When winter refuses to leave, you can chase away the blues with a host of flowers from your own garden – even before they’re ready to bloom outside! How? By taking cuttings from your spring-blooming trees and shrubs. Months before they’re due to bloom, you can fool (or force) these branches into flowering indoors for beautiful bouquets that last and last. It’s easy, fun and “foolproof.”

Forsythia bouquet

Forced forsythia branches capture the essence of spring – indoors.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Flower buds

For the most color impact, pick branches with lots of flower buds!

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Forsythia flower close up

Border forsythia is also referred to as golden bells.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Good candidates for early blooming branches include woody shrubs like Forsythia, Rhododendron (including azaleas), beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), flowering quince (Chaenomeles), American pussy willow (Salix discolor), redbud (Cercis) and spirea (Spiraea). Fruit trees like cherry, pear and apple are also ideal, as well as traditional favorites like magnolias and dogwoods (Cornus).

Take a walk around your winter landscape to see which varieties you’d like to try – and don’t hesitate to pick more than one. (I like to choose border forsythia, also known as Forsythia x intermedia, which has graceful branches that fountain at a long angle. It’s an early bloomer that makes stunning floral arrangements.)

As you size up your possibilities, look for choice limbs with numerous flower buds. (It’s easy to tell the difference between flower buds and leaf buds because the flower buds will be plump, swollen and slightly larger.) When you’ve found some good candidates, use your pruning shears to cut the branches flush with a main branch at a slight angle. The cut branches should be at least 12 inches long. Take at least a dozen or more cuttings from each plant so you’ve got enough to fill several good-sized vases.

Here’s a simple guide to help you determine what trees and shrubs to cut when, as well as how long it should take before your forced blooms appear. (Note: This chart matches bloom times here in North Carolina. Depending on where you live in the country, you’ll need to add or subtract anywhere from 1-3 weeks to the cutting time.)

Shrub/Tree When to Cut Weeks to Bloom
Forsythia Mid-January 1-3
Cherry Early February 2-4
Rhododendron/Azalea Late February 4-6
Magnolia Early March 3-5
Redbud Early March 2-3
Dogwood Mid-March 2-3

Next, gather your cuttings in a bag or bucket and bring them inside. Immediately submerge the branches under water for 10-12 hours (a bathtub works best for this) to break the dormancy cycle. It’s also a great way to thaw the branches out if they’re frozen, as well as get them thoroughly moistened – and best of all, clean!

Once your branches are done soaking, put them in a container with enough water to keep the ends of the stems wet. Now it’s time to fool them into thinking it’s spring by placing them in a low-light location for about a week (or longer, depending on the variety of branches you’re using). You may need to change the water if it gets cloudy or mist the branches occasionally if you live in a dry climate, but it won’t be long before you’ll see the buds swell and begin to open.

As the buds come to life, put the branches in decorative vases and place them throughout your house (or give a bunch as gifts). A sunny, warm location will make your branches bloom faster, while a cool spot will slow the bloom process but lengthen the life of the flowers. Wherever you put the vase, just be sure it’s in a place where you can enjoy your branches – even before they fully bloom, these arrangements are starkly attractive.

Then it won’t be long before the flowers arrive! After just 10 days, my forsythia’s buds popped open, and within two weeks I had an abundance of these brightest of yellow flowers. And much like cutflowers, forced branches require minimal care and last for weeks. (What a treat!) All you need to do is change the water occasionally and enjoy your colorful indoor companions while you wait for winter to pass and warmer days to arrive!

So spring ahead of your outdoor bloomers and bring in some branches to force. This soaking method will work with all kinds of flowering shrubs and trees. You can even stagger your bloom times so you’ve got flowery bouquets for weeks on end – long enough to carry you until spring has finally sprung outside!