At first glance, in the dead of winter trees and shrubs look like a collection of lifeless stems and branches.  Not so.  Take a closer look and you will discover winter buds full of promise.

Already in late summer and fall of last year, trees and shrubs began forming flower buds in anticipation of spring growth. Some trees such as Elm and Oak have small, almost unrecognizable buds, while others such as Magnolia and Beech have robust, plump buds that can’t wait to be opened.

A flower or leaf bud is actually a tiny version of the real thing.  If you were to cut a bud in half and inspect it under a magnifying glass, you would see compressed leaves and flower buds, wrapped by a protective shell.

As long as the outer shell of the bud remains intact, the bud remains protected from winter cold and wind.  In spring, warmer temperatures and longer days trigger the buds to swell and finally open.

In Canada, where we have four seasons, plants enter a period of dormancy where cold temperatures prevent growth from occurring.  Each tree variety has its own requirement for length of dormancy, which is why apples always grow well in Ontario, while peaches are risk-free in Georgia.

Plants with no dormancy requirements are found in the jungle where it never freezes.  Tropical plants brought north from Florida will survive just fine in Canada provided they remain indoors protected from frost.

Trouble arises if a spring cold snap follows a winter warm spell.  If in February, we get an extended period of warm weather, a tree might be fooled and begin swelling its buds, thus exposing the tender leaves inside.  A hard overnight frost might harm the buds, causing buds and small leaves to turn black by morning.

Several plants with showy flowers can be tricked into flowering early if brought indoors in late winter or early spring, a process called indoor forcing.  Forsythias are the easiest to force indoors.  Use a sharp pruner to cut stems 1 or 2 feet long.  Remove the buds and stems of a 4-to-6-inch segment at the cut end of the branch and put in a bucket with 4 or 5 inches of water.

Store the bucket with branches in the basement where temperatures are 15 to 18 degrees C.  Check stems daily and as soon as they begin to show colour, rearrange the stems into a vase with water and place in a prominent spot.  For longer enjoyment, set the vase in a cool spot rather than a warm windowsill.

Other plants that work well for indoor forcing are Pussywillow, Apples, Quince, Flowering Dogwood, and Redbud.  Lilacs, Viburnum and Magnolia are also worth a try.  Just keep in mind that indoor forcing is easiest as spring becomes closer.