Bright & Early Blooms

One of the first shrubs to bloom, flowering quince heralds spring.
Rebecca Bull Reed

I love quince for many reasons but admit the flowers are the real hook for me. It's always a thrill to spy that first splash of color--a signal that winter is nearing its end. Right when I need it most, this plant brightens the garden and gets me excited about the season ahead. As easy to grow as it is pretty, flowering quince (Chaenomeles sp.) can be found in garden centers now as it comes into bloom. Here's what you should know.

What Quince Needs
The list is short--full sun and well-drained soil pretty much sum it up--but a little partial shade isn't bad. Periodic pruning will help to keep size in check and eliminate stray branches. Make cuts at the base of the plant once flowering has finished. Never hack back the entire shrub evenly, or you'll end up with a vegetative mess that is ugly, encourages disease, and jeopardizes blooms.

Most flowering quince grow to 6 feet tall or more, so if you need something shorter (say 2 to 3 feet), opt for low-growing options, such as 'Cameo,' 'Jet Trail,' or 'Minerva.'

When installing new plants, dig a hole that is no deeper than the depth of the soil in the pot but twice as wide. If you have heavy clay, plant atop a raised bed that has been built up with a mixture of loose topsoil and compost. Don't forget to mulch. Water well the first year, especially during summer, and then back off once they're established.

Not Without Fault but Worth It
Sure, quince has thorns, but I consider that a good feature. It makes a great barrier hedge along a property line--like having a barbed wire fence but visually more appealing.

Quince is not disease free. In extremely humid areas of the South, leaf spot can completely defoliate this rose-family member by midsummer. But flower lovers, don't fret: This old-fashioned reliable will still hang in there until winter and give you what you need when the dreary days seem too long to bear.

Once blooms fade, you'll forget about this relatively neutral fellow as it blends into the border. But about 12 months from now, when its colors start to show, you'll be happy to have this addition in your garden.

Cut and Come Inside
As pretty as flowering quince is in the garden, there is something magical about coaxing a branch laden with buds to open indoors. You can purchase unforced branches from the florist or cut your own from the garden once buds have begun to swell. It is also a great way to enjoy your blooms even though a late killing freeze may be pending. Cut branches as you would if pruning, and place in a vase of water near a sunny window. Buds will often begin to unfold in days. But be patient; a week or more can pass before buds open.

"Bright & Early" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living.