Pre-spring garden
By University of Illinois Extension
February 19, 2014
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URBANA, Ill. - Signs of spring are slowly emerging all around us. The grass is getting greener, bulbs are starting to emerge, early-flowering plants are blooming, and tree buds are swelling. Even some of the winter annual weeds are starting to grow, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Early-flowering shrubs include witchhazel and forsythia,” said Rhonda Ferree. “Witchhazel’s colors vary from yellow and orange to red, and most flowers open in February. When red, the flowers are not obvious, but on closer observation they are quite beautiful.

“Forsythia has a very showy yellow flower. Unfortunately, they are somewhat touchy and can be killed by cold. But, in the right year, they are gorgeous. Forsythia blooms on old wood and in a good year will bloom for two to three weeks,” she added.

The earliest-flowering trees are silver maples (Acer saccharinum), filberts (Corylus sp.), and willows (Salix sp.). Silver maple flowers range in color from yellowish to a red and also are not obvious. They appear as clusters on branches. Filbert plants each have two different flowers: male and female. Male catkins appear in early March, are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, yellowish brown, and quite showy. Most people are very familiar with the pussy or goat willows.

“As Michael Dirr writes in Hardy Trees and Shrubs, ‘When winter has lulled many people into a blue-gray funk, this species (willow) offers hope that, yes, spring is just around the corner,’” Ferree noted.

Early-flowering plants such as pussy willow, red maple, alder, birch, hazel, and forsythia are easy to force indoors. Once the flower buds are plump, simply cut a few branches and bring them indoors. Submerge the branches in a pail of water. If the bud scales are tough, you might first wrap them in a damp cloth and plastic for a few days to loosen the scales, but this is not always necessary. Start some new branches every week for continuous displays until spring.

“With bulbs, the gardening season begins with the snowdrops and winter aconites in early March,” she said. “Crocuses, grape hyacinth, scillas, and chionodoxas soon follow these and then the hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips. In most spring-flowering bulbs, the buds are already formed at the time the bulbs are planted in the fall.

“Foliage currently breaking ground should be cold tolerant and not easily burnt by our continuing cold weather. There is usually no need to cover early-emerging bulbs.”

Winter annual weeds are starting to grow as well. These plants came up last fall and spent the winter as small leaves. In the next month or so they will start to grow and flower, but will die out as summer approaches. Examples of these include common chickweed and most of the wild mustards. Henbit sometimes gives us those huge fields of purple in the spring. Most often these plants are considered weeds, but they actually have beautiful flowers when observed closely.

“Enjoy the approaching spring as it appears in the plants around us,” Ferree said. “Early spring flowers are beautiful and a welcome relief after a long winter.”