Notes From the Field: Cutting Stems In the Winter


It’s that time of year, when the air starts to taste different, when you can see the far side of winter and off in the distance — yes for sure, that’s definitely spring. Still, don’t be fooled into letting down your guard, we could possibly still have a lot of cold to get through but on sunny days. I too want to go out there and do some gardening, and yes, I too am sick of weeding (although I did get a nifty new longer handled Japanese weeding hoe that I’m very excited about. I still can’t kneel or squat down without pain in my new knee). So, what to do?

Well for me it’s obvious. Time to start bringing in cuttings. My Salix sachalinensis (fasciated or Japanese fantail willow) catkins are just starting to crack, and as soon as they’re fully out, I’ll be cutting them and stuffing them in various vases and vessels all over the house. If you want those soft velvety pussy willow “pussies” to last, don’t put them in water, if you do the branches will keep growing and those velvety buds will drop, quickly. Great if you’re planning on planting your cutting back in the ground to grow a new plant, but if you’re bringing willow in as adornment, no water, okay?

I’ve tons of different willows — black ones, giant ones and curly ones — and this rule applies to all. It’s also a good rule for Salix that have colored twigs, and for those Cornus (dogwood) that we cut for their winter bark color as well. Need that color to persist? Let it dry. This isn’t to say that some of stems don’t go into water. I stick cuttings into everything I can find, especially my giant pussy willow as these have enormous pink buds on branches that touch my ceiling (check out my Instagram stories), but I also poke them into them in my cut flower arrangements, use them to tie up my orchids, and mix them with flowering branches. Once my cut ones have completely dried, I’ve been known to put these in bouquets as well — I’m really getting into mixing dried flowers with live ones this year — but I’ll need to keep checking on them, so they don’t get moldy and gross. I run mine under hot water, paper towel them off, then just stick them back in.

I don’t recommend you start cutting until after mid-January, to be sure your plants have had enough cold days to trigger their blooming cycle, but this month is when I really get into cutting branches from various flowering shrubs and trees to bring them inside and force them open. It’s important you choose branches with a lot of buds on them, that also have interesting shapes, but please, be careful and don’t remove something that will disfigure your shrub. No hacking branches halfway down and leaving awkward stubs, cut to a fork, or all the way down to the plant’s base. Make it a good pruning cut first and then you can break it down into branches for a vase afterwards.

The key to success with forcing blooms is counter-intuitive — don’t bring things straight into the sunniest spot in your kitchen. The sun heats the water up too warm and the branch, confused by the dramatic nature of the temperature change, sometimes panics and quits. Instead, place your cutting in a dimly lit and cool but not freezing space — it should be about 45 to 55 degrees. For me this is my basement. I should see if my garage will also work (test the temperature by leaving a can of seltzer out there for a week and see if it freezes) because then I could cut even more. You’ll need to get your branches into buckets of water very warm water quickly. We prefer warm or hot water as it contains far less oxygen making it easier for your branches to drink. This water needs changing while you wait for buds to open, it needn’t be hot, but I still schlep 5-gallon buckets of warm water down from my kitchen (because, naturally, my dahlia winter storage pile is blocking the basement tap).

Before plunging your cuttings into their buckets, give each a nice, new, clean, long, steeply angled cut at its base (no crushing with a hammer, that’s just hinders their ability to drink) and then, using your clippers or floral knife, split the bottom of the branch up, or slice off the bark only at least two sides, exposing as many capillaries as possible to allow for maximum water uptake. Immediately place deep into the water (stripping off any foliage that’d be submerged) and then make a schedule to change that water often (daily if possible). Some of these branches are going be in buckets for over a month, ignoring them in the hope that they’ll open won’t work.

Once the buds start to swell and crack open (the timing depends on what you’ve picked) bring the branches into the house and start arranging. They’ll last longer if they’re not in the direct sun and a cooler part of the house, but I put mine everywhere. Like with all things floral, they’ll need another new cut, and the more frequently you change the water the longer they’ll last.

I try to follow blooming sequence when I cut — I don’t have that much room in the basement, so I start with Cornus mas (cornelian cherry), Forsythia, Hamamelis (witch hazel), Corylus (hazelnut) for its catkins (much like poplar but significantly happier out here) and Corylopsis (winter hazel). They normally take about two-to-three weeks to force, but with this mild winter, and my witch hazels all mostly in bloom, we can skip the whole basement/garage/cool area thing.

