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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Holiday time means American holly, Delaware’s state tree

November 29, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Shirley Duffy is a recent transplant to Delaware who is proud of her new state. And as an avid gardener, she knew just the way to show her state pride — by planting an American holly in her Newark yard.

The American holly (Ilex opaca) has been the state tree of Delaware since 1939. Back then, the holly was an important cash crop to the state, says Carrie Murphy, a horticulture agent with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Holly grew in abundance in the wild, particularly in Sussex County. Savvy entrepreneurs, such as Milton fertilizer salesman Charles C. Jones Sr. recognized that there was money to be made from this broadleaf evergreen. He began shipping wreaths and other holly products throughout the U.S. and abroad. By the 1930s, Delaware had become the leading supplier of holly in the nation. The town of Milton produced more holly wreaths and decorations than any other town in the world.

With the advent of artificial decorations, as well as wage law requirements for piecework businesses, the state’s commercial holly industry declined and ceased entirely by the 1960s. These days, the only holly harvesting in Delaware is in backyards like Duffy’s. A UD Master Gardener, Duffy likes to take holly cuttings throughout the winter, not just at Christmas time.

“I use holly for both indoor and outdoor arrangements,” says Duffy. For an easy but eye-catching decoration she arranges cut holly boughs down the length of her dining room table.

Ed Stevenson, a Master Gardener who lives in North Wilmington, also turns to the hollies in his yard for seasonal decorations. However, he uses holly judiciously because it does have a few downsides.

“We cut holly branches and use them for a Christmas table centerpiece,” says Stevenson. “However, once holly is cut, the leaves start to shrivel and the berries slowly darken. The branches should either be cut close to Christmas, or, if they are cut earlier and show signs of aging, they can be replaced with newly-cut branches.”

“Because we expect our Christmas door wreath to last about a month – early December through mid-January – we don’t use holly in it. Also, keep in mind that the sharp leaf spines of the holly can scratch wood finishes so don’t put it directly on wood,” he says.

Hagley Museum horticulturalist Renee Huber used plenty of American holly for the “Christmas at Hagley” display, which opened Friday and continues through Jan. 6. She fashioned it into swags, as well as wreaths.

“Being our state tree I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to include it in the decorations,” notes Huber. “Plus, my great-great-grandfather, who was a farmer on the Eastern Shore, supplemented his income at this time of year by making American holly wreaths. I guess I don’t fall far from the tree.”

Huber had to decorate not only Eleutherian Mills, but also the Belin, Soda and Gibbons houses. To fill all these spaces, she roamed the museum’s 235 acres for just the right cuttings of hollies and other evergreens. But the bulk of her plant material came from a cutting garden maintained specifically for decorating purposes. It’s planted with a variety of evergreens, winterberry and other perennial favorites.

Since most of us don’t have the luxury of a cutting garden, it’s important to carefully clip branches from hollies – and all your shrubs and woody perennials — so that your landscape still looks good when you’re done.

Cut back to the trunk or another branch, says Murphy. If you put up your holiday decorations early, check throughout the season to see if anything needs to be replaced. If evergreens get dried out they can become a fire hazard.

If you don’t have any holly on your property, plan now for spring planting. “Holly makes a great specimen planting and over time will fill out to screen unpleasant views,” says Murphy. “It’s a slow grower but eventually can reach 30 feet tall.”

To produce the American holly’s distinctive red berries, you will need to grow both male and female plants. Although the male plants never produce fruit, they must be sited near the female plants to provide pollen needed for fruit production. Bees and other pollinators will do the work of transporting the pollen from the male to female plants.

Ironically, Duffy had trouble finding Delaware’s state tree at local garden stores. Many stores said they could special order it, and she knew that online shopping was another option.

But she wanted to see various cultivars before she selected her plants, so she eventually found a New Jersey-based online nursery that was holding an open house.

“Internet descriptions of ‘stiff, glossy’ leaves and ‘large’ berries mean nothing,” notes Duffy. “You have to see the plants yourself.”

A great place to see the plants for yourself is at the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens. Some 50 species and cultivars of holly grow there, with the largest concentration of hollies found in the Clark and Fischer Greenhouse gardens. The UD Botanic Gardens maintains research data on its holly collection and is a test arboretum for the American Holly Society.

