refreshes me.

Eileen Boyle, horticulturalist, Hagley Museum

Flitting dragonflies

I enjoy Millstone Pond in White Clay Creek State Park. There is a small rock outcrop overlooking the pond and a nice place to sit in the shade on a sultry summer afternoon contemplating of the world around — dragonflies coursing over the pond, birds in the trees, wild flowers blooming. Just outside Delaware in Caroline County, Md., is Idylwild Wildlife Management Area. When I want to see many rare dragonflies and damselflies native to the Delmarva Peninsula that is where I go. However, one may need to suffer to be rewarded. One needs to bring water, be willing to hike a ways, and carry insect repellant.

Hal White, University of Delaware professor and author of “Natural History of Delmarva: Dragonflies and Damselflies”

A riot of blooms 

In summer, I love the rainbow of blooms in the Color Trial Garden at UD’s Botanic Gardens. Mid- to late July, it’s probably at its peak. Commercial seed companies rely on trial gardens such as this one to provide unbiased feedback about new varieties. For the public, the garden provides a sneak peek at more than a hundred yet-to-be-introduced varieties of annuals and perennials. It’s not uncommon to see people wandering through the trial garden with pencil and paper in hand to write down their favorites.

Valann Budischak, volunteer and education coordinator, UD Botanic Gardens

Cool running 

I run a lot at White Clay Creek State Park but recently I also have been working out at Lums Pond.  Especially in the summer, it is really nice to run (or walk) near a body of water. Even if you aren’t in the water, the sight and sound of water is cooling. As to plants I enjoy now, Delaware is mostly green at this point. Ferns are probably the prettiest vegetation in the summer.

Sue Barton, triathlete and UD Cooperative Extension specialist in ornamental horticulture

Sunset on the water

I like canoeing up the headwaters of Haven Lake, outside of Milford, from a public boat ramp off Williamsville Road. It features narrow channels and small islands and teems with birds, beavers, dragonflies and damselflies. You can even see insectivorous sundew and pitcher plants. Sunset is my favorite time to be on the water.

Jason Beale, manager, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford

A park that’s got it all

I like to go to Bellevue State Park because as a family it meets all our needs. Bellevue has gardens, nature trails, meadows, a pond, playgrounds, horses, community vegetable garden plots and more. My daughter, Teagan, is almost 3 years old and she likes the diversity of so many different things to look at. She is just fascinated by the horses. I jog on the trails and I also like to check out the garden plots. Many Master Gardeners have plots at Bellevue and I love to see what people are growing and how they are growing it.

Carrie Murphy, horticulture agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension

Biking the by-ways

I moved to Delaware in January so I still consider myself new to the state. I enjoyed Cape Henlopen many times before I moved here and now I’m making new discoveries. On summer weekend mornings, I have found that the scenic by-ways following the Red Clay and Brandywine creeks are surprisingly quiet and great for road biking.  Traveling by bike, you see so much more of the creeks, historic homes, fields and forests than when traveling by car.

Brian Winslow, executive director, Delaware Nature Society 

Woodpecker and eagle hang-out 

My favorite place at Hagley is the area that extends from the steam engine display to the boat house. The view of the iron bridge, the Brandywine, the dam and the woods is spectacular. You may even see an eagle flying over the river or our pair of pileated woodpeckers feeding in the large maple next to the boat house.

Richard Pratt, supervisor of gardens and grounds, Hagley Museum 

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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UD horticulturalists see understated attractions of winter landscape

January 26, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

The lyrics of “California Dreamin'” by John and Michelle Phillips are well known and appropriate for the season: “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey, California Dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.”

Although many yearn to flee the First State during the long slog of winter, not everyone is dreaming of California. For every Delaware gardener poring over seed catalogs and wishing for spring, there’s another gardener like John Frett who’s outside every day enjoying the landscape, regardless of the weather.

