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DARREL KOEHLER: Get a jump on spring by forcing branches indoors

CALGARY, Alberta. - Winter can get long by late February, what with weeks of snow, cold and wind. Most of us, especially gardeners, need to see some green along with enjoying the sweet aroma of moist soil. Ah, spring.

If you live in this western Canadian city, whose booming economy is based on the oil and natural gas industry, you're in luck. Right in bustling downtown Calgary you will find a unique conservatory in a multi-story shopping center. You can enjoy a cup of coffee and pastry as you take in the view of this fabulous garden. Or, you can walk the pathways through a tropical rain forest even it's below zero outdoors.

The Prairie Gardener visited this garden last summer (winter would have been better) while on a tour bus trip to the Pacific Northwest. Our group enjoyed a lunch stop at Devonian Gardens. The garden, which opened in September 1977, is a favorite destination for local and international tourists, downtown workers and Calgary residents. Judging from the food court crowd that August day, we couldn't have picked a better stop to lunch and enjoy tropical beauty.

Spanning three levels of Toronto Dominion Square, Devonian Gardens is one of the world's largest indoor parks. It houses 20,000 plants representing more than 135 varieties of flora. You can stroll among blooming plants, a quiet garden and waterfalls. The plants are identified, always a plus for gardeners who are seeking the unusual.

The Prairie Gardener followed a meandering flower-banked pathway to the Quiet Garden, a secluded woodland setting nestled in the Gardens' northwest corner; strolled along tree-decked plazas, past waterfalls and fountains into the Sun Garden; fed fish and turtles; enjoyed the artwork and sculpture. Those with children found the facility to be a good place for youngsters to burn off excess energy.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; there is no fee although donations are accepted. A variety of events, including weddings, holiday parties, corporate functions and fund-raising events can be booked at the facility. If in Calgary, you will find the Devonian Gardens at 317 Seven Ave. S.W. Warning: Calgary is very busy downtown, especially with construction projects. Seek directions before venturing there.

Other sites

You don't have to travel to Calgary to get a respite from winter, though. If you are in the Twin Cities, take in the Como Park Conservatory near the Minnesota state fairgrounds where the winter flower show is in progress. The free show runs daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 15. For information, call (651) 487-8200. If in Winnipeg, there is a conservatory in Assinboine Park near the zoo. Milwaukee boasts three-glassed Mitchell domes, each housing a different environment ranging from desert to tropical rain forest. Chicago has its Lincoln Park Conservatory. One of the goals of the late Carolyn Anderson, who was long active with the Grand Forks Horticultural Society prior to her death in 2006, was for such a facility right here in Greater Grand Forks. Let's hope her dream will come to pass as we could all use some greenery as we go into the final lap of winter.

Early spring

While spring is still probably a month or longer away, don't fret. There's a way to get a jump on this joyous time by forcing branches indoors. This is an old practice is still common in Nordic countries. Among the Swedes and Finns, birch and other branches are forced to break bud indoors. Once they have lacy foliage, brightly dyed feather blooms are attached, bringing color and greenery to the bleak Nordic winter.

Among the easiest shrubs to force are lilacs, forsythia, honeysuckle and other spring bloomers. You also can force birch, alder ands pussy willow, which are especially attractive with catkins along with their delicate green leaves.

Here are some spring forcing tips from the North Dakota State Horticultural Society winter newsletter:

• Select young branches that are 6 to 18 inches long. Cut the branches just above a side bud so you don't create a branch stub. Select branches that won't be missed, and look at those with flower buds. The flower buds are generally bigger and plumper than leave buds. (Check your lilacs as the buds are already plumping up for the coming spring.)

• Once indoors, make a fresh diagonal cut. Peel some of the bark back at the cut end. Then totally immerse the branches into cool water overnight. This will prevent the buds from bursting prematurely.

• After the cool treatment, place the branches in a storage container or vase that will hold them upright. Add a couple of inches of hot (180-degree) water in the container with room temperature water in the container with the stems. After 25 minutes, fill the container with room temperature water. Keep the container full during the next few weeks. Place the container in a cool (60-degree), partially shaded room.

• In one to five weeks you should start seeing color. Move the budding branches into a bright room with indirect sunlight. Set the branches in a decorative vase with water, and treat them as would any cut flower.

As youngsters, we would just place lilac branches in a water-filled glass milk bottle. After a week or two, we would see tiny green leaves. But even that hint of spring was enough to get us through the next blizzard.

Gardening Saturday

Just a reminder that Gardening Saturday will be April 18 at the East Grand Forks Senior High School. As noted earlier, this is a site change from previous years. The event outgrew its former site at the East Grand Forks Sacred Heart School. The all-day event will feature Melinda Myers as keynote speaker. Myers is well -known to gardeners from her television shows as well as her 20 books. She is a regular feature writer for several glossy gardening publications as well.

The event, still in the final planning stages, is sponsored jointly by the Grand Forks Horticultural Society and the North Dakota State University Extension Service - Grand Forks County. Input and volunteers are needed. Phone Steve at (701) 780-8229 if you wish to participate or Leah at (701) 772-7938 if you can provide volunteer support either prior or on the day of the event. .

Koehler is the Herald's garden columnist. His column is published every Sunday in his section. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206-6008.