Friday, October 31, 2008

No, you did not order more bulbs!

Yes, I did. I almost feel like I should summon up an evil laugh or two as I make this admission. Were 430 bulbs not enough? Apparently not. It was the last ditch email from Old House Gardens that did it. I looked through the offerings and noticed that they did have a couple of the interesting tazetta or tazetta blends left, including Erlicheer, a double (above) and Grand Primo (below). These will take a brief chilling of 2 weeks in the root cellar and then they can be brought upstairs like any other paperwhite.

Except that they have a daffodil look and fresh fragrance. Old House Gardens is a wonderful vendor and I felt badly that I had not ordered from them this year. Perhaps I’ll try some of their dahlias in the spring.

It’s the activity—ordering, potting up (most likely with pebbles), chilling and then tending that I’m looking for. It’s the whole winter gardening thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sublimations, but they’ll do

Many of you are in the same boat, so I know you’ll relate to this accounting of non-gardening activities that manage to engage me in similar ways.

First, of course, there are the indoor versions of gardening: the houseplants, the plant room, the bulb forcing. We’ve discussed those before. It’s gardening in a way, but not at all the same as being outdoors surrounded by plants, birds, insects, urban noise, strange people passing by, and barbecue smells. Of course not. Still, a gardenia bud is opening in the plant room, and that makes me happy. And let me just say that an orchid has not died in at least 4 months.

Then there is the wonderful world of seasonal décor. I don’t have to bother with this during the spring and summer; I have containers of flowers and hanging baskets as well as whatever happens to be growing out of the dirt. During the off season, however, the house can look kind of stark. Today I visited Lockwood’s, my favorite local garden center, and they did not disappoint. There were hay bales, straw wreaths, pumpkins, gourds, baby Indian corn, and some branches of dried seedpods (kind of pricey). I bought a lovely swan-necked gourd (top) and a few other items.

Love the wreath. You can’t really go nuts with harvest décor though, because very soon it will be time for …

Holiday décor. I’m much more successful with indoor evergreens, berries, candles, and other such items than I am with outdoor decorations. I would really like to do more with lighting. We lack an easily accessible outlet for lights though and until we get one it will be difficult. I’d love LED lights, but in the meantime I am considering some solar options from Gardener’s Supply. Figuring out all this stuff helps keep your mind off the fact that you’re not gardening.

A third and probably the most satisfying option is shopping online for spring plants and seeds. This can begin as early as January (it really should not start much before that) and the order can go in in February. By then your indoor bulbs are in bloom, and before you know it the snowdrops have started and you’re on your way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bulb FAQ: the post you've all been waiting for

Or not. Here are a few of the common questions I get on bulbs, and a whole bunch of questions I made up so I can spread my own bulb propaganda. I have linked to earlier bulb posts whenever appropriate. And keep in mind that I have tried to focus on what the common bulb wisdom does NOT tell you.

Also keep in mind that this is the GWI bulb FAQ and you may disagree with it. All I can say is that the following advice works for me.

The turkistanica species tulip will naturalize readily.

Q. I love tulips, but I don’t plant them anymore because they don’t come back. How do I get them to last? Should I fertilize?
A. Hybrid tulips are not reliable perennials. They don’t come back that well unless given full sun, perfect drainage, and foliage that is allowed to die back completely. And even then, they only last about 2-3 years. On the other hand, they give so much beauty for such a relatively small amount of money, why not just accept them as annuals, and replenish as needed? This is why I often use pots for hybrids. I never fertilize them; why bother? I do compost them when they are done. Or friends take them, horrified at my “waste.” Then they plant them and they don’t come up.
For true perennial tulips, you should look to the dainty wildflower look of the species tulips. These need to be planted generously to make an impact, but the bulbs are small, and easy to drop in anywhere.

Here's an unusual species tulip: t. acuminata.

Q. What's the best way to plant tulips?
A. I'm no designer and I don't even play one on TV, but I think tulips need to be planted en masse, in big groups, and never in a row or any such regimented arrangement. What I like to do is dig a big hole and throw as many as 50 in there. They shouldn't be on top of each other but can be closely packed. That will give you a tulip display worth looking at. Or you can plant them in a long river or swathe. Again, don't worry about spacing. And those bulb-planting tools? They suck. A good shovel is all you need.

Here are two Single Late varieties: Queen of the Night and Blushing Lady, planted in a big, tightly packed group.

Q. How do I keep the squirrels from eating my tulip bulbs, or the rabbits/deer from eating the shoots as they come up?
A. Squirrels are easy. Just put some wire screening or other similar barrier over the top of the hole you’ve dug and cover all with dirt. I have never had to do this, though we have tons of squirrels. Sometimes I sprinkle crushed red pepper over the planting, but I’m uncertain that there’s even a need. Deer and rabbits are far more persistent and will require fencing or some really nasty-smelling repellent like Liquid Fence. I have heard that this works.
Don’t give up. I know many suburbanites with tons of deer who have lovely bulb gardens.