Frett, the director of the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens (UDBG), loves winter and spends time in his yard or the botanic gardens every day, all year long.

“I grew up in Chicago and lived in Maine for three years,” says Frett. “Delaware doesn’t know what cold weather is.”

Beyond a hearty constitution for the cold, Frett has an appreciation for the understated attractions of the winter landscape.

“The structure of the trees, shrubs and woody plants are more evident in winter when there are fewer things competing for your attention,” says Frett.

At the 15-acre UD Botanic Gardens, the leaves are long gone (evergreens excepted) so it’s easy to see that trees come in all shapes and sizes. There are columnar, round, conical, broad-spreading, upright-spreading, weeping and elliptical trees in the gardens. And a wide range of texture is now revealed, from the peel-away bark of the paperbark maple to the ridged and furrowed bark of the tulip poplar.

But it’s not just a lack of competing attractions that makes the winter landscape visually arresting for Andrew Olson, public landscape manager for the Delaware Center for Horticulture. He points out that the weaker winter sun casts a different light on things.

“The lower angle of the sun in the winter really highlights grasses and garden structures,” says Olson. “Even the silhouettes of trees ‘pop’ in the waning afternoon light. A garden or natural landscape that may seem brown and bleak can be spectacular as the sun rises or sets.”

Carrie Murphy, New Castle County horticulture agent for UD Cooperative Extension, notes that a landscape’s backbone is completely revealed in winter. “Everything is completely naked and the landscape’s overall shape and structure becomes a focal point.”

“I also appreciate how sounds move through a winter landscape — everything is much more audible — the whipping winds, rustling leaves and movements of wildlife,” she says.

Eileen Boyle looks for the small details in the landscape. “While the perennials sleep off the winter and the bulbs wait their turn, I am enjoying the daily show of the ferns, mosses and other little plants that are last to go dormant,” says Boyle, a horticulturalist at Hagley Museum and Gardens.

Fellow Hagley horticulturalist Renee Huber says that she appreciates the structure of beech and sycamore trees in winter.

“I always enjoy the sycamore trees against the Brandywine this time of year; they’re like gentle giants with white and gray blotched bark,” says Huber.

Sue Barton, UD Cooperative Extension specialist for ornamental horticulture, likes the sycamore in winter, too. Other favorites include river birch, winterberry holly and the Emerald Sentinel variety of Eastern red cedar, which has vivid blue fruit.

Bob Lyons, director of UD’s Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture, admits that he doesn’t much like winter. However, he does appreciate the architecture of trees now, especially when they’re outlined by a wet snow.  He particularly enjoys sweet gum, tulip poplar and deciduous hollies.

If the winter landscape looks enticing — that is, until you read the forecast and hear the winds howl — Olson has just two words of advice: “get outside.”

“Put on some layers and get out there,” he says. “You will be so glad you did.”

Here are some of the things to see in the late-January landscape:

• At the Delaware Center for Horticulture’s gardens, which are free and open to the public, a bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’) gets lots of attention this time of year because of its intensely colored red and orange stems. Also look for the black pussy willow, which is beginning to display purplish black catkins. The Kentucky coffee tree, paperbark maple and river birch also look great this time of year, says Olson.

• Evergreen fans will want to check out the UD Botanic Gardens, which has a large collection of both conifer and broad-leaf evergreens. Native species include the loblolly pine and American holly. And you’ll find many other hollies — the UDBG features 50-plus varieties and is a test arboretum for the American Holly Society.

• At Hagley Museum and Gardens, snowdrops are in bloom in front of the Hagley residences and skunk cabbage is blooming in the woods and by the river. Boyle notes that the bright orange rose hips on old-fashioned antique variety roses provide perching and food for local birds.  Hagley arborist Richard Pratt loves Hagley’s osage orange in wintertime. “It stands like a large bronze sculpture with its deeply furrowed copper-colored bark on its majestic trunk and its crown spreading high and wide into the sky,” says Pratt.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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