I’ll also clip a few of branches of Acer rubrum (red or swamp maple) from out by the road –they’re fast forcers and have lovely, tiny, reddish pink flowers which mix beautifully with my orange witch hazel and pink grocery store roses (I’m not a snob about where my flowers come from). If I had an Amelanchier (service berry or shad) I’d start cutting it in February. Instead I’ll cut from my edible plum at the beginning of the month, and from both apples and crabapples towards the end, although they can take up to 4 weeks to open. My white, double flowered Mt. Fuji cherry is slowly dying, so when Bartlett comes to administer to it, I’ll force whatever trimmings they make. Double blooms seem to take longer (4 weeks) while my Yoshino cherry buds sometimes open in half that time. Betula (birch) can be cut in February, as can Chaenomeles (flowering quince).

I’m told you can force rhododendrons at the start of March but never have. They take four-to-six weeks, as do, supposedly, azaleas, but unless I purloin a few from my neighbors, I can’t be sure. Anyone want to experiment and let me know? March is all about cutting Deutzia and Philadelphus (mock orange), both elegant white flowers, but they’ll take a while, at least four or maybe five weeks, to crack. It’s also the month for forcing our native Quercus (oak) for their excellently elegant citron catkins, and, I’m told, Syringa (lilac). Forcing lilacs makes me nervous, I’ve cut branches on with beautifully full, plump buds, only to have them collapse the moment they’re put in water, so I’m leery of keeping them alive for the necessary six weeks. Instead, I cut all of various kinds of Spiraea (spirea) I grow.

You can force Pieris (andromeda) if it’s cut in March and given two weeks to adjust. This makes sense, it’s buds are have been formed and ready since last fall, but until I started floral design classes I never realized how fantastic it worked in arrangements. After years of having no interest in the plant (too Hansel & Gretel in the woods for my Miss Havisham’s abandoned, overgrown, English cottage garden vibe) I’m now definitely finding homes for a few!

Cornus florida (common dogwood) is not as in demand as Cornus kousa (kousa dogwood) as a garden specimen, but if we’re talking forced branches, it’s my choice as it blooms before leafing out. I’d give it four-to-five weeks but I’m loathe to cut my trees — they’re looking extra nice this year. March is also when I cut magnolia in the past, but I’m trying a tad earlier this year — I’m desperate to limb up a lily flowered one that’s casting to much shade — so I’ll report back. I’m thinking about forcing wisteria, but I’ve hacked mine within an inch of its life, so might to wait for next year’s buds. Cercis (redbud) also blooms on naked wood, so should be fairly easy to force. I prefer mine on my tree, but if yours need shaping, give it a try. Caveat emptor, tree branches can be persnickety to force, shrubs are fair easier, so if you you’ve near tried forcing before, start there and remember, we only want to force spring flowering things. Don’t bother putting the cutting from your march Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ pruning session in a vase. You’ll just get leaves.

As we know, late winter is when we start to prune our summer flowering plants, and normally I tell folks not to touch their spring bloomers as pruning now will just cut off all their buds, but, since you’re forcing the flowers inside, this rule no longer applies. Remember to also remove crossing and broken branches while you’re out there, and to snip out and dispose of diseased wood at the same time. They say the rule of thumb is to try and keep the diameter of the twigs you’re cutting for bloom to a diameter of less than 1/2 inch, which is a good rule of thumb. It’s also what makes shrubs easier than trees, as the cutting tend to be smaller, but don’t let that limit the way you prune. You should still cut in a way that’s best for the plant, and then remove what you want to force from what’s come off the plant. I keep the ends of some of my branches to use as stakes in the garden as they’re so much more natural than stakes made from bamboo.

Try and take cuttings on days when the temperature is above freezing, it makes the transition easier for the buds and branches (it’s easier on for your fingertips too) and when you’re choosing branches for the quantity of buds, as a rule, leaf buds tend to be narrow or pointed and smaller, while those that are flowers are round or fat and plump. And remember if you don’t want to have to wait and keeping checking on your branches, the longer you can wait on cutting, the faster the forcing will go.

Paige Patterson ordered 6 named Sambucus cultivars after impulsively deciding she needs edible elderberries.