At Hagley one of the best places to see hollies is in the field across from Eleutherian Mills, by the gatehouse, according to Hagley arborist Richard Pratt. At least half the hollies there sport red berries.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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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

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UD, Hagley horticulturalists offer seasonal decorating tips

December 2, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

An October hike always puts Renee Huber in a holiday state of mind. It’s not the reds and golds of the autumn leaves that do it; it’s because, like, Santa, Huber knows she has a big holiday job on the horizon.

She is responsible for planning and installing the holiday decorations at Hagley Museum, which includes not only Eleutherian Mills, the du Pont family home; but also the Belin House, home to an organic café; the Soda House, where special events are held; and Gibbons House, where visitors can make paper ornaments or pop corn on a wood-burning stove.

“I start thinking about each year’s theme and what materials I’m going to use in October,” says Huber, who has been a Hagley horticulturalist for 17 years. “I love walks and hikes and get inspired by what I see in the landscape. Before I go to bed, I take notes and make sketches so I don’t forget my ideas.”

By mid-October, Huber has ordered all of her supplies. In early November she gets a jump start on any tasks that can be done in advance. Mid to late November is crunch time, when she and a team of volunteers make the decorations and install them. Recently, the first visitors streamed in to enjoy “Christmas at Hagley.”

As much as possible, Huber uses natural plant materials collected from Hagley’s 235 acres. Evergreens are a mainstay but she’s always on the look out for other materials. “I love seed heads and ornamental grasses,” she says. “Pink mulhy is a native grass that’s most dramatic in fall, with pink, wispy flower heads. But after the frost, when the flower heads have turned brown, I like to tuck strands of this grass into wreaths, garlands and other decorations.”

Like Huber, Sue Barton is a big fan of natural holiday decorations. But for Barton there’s nothing stressful about the decorating process. An ornamental horticulture specialist for UD Cooperative Extension, Barton decorates her own home, not a museum that attracts thousands of visitors during the holiday season.

The Sunday afternoon she makes decorations is one of the high points of the season for Barton. She collects materials from her 7-acre property and often snips evergreen magnolias branches from a friend’s yard. And this year her decorations will include lots of Eastern red cedar and blue-hued berries, which she collected recently on a long weekend in the Outer Banks.

“It’s a lot more fun and a lot more relaxing than shopping for tinsel and garland,” says Barton. “Simple homemade decorations are nicer than anything you can buy. And they bring a touch of the outdoors inside during a time of year when most of us don’t get outside as much.”

Huber maintains a cutting garden specifically for decorating purposes, planted with a variety of evergreens, winterberry and other perennial favorites. But most of us don’t have that luxury. So it’s important to prune carefully so that your landscape still looks good when you’re done, cautions Barton.

Cut back to the trunk or another branch, she says. Stay away from hemlock and spruce because their needles will start dropping within days in a heated home. Barton soaks her greens overnight to re-hydrate them but Huber skips that step. Because both horticulturalists put up their decorations early, they check throughout the season to see if anything needs to be replaced.

“If evergreens become dried out they’re a fire hazard,” notes Barton.

If you don’t consider yourself a natural Martha Stewart or P. Allen Smith, no worries. Barton says to go with the flow and let nature inspire you. “I never know what I’m going to cut until I get out there and see what looks good,” she says. “Even during the crafting process, I don’t work from carefully laid-out plans.”

But if you work better with a little instruction, here are some tips, courtesy of the UD and Hagley horticulturalists:

• Be bold with color. Think beyond the classic red, green and silver. This season Huber used lots of yellow. For example, she paired yellow yarrow and bright red winterberry in several decorations to good effect. Both plants are native to Delaware and easy to grow.

• Think beyond tried-and-true evergreens. Barton often decorates with oak leaf hydrangea, which still sports fall foliage in gorgeous shades of maroon. As long as you place the branches in water, hydrangea will stay fresh in your home into December.

• Start collecting materials now even if you don’t plan to make your decorations until later in the season. When you’re out in the yard or on a walk, look for interesting berries, pine cones and nuts. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a long-abandoned bird’s nest to tuck into an evergreen wreath.

• A basket of pine cones, in all shapes and sizes, makes an attractive, rustic centerpiece. Add a bit of greenery and fresh citrus to the basket for texture, color and a great aroma. For something a bit splashier, spray paint the cones gold.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article was originally posted on UDaily

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