Ask the Master Gardener: Force flowering can bring a touch of spring indoors in late winter

Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring form their flower buds the previous year. Now is the time you can cut tree and shrub branches to force them to flower.

Flowering branches of a shrub.
At this time of year tree and shrub branches can be cut to force flowering indoors.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: When can I cut my tree branches to force flowering indoors? How is it done?

Answer: One way to bring a touch of spring to our indoors is to cut branches of flowering trees and shrubs and force them to flower. Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring form their flower buds the previous year. Now is the time you can cut tree and shrub branches such as forsythia, witch hazel, poplar, willow, red maple, serviceberry, apple, crabapple, pussy willow and cherry. Next month you can cut branches of hawthorns, honeysuckle, mock orange, lilac, and spirea. According to Professor Leonard Perry at the University of Vermont Extension the steps to take are as follows:

Flowering shrub branches.
One way to bring a touch of spring to our indoors is to cut branches of flowering trees and shrubs and force them to flower.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

  • Carefully prune out branches so you don’t injure the plant or ruin its shape. Use sharp pruners, and cut branches at least 12 inches long. Select branches with a large number of flower buds, which are often on younger branches. Make sure you are looking at flower buds and not leaf buds. The flower buds are usually larger and rounder. If in doubt, cut a few buds open to look for leaf or flower parts inside. Branches force more readily if cut on a sunny afternoon or when temperatures are above freezing.
  • Bring the cut branches indoors and place them immediately in water. Mist them often the first few days or enclose them in a plastic bag out of direct sun. If possible, submerge the whole stems in water, such as in a bathtub, overnight. This allows buds and stems to quickly absorb water and begin to break dormancy.
  • Make a slit or two in the bottom of the stem before placing in the water, such as in a cross or star pattern when viewed from the bottom. 
  • Keep branches in a bucket of water in a cool area (60-65 degrees). Warmer temperatures cause buds to develop too rapidly and not open properly. Change the water every two to three days to keep it clean.
  • Low humidity may also cause buds to fall off. Try to keep branches near a humidifier or misted. Direct sunlight also may cause buds to fall, so keep in bright but indirect light.
  • Once the flower buds show color, the branches can be used in arrangements. Floral preservatives may increase the vase life of the branches.

Dear Master Gardener: My amaryllis bulb has a couple smaller bulbs growing next to the big bulb. Should I divide and repot the smaller ones? When is the best time?

Answer: It depends. Amaryllis bulbs often multiply and can be carefully separated to create new plants. To separate the babies from the mother plant, lift the plant from the container it is growing in. When the pup is at least one-third the size of the mother bulb, separate it by pulling it downward or carefully twisting it. You can also use a sharp knife to separate it. Get as much of the roots as possible and keep them intact. If there are smaller pups attached to the main bulb, let them grow a little more. Put the mother plant back in the same pot. Plant the baby in a smaller pot with well-draining soil. Place the pot with the baby plant in a sunny window and keep it indoors until the bulb has grown to at least 2-3 inches in diameter. Keep the soil evenly moist, but do not overwater it or the bulb will rot. The best time to remove the baby amaryllis bulb from the mother bulb is when the plant goes dormant in fall.


Dear Master Gardener: What’s a good replacement product for peat when I make or purchase potting mixes? Why shouldn’t I be using peat products anymore?

Answer: Gardeners have been adding peat moss to potting soil and gardens for generations. It has been a popular amendment because it lightens the soil, allows air to enter, and holds moisture without being too wet. It is often used as an amendment when growing acid-loving plants, such as blueberries and Rhododendrons. What most people may not realize is that peat takes hundreds of years to form and is being harvested at non-sustainable rates. Peat bogs provide a unique ecosystem for birds and animals, and scientists consider the bogs to be as fragile and important as rainforests. So, the growing and harvesting practices of peat moss have come under scrutiny as environmentally unsound practices. In fact, the British government has banned the sale of peat compost to gardeners, which will take effect in 2024. Most of the peat moss used in the United States is harvested from the bogs in Canada.

A good replacement for peat moss is coconut coir, which is also known as coco peat, or coir peat. When coconuts are harvested and husked, the short fibers that are left over are used in horticulture. This is probably the best-known and most popular alternative to peat moss.

Dear Master Gardener: Last night we turned on our outdoor lights and saw a dozen or so flying squirrels around our bird feeder. Is this unusual?

Answer: No, it’s quite common, but because flying squirrels are nocturnal, most people never see them. There are two kinds of flying squirrels found in Minnesota, the southern and northern. The northern is somewhat larger and heavier than the southern. Here in central Minnesota the habitats overlap.

Flying squirrels do not actually fly. Rather, they glide from post to post, sometimes traveling over 100 feet, though most glides are 20-30 feet. Folds of skin stretching from the squirrels’ ankles to wrists can be stretched taut and form planing surfaces.

The squirrels are about the size of a chipmunk, weighing 2-3 ounces and a length of 9-11 inches (including tail). Their fur is dense, soft and silky, gray-brown on the back and white on the underside and tail. Their eyes are large and ringed with black, much like a raccoon. They nest in tree hollows and leaf nests and feed on fruits, grains, nuts, insects and small birds. They are very fond of bird feeders. They do not hibernate and have mild dispositions.

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You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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