Enjoy early blossoms while you ready your garden

February 6, 2013 

Forget the frost — February is the month for forcing flowers.

Ignore the chill outside and enjoy an indoor early spring with a few garden tricks.

If you have the early-blooming shrub forsythia, now is the week to prune a few of the long, bare branches, plop them into a tall vase of water and enjoy watching the bright yellow buds open up into dazzling blooms.

You also can force quince, flowering cherry and almonds just by cutting whips or bare branches and letting them absorb warmth and water inside your home.

Don’t be fooled by the cold, it’s also time to plant — within reason, of course. Visit a local nursery or garden center this month and you’ll be able to take home bare root roses, fruit trees and berry bushes to plant immediately outdoors, so long as the ground is not frozen.

Be patient, however, if you are smitten with a blooming primrose or winter pansy plant. These greenhouse-grown bloomers are still a bit tender and need a week or two under the protection of a porch or covered patio to fully acclimate to the still cold nights.

Plan ahead for “hardening off” newly purchased plants by having a protected display area such as a large pot, basket or even a vintage suitcase or wheelbarrow where you can set your new purchases under cover but outdoors while they adjust to the cold night air.

While you wait for newly purchased plants to harden off, you can get to know your impulse buys and think about where they would best look in the garden. Then when you do transplant them from their pots to window boxes or an early spring garden they will have roots ready to grow in cold soil and foliage and flowers not freaked out by a frosty night.

Question: If I purchase a bare root lilac shrub, climbing rose plant and raspberry plant, how long can I store these plants in the plastic bags that they came in? It looks like there is some damp sawdust around the roots inside the plastic bag. Right now they are sitting in my garage until I decide where to plant them in my new landscape. R.W., Email

Answer: Better get out to the garage today and remove the plants. First remove them from their plastic wrapping and take off any sawdust that clings to the bare, woody roots. Then plunk the bottom half of the plants into a bucket of cold water. Store the bucket outdoors unless the weather threatens to freeze. You want to keep all bare root plants cold but not freezing so they stay asleep and dormant until you have time to plant them.

The sooner you can get any dormant plant into the ground the better, but I admit to leaving bare root plants in water for several weeks — and they’ve always survived. Letting them soak in a water bath is better than keeping them in a warm garage where a bit of mild weather could wake them from slumber and cause the bare branches to leaf out and attempt to grow new roots before they are planted into the ground.

Q: I planted some hellebore last year and I am delighted to say they are now blooming again. My question is about pruning them. I seem to remember I am supposed to prune them after they bloom — or is it before they bloom? I have both white and pink hellebore plants. Thank you. H.S., Tacoma

A: Hellebores are indeed heavenly perennial plants and not just because of their winter blooms. These tough guys are slug resistant, deer proof and flower even in the shade. You do need to prune off the old foliage however and not just to keep your hellebores looking tidy and allow the blooms to be seen.

In our area the leaves of hellebores can turn black around the edge letting you know they have been attacked by a fungus among us. Removing the infected leaves in early spring or winter will keep this disease from spreading and make way for the fresh flush of new foliage that will appear after the flowers. Get snippy with your hellebores now by following each leaf all the way down to the “stem” or petiole where it emerges. I find using a pair of kitchen scissors makes this a quick job — and I make sure to notice the lovely new blooms while cleaning up the old foliage.

Q: What is the name of the fragrant yellow shrub in bloom right now? It is not forsythia but it does rather look like one. It smells great. P., Email

A: Witch hazel. The Latin name is Hamamelis and the spider-like blooms are small and not as bright as forsythia but that sweet, delicious scent is bewitching — so witch hazel should haunt every winter garden. Meet Marianne

Marianne will speak about “Heavenly Hellebores and Her Sweetheart Companions” at 9 a.m. Feb. 16 at Windmill Gardens in Sumner. Contact: 253-863-5843 or register at windmillgarden.com.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. For gardening questions, write to her at P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, WA 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply. She also can be reached at binettigarden.com.

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