Martagon lilies are the first to bloom in mid-June.

Q. How late can I plant bulbs?
A. I have heard that if you can get them into the ground—even if that requires a drill—you can plant them. But I also hear it’s better to get them in by the end of November (in Northern/Midwestern/MidAtlantic zones), so they can settle in and be able to withstand the cold. What you shouldn’t do is try to save them for the next year. Get them in the ground; it’s worth a shot.

I do a lot of hybrid tulips in pots: a moveable feast.

Q. I don’t have room for bulbs—how to fit them in?
A. Oh yes you do have room. Have you considered keeping them in pots? This works very well and they bloom at the same time as they would in the ground. Or you can force them, in which case they will bloom in early March. Hyacinths are better than tulips for forcing. I have instructions for all this here.

Q. All this obsession with bulbs, but you rarely talk about daffodils. Why?
A. I’m not a big fan of the large daffodil cultivars in my small urban space. Plus, even though daffodils perennialize better, they still need sun for their leaves to die back, which takes forever and is a most unattractive process. After my trees leaf out, I don’t have that sun. And I have had some fancy daffodils that ARE in full sun regress completely into bud blast. Fie on them. Since I am a fan of the fancy cultivar, this is discouraging. For me. You do what you want.

I've just started planting this white erythronium. It's native to the West Coast.

Q. OK, you’re not a daffodil fan. What are your favorite bulbs?
A. I love all the little species tulips and such wildflower bulbs like erythronium (though not strictly a bulb). I also love galanthus and scilla. But my very favorites are lilium. They have become my specialty. They are utterly exotic looking, with fragrance to make you swoon, yet they are hardier than almost any other bulb, clean through zone 3. It saddens me that so many gardeners think lilies begin and end with Stargazers; there are so many more interesting varieties. It kind of annoys me when people refer to daylilies (hemerocallis) as lilies, though I know I shouldn’t care.
Lilies can be planted in the ground in fall and in spring, which makes them unique in the bulb world. They also work very well in pots, as long as those pots are stored in a cool garage or facsimile thereof over the winter. (This information all pertains to zone 6 and lower.)

This lilium is called Amazing. I think it is a descendent of the auratum species lilium.

Q. What's the difference between buying my bulbs at Costco, Home Depot or wherever and from specialty bulb vendors like Brent & Becky’s?
A. Well, companies like Brent & Becky’s and Old House Gardens are small businesses that really care about their plants. They are obsessed with finding new and hardier cultivars and delight in bringing them to you. Their bulbs are opften bigger and healthier than big box bulbs. And if you carefully select from these companies, you know you won’t have the same tulips as everyone else.

These are truly wild lilies, the species henryi. They get really tall and multiply with ease.

Q. Are there general culture requirements for bulbs?
A. Of course, different type of bulbs have different requirements, but I think it’s safe to say that almost all of them like good drainage. I don’t have great drainage, which is why I love putting them in pots. Most of them need sun before and (especially) after bloom (to promote return). A few shade-friendly bulbs are scilla (squill), galanthus (snowdrops), and erythronium (trout lily). The same compost you would use for the rest of the bed would be fine for the bulbs. Their foliage must be left to die back after they’ve bloomed (unless treating and annuals), and most will take an acid soil.
I think the least obstrusive foliage can be found in the little species tulips, other small bulbs, and the lilies, which really are just a stalk.

Erythronium "Pagoda" has glossy, mottled foliage.

Q. All I’m hearing about is flowers. What about foliage?
A. Most bulbs don’t have terribly attractive foliage, with the stunning exception of erythronium and a couple of the Kaufmanniana tulips—Red Emperor is a good example . Erythronium have wonderful glossy, mottled, foliage. If only it would remain through the season—they would become the perfect plants.

Here's a close-up of the lovely martagon lily.

Q. I’m bored with all this blah-blahing about bulbs. Can you stop now?
A. Yes! But I may add to this FAQ later on, depending on comments and other stuff that happens to float into my bulb-obsessed head.

The images you see here are all from my garden: no idealized catalog porn!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Such as it is, the garden inside

You see above the freshly stocked plant room: 2 large gardenias, a banana, an alocasia, a colocasia (Thai giant), 2 jasmines, 3 orchids, 2 hippeastrum, a big croton, a sansevieria, a cactus assortment, a Christmas cactus, and 2 common houseplants that probably have long unpronounceable names. I can’t recall them and I don’t think I have the tags. (You can't see all of these, but believe me, they're there.)

