Category Archives: Shrubs

Early Spring Bloomers

Start the spring color show early in your garden with a variety of early blooming perennials, shrubs, and trees. From Witch Hazels, which blossom in late winter, and Hellebores, which generally flower before the last of the snow has melted, to Virginia Bluebells, Brunneras, and Magnolias, there are countless ways to incorporate a rainbow of rich colors into your spring planting schemes. What better way to celebrate the arrival of a new growing season?

Witch Hazel ‘Jelena’

The best antidote to winter is a planting of Witch Hazels. This genus of 5 species of upright, spreading shrubs or small trees provides the first big display of color, beginning in late February or early March and continuing for 6 weeks or more depending on the season (the flower petals sensibly curl up if the temperatures plummet). For an even earlier display, cut some branches in January and force them into bloom indoors. Plants thrive in average, well-drained soil.

We love Witch Hazels for the color they bring to winter gardens and for their hardy, problem-free nature. ‘Jelena’ is a favorite, with large ribbonlike petals that gleam coppery orange. In autumn, the shrub lights up again as its matte green leaves turn fiery shades of red and yellow.

Hellebore Gold Collection® ‘Madame Lemonnier’

Hellebores are considered aristocrats of the woodland garden. Native to Europe and western Asia, the genus contains about 20 species of perennials that bloom in early winter in mild climates and in late winter or early spring where the soil freezes hard, which makes them either the last or the first flowers in the garden. In our gardens here at the farm, they are among the first plants to bloom, bringing a splash of color to the late winter garden, sometimes blossoming amid the last of the snow. They require a moist but well-drained site under the shade of trees. Take care to amend the soil with plenty of organic matter, such as well-aged leaf mold and compost. You’ll be rewarded with long-lived, deer- and vole-resistant plants that will spread nicely on their own.

Hellebore Gold Collection® ‘Madame Lemonnier’ is a large-blossomed beauty that was discovered by a gardener in Normandy, France, where her passion for growing Hellebores turned into a full-fledged hybridization program. The plant’s 3″ upfacing blooms are rich purple red, and are held above lush green foliage on tidy, clumping plants. Under greenhouse conditions at the nursery, many of these impressive blossoms exceeded 4″. A magnificent addition to shade gardens.

Forsythia x intermedia Show Off®
Forsythia x intermedia Show Off®

It is impossible to live in a northern climate and be unfamiliar with Forsythia. The durability, vigor, and abundant yellow flowers of this early bloomer make it one of the most popular and important ornamental plants known. Forsythia Show Off® is perfect for a tight hedge or a specimen in a border. From France comes this compact variety whose golden flowers are brighter, larger, and stacked closer along the stems from soil to tip. Another bonus is the dark green foliage.

Magnolia ‘Genie’

Magnolia is a genus of over 100 species of trees and shrubs widely distributed from the Himalayas to East Asia and in the Americas. Introduced Japanese and Chinese species and their hybrids, such as the showy white Star Magnolia and the pink Saucer Magnolia, draw the most attention in spring. The handful of species native to Eastern North America include the magnificent, evergreen Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora), Sweet Bay (M. virginiana), and the large Cucumber Tree (M. acuminata).

Magnolia ‘Genie’ is a fairly compact variety, growing 12–15’. In early spring, lightly fragrant, 6″ cupped blossoms appear on slender branches, like goblets of burgundy. A second, lighter flush of bloom arrives in midsummer when provided with full sun and adequate moisture. Bred in New Zealand, this slender, well-branched variety blooms for a longer period, even when young. An ideal small tree to feature alone, in pairs, or to put the finishing touch on a mixed border.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

A friend of ours once referred to this charming plant as “prompt” because of the way its beautiful silvery green leaves break ground quite early in spring. They’re followed by a haze of tiny azure flowers, which give this plant one of its nicknames, False Forget-me-not. (It’s also sometimes known as Siberian Bugloss and Heartleaf Bugloss.) Brunnera is most at home in woodlands or along shady stream beds, where it will form a lush understory of quiet beauty. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is a standout variety with frosted leaves veined and outlined in green. The plants grow to 12″ tall and as wide, and while the blossoms provide a fleeting show, the foliage looks superb all season long.

Mertensia virginica
Mertensia virginica

Everyone loves Virginia Bluebells (M. virginica) for their sapphire blue flowers on 18″ stems that gleam from shady spots in April and May, making them an ideal underplanting for shrubs and trees. Plants thrive in deciduous shade and moist soil, where they will seed themselves to create a charming colony.

