Here we are in March and spring is just around the corner. In fact, meteorological spring began March 1, while astronomical spring begins March 20.
But though warm spells set us to thinking of getting out and doing yard and garden work, the truth is, we still have some time before we can do much at all outside. That, however, shouldn’t stop us from at least enjoying a few spring-themed projects.
Forcing blooms involves nothing more complex than going out, cutting some branch tips, bringing them inside and placing them in a water-filled vase or even, as in my case, a Mason jar.
Candidates for indoor forcing include apple, peach, pear, lilac and forsythia. All will produce colorful blooms in just a short time. Some other choices include white birch and willow. These won’t give us any blossoms, but they will pretty up any setting with their light-green foliage. In fact, people in Scandinavian countries are particularly fond of forcing white birch branchlets, since the green leaves contrast nicely with the brilliant white bark.
In my case, a flowering crabapple tree in front of my house gives me lots of material for forcing. This tree, a grafted, weeping variety, grows like a weed and if not kept within bounds by pruning, will quickly become unmanageable and unattractive.
And while cutting some branch tips for forcing doesn’t represent a major pruning job, it doesn’t hurt the tree at all. When truly warm weather finally arrives, the tree will leaf out, bloom, and no one will ever know that you have swiped some of it for forcing.
No matter what you intend to force, it is important to note that it is last year’s growth, the flexible end of branches, that we need to use. These contain the flowering mechanisms that will give us this season’s blossoms.
So after identifying new growth, it’s time to take shears or a very sharp knife and snip off a handful of 10- to 12-inch branch tips. Try to take ones that exhibit good numbers of flower buds, otherwise you will succeed in forcing mostly leaves.
After taking your branch tips inside, it’s time for the final treatment. First, make sure the cut ends are flat, not beveled, which sometimes happens when cutting with a knife. Then, with a hammer, smash the lower, or cut, end of each stem. This will allow it to absorb the maximum amount of water.
Now place them in a container filled with warm water, so as to begin the waking-up process. Then set your springtime bouquet in a light, but not bright (never in direct sunlight) spot and make sure to keep the water level at maximum by checking regularly and filling when needed.
Fresh flowers in March? Sounds like a pipe dream, but it isn’t. Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, a dandelion look-alike, often blooms as early as the first week of March. This usually happens on south-facing hillsides.
One of my favorite places to view these bright-yellow springtime blossoms sits along a tidal river near my home. Here, a steep bank melts early in the year because of the direct angle at which the sun’s rays hit it. In other words, it is a perfect setup for coltsfoot.
And while the steep bank gives coltsfoot a perfect home, the coltsfoot helps prevent erosion. It’s a win-win situation for both plant and bank.
Coltsfoot is commonly known as son-before-the-father, because the plant goes out of sight and out of mind once the flowers and their red-scaled stalk finally dissipate. But later, often much later, leaves appear and because of the time differential between flowers and leaves, it’s natural to assume that the large, hoof-shaped leaves are from another, altogether different plant. But that’s not the case, as we now know.
I like making a small bouquet of coltsfoot blossoms. Because the stalk is only 6 to 8 inches long, this little bouquet requires only a small container.
A bunch of blooming coltsfoot stalks makes a great plant for either the table or windowsill. And who would have thought, fresh, blooming flowers in early March.
If you can’t recall where you last saw coltsfoot blooming, just take a leisurely drive and look for south-facing roadside banks. Eventually, you will find your own source of coltsfoot.
Finally, remember to secure permission to pick any wildflower, if at all possible.
Anyone with a maple tree or two can collect enough sap to make their own maple syrup. The task is now much easier than in years past because of modern equipment. When I first began tapping my maple trees, I made spiles (sap spouts) from hollowed-out lengths of white cedar. Then an upgrade came in the form of metal spiles. But still, it was necessary to secure a container to the tree so the sap would drip-drip-drip into the container.
All of that has gone by the wayside. Now, for a small cash outlay, you can buy an enclosed sap pail, plastic spiles, various types of connectors and as much plastic tubing as is needed. The people at your local garden center or hardware store have all you need, including advice on everything to do with tapping trees.
To begin, drill into your tree, going in on a slight downward angle, insert a spile with gentle taps and then push a length of tubing onto the spile. The other end of the tubing goes through a hole in the top of the sap bucket. This eliminates any chance of insects, bark and other debris polluting the fresh sap.
Setting up a system on one or two trees takes all of five minutes. The real work begins when the bucket or buckets become full of sap. Then it’s time to boil it down into syrup. This can be done in several ways.
Anyone with a propane burner such as those used for deep-frying whole turkeys has a ready-made sap boiler. Set up outside, get the sap going at a raging boil, sit back and wait. In very little time, your five gallons of sap will condense into a sweet, thick syrup.
The other way, and this comes with a caveat, is to boil your sap on the kitchen stove. People warn of this, saying that the sticky, airborne residue will coat your kitchen walls. But I have done my sap this way for years and never had a problem.
And don’t be fooled by the “lighter is better” trap. Light-colored maple syrup is fine, but it can’t hold a candle to the darker variety. It’s all good, though.
One final note, while sugar maple has the highest sugar content in its sap, red maple works, too; it just takes a little more sap to get an equal amount of syrup. So no matter which kind of maple tree you have at your disposal, red maple or sugar maple, set your taps on the south-facing side and prepare to make your own, homemade maple syrup.
Want a fun spring project for children? Take them on a springtail hunt. On warm days when snow melts, look for thousands of black dots on the snow at the base of trees. Keep watching and you’ll see that each tiny dot is a living creature.
Springtails are tiny (0.2-inch) insects with a springing device on their belly. With this, springtails can jump a great distance. A magnifying glass will help in witnessing this vernal spectacle. And I guarantee that the children will be fascinated. It’s a great way to get out, get some exercise and enjoy an early sign of the coming spring.