Tackling late-winter garden chores? Treat yourself to a touch of spring

There are plenty of outside jobs in February and March to fill those snatches of sunshine and good weather. Start with the small ones and gradually work up to pruning your old fruit trees or planting new ones. Soon you'll have a jump on spring.

On one of your first trips around the yard, take your pruning snips and cut some branches for forcing into bloom indoors. Any kind of fruit tree is good. Forsythia and pussy willows are traditional symbols of spring. You can also force any of the dogwoods, magnolias, honeysuckle, redbud, shadbush, and bridalwreath.

Red maple, buckeye, birch, hickory, larch, or oak trees will soon unfurl either flowers, foliage, catkins, or red leaves that change gradually to green. If your yard has none of them, try a few branches of whatever you have, or make a trip to the nearest timber or bushy ditch.

Always remember the principles of good pruning whenever you cut from any plant. Prune flush with the trunk or main branch, and leave no stubs. Take branches that are interfering with the shape or crowding the shrub. And take only a few from each plant so they will not be missed when the main attraction of outdoor bloom begins.

Those buds have held flowers that were fully formed since last fall.

Some plants, such as forsythia, have separate buds for flower and leaf. The fatter ones are flowers, so select branches that are rich in these. Also, have in mind the size, place, and needed lines of the arrangement you plan to make so you can choose the branches that are most useful and least wasteful.

When you bring the branches into the house, take a hammer and mash or shred the bottom ends of the woody stems by a few blows against a block or stone. This stops the natural healing process that otherwise could soon seal off a small cut end. It also lets the water be absorbed more freely.

Next, soak the branches overnight in lukewarm water in the bath or laundry tub. Or you can put the branches in a bucket and wrap a damp towel around the tops.

Put the cans or buckets with your branches in a cool place. It can be dark at the initial stage. A basement is fine, or a cool bedroom or porch.

Try to get as close as you can to the cool, damp outdoor conditions where the bloom would normally occur. Higher temperatures and the dryness of normal rooms will speed up bud development, and the color, size, and keeping quality of the bloom will not be as good.

As soon as the buds are plump, bring them to a well-lighted but not sunny spot and arrange them to suit your needs or your mood. Sometimes I get very artistic, and at other times I simply enjoy flowering branches placed in a canning jar.

The main thing is to enjoy the display from the first touch of color until the pussy willows have leafed out, rooted, and beg to be planted.

The Japanese always give flowers in the bud stage for maximum enjoyment, but they can't be half as happy as snow-weary Northerners of the United States to see a cold, brittle branch burst into the year's first bloom.

For more detailed instructions, you can send for a bulletin, ''Forcing Trees and Shrubs for Indoor Bloom,'' from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853. The cost is 35 cents. At the same time you may want to include another 25 cents and get the pamphlet ''Sequence of Bloom of Perennials, Biennials, and Bulbs'' for reference in future garden planning.

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