Trillium grandiflorum 'Flore Pleno'
Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’

Trilliums are spring-blooming wildflowers much prized by woodland gardeners for their delicate, 3-petaled flowers and distinctive foliage. Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’ is an exquisite double form that produces pure white flowers in April and May, which will enchant you and all visitors to your garden.

Magnolia Branch

Forcing Branches for a Preview of Spring

Cherry tree blossom
Even a single branch forced indoors can bring a welcome preview of spring. This twig from a Cherry tree blossomed after three weeks indoors.

At this time of year, we’re always reminded of the benefits of having a variety of spring-blooming shrubs and trees in the garden. We’re midway through winter, and although it’s been a remarkably mild one here in the Northeast, the landscape of browns, greys, and whites has begun to prey on our spirits. To introduce a bit of vibrant natural color and beauty to our indoor rooms, and to do it economically, we force branches. You don’t need any special gear or know-how, just a pair of clean, sharp pruners and a few of the right trees and shrubs in your yard.

Witch Hazel in bloom
It’s been such a mild winter that the Witch Hazel had already bloomed outdoors before we went looking for cuttings.

Among our favorites for forcing are Witch Hazel (Hamamelis), Magnolia, Forsythia, Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), Shadbush (Amelanchier), flowering Quince (Chaenomeles), crabapple (Malus), flowering pear (Pyrus), flowering Cherry (Prunus), Viburnum, and Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas).

Sometimes starting as early as January but more likely in February and March, we make regular forays into the garden. We choose days when the temperature is above freezing, and not only for ourselves. The milder temperatures help ease the transition the plants must make from outdoors to indoors. While enjoying the fresh air in our lungs and the physical exertion of wading through snow (if there is any), we cut our branches.

cutting branches
Using clean pruners, cut branches or twigs with plenty of buds on them. It’s best to do the cutting on a day when the temperature is above freezing.

The guidelines are very simple, the trees and shrubs generally very forgiving, and the results well worth the effort. Here’s how:

  • Cut only branches that are nonessential to the form of your shrub or tree, or make sure you confine your cutting to the back side of the plant, if there is one, or to crowded sections where a branch or two will not be missed.
  • Choose sections that are at least 1’ long and generously punctuated by plump flower buds. (In most cases, you will see leaf buds on the branches, too, but those are generally smaller and pointy at the tips.)
  • Use proper pruning techniques (see Pruning Tips below).
  • Bring the branches indoors and put them in a sink or sturdy vase or vessel full of warm water. (The vessel should be one that won’t tip when the weight and size of branches are added to it.)
  • Some gardeners recommend re-cutting the branches or goring the stems near the cut while the branch or stem is underwater. This can facilitate uptake of water and negate the possibility of air entering the stem and sealing out the water. We confess we do this only some of the time, and the vast majority of branches blossom either way.
  • Arrange your branches in the sturdy vase or vessel, and set it in a sunny spot indoors. Avoid locations atop radiators or near heat sources (although, we confess, we have broken that rule a time or two, and the buds still bloomed).
  • Replace the water in your container every few days. Bacteria will flourish and impede the progress of your forcing. Severe enough bacteria has the opportunity to set rot in your forcing branches.
fat buds of Cornus mas
The fat buds of a Cornus mas tree are almost ready to break open into yellow flowers.

Generally speaking, the nearer the date is to a plant’s natural blooming time, the sooner will begin flowering indoors.

Pussy Willow branches
Pussy Willows are a great choice for forcing indoors. They don’t require water, and they last for ages.

Pussy Willows can be cut in winter and brought indoors, too. Wait until the downy catkins have broken out of their casings. Cut lengths that measure at least 1’. Bring them indoors and put them in a vase with or without water. They will retain their good looks for a very long time either way.

Magnolia blossomo
A Magnolia blossom in full bloom.

The colors and natural beauty these branches bring to indoor spaces lift the spirits in winter. They leave no doubt that spring is on the march.

Pruners and vase
Cut branches and put them in water as soon as possible. Some gardeners recommend cutting stems again while they’re under water to prevent air from getting inside. We confess we haven’t always done this, and most of our branches bloom beautifully anyway.

Proper Pruning Techniques

  • Use a clean, sharp pruner
  • Make steeply angled cuts to encourage water uptake
  • Clean pruners with warm soapy water after each use