It looks great now, but we’ll see how things progress as we get into the winter months. Probably one or two will get strange ailments that cause all their leaves to drop off, and I’m sure I’ll have to deal with some infestations. The lights still aren’t right; maybe the local hydroponic place will have some better bulbs that can screw into regular sockets. If not, why not? This really burns me up (ha). Seriously, it should be easier for the average gardener to install acceptable grow lights. There should be something other than those awkward fixtures.

In early January, it will be time for the hyacinths to come in here. That will be a trick. Maybe I should hope for some casualties. For the next five months or so, this room, the houseplants elsewhere in the house, and the bulbs in the root cellar will combine to form my indoor garden. It’s not quite the same, but I’ll be supplementing with trips to the botanical gardens, garden books, and, of course, reading and writing blogs.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why I do bulbs in pots

You may think that I rely on bulb forcing and bulbs in containers just because I have a small space. Not at all. I could easily plant plenty of bulbs in my sunny or part-sunny beds. But over the years I’ve learned a few things about bulbs that make containers a preferable option in many cases. I still do plenty of tulips in the ground, but I do equally as many in pots, because:

1. Hybrid tulips do not return reliably except in ideal conditions: full sun and excellent drainage. I could never expect to plant them and have them come back for more than a year or maybe two.
2. Hyacinths return (for a while) but they tend to look stubby and artificial in a the ground (before they tip over, that is). The hyacinthoides hispanica do much better in a naturalizing situation. I think the old-fashioned charm of true hyacinths is best appreciated indoors. Back in the day, ambitious indoor gardeners forced hundreds of hyacinths every winter.
3. There are so many wonderful cultivars in the bulb world; containers allow me to grow different types every year. This year I am experimenting with 3 doubles in containers: the Orange Princess, Black Hero, and Yellow Mountain.
4. The big containers of tulips can be moved around for decorative purposes.
5. Bulbs are fun. Using containers allows me to have more fun with them.

For forcing, the hyacinths and tulips need to be placed near the top of the pot, with a thin layer of dirt on top, and they should be tightly packed, as shown above and below. They will need 8-12 weeks in a cool, dark, but not freezing room (40-50 degrees). When they come out, they should still be in a darker room for a week or so, and then moved near a sunny window. This year I am forcing Negrita and Amazone triumph tulips, and Carnegie, Raphael, and Isabelle hyacinths.

For containers that are to be stored in an unheated garage (above and below), the bulbs should act just as they would in the ground and be planted that way, about 6 inches down. In April the pots can come out. A thorough watering before they go in the garage and again when they come out should be enough.

Questions about forcing and container bulbs? Ask in comments. I’ve been doing it for some years, and might be able to help. Or not!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bits and pieces of October OK-ness

These are—mostly—the same images I’ve been posting on this blog for the past month or so. The only difference is that the plants are hanging in there as viably as they are. To be honest, I’m ready for the garden to go dormant at about this time. I am planning for the spring, figuring out what went wrong over the summer, and enjoying just lazing around during the warm fall days. And maybe dreading dealing with the leaves—just a bit.

The value of the pond is very evident at this time. I think of what the plot of perennials that were there formerly would look like at this time. Pretty boring. Instead, I still have the plants that border it (there are quite a few of them) and the wonderful noise it makes. It also doubles as a bird bath.

Otherwise, we have our usual hydrangeas: Annabelle turning whiter, Alpenglow turning browner; Limelight turning pinker—and so on. A David Austin rose, Charlotte, has a couple blooms, and Mme. Julia Correvon clematis has some too. The potted annuals are still going strong. It will be colder by this weekend and I hope to be able to empty those pots and fill them with bulbs. But as you can see, they’re still healthy looking.

This post is part of the international Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day monthly round-up. Visit May Dreams Gardens to see links (in comments) to other bloggers who have also completed posts.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fall is the new summer

At least this year. We had a wet summer; the rain was very good for the garden (except for vegetables), but got to be tiresome after a while. But September has been glorious: balmy and sunny. Other than wishing more perennials would bloom at this time, I am happier with my early October garden than I usually am.

I invited friends over for drinks on the patio and a bulb-potting activity, and I used a few tricks to freshen the garden.

Pots from the front stoop were moved back to the patio to fill it out. I tied up the tall rudbeckia stalks and cut down some lily stalks that had yellowed (enough for rebloom).

I even brought back a window box and hung it on the trellis. The pond has a lot of leaves at this time, so it had to be cleaned, and I brought down an extra tropical that will stand the nighttime temps.

Add a big punchbowl full of specialty cocktail, some interesting cheeses and a bunch of friends and you’re set. (I used vodka; an Italian mandarin liquor; St Germaine, which is an elderflower liquor; and just enough sparkling water to reduce its deadliness.)

There's just one problem. I really don't feel like working in the garden: I get enough of that in the spring and summer. I want to relax. There is however, a problem with that. 430 little round problems, to be exact, all sitting in boxes in the back room. Some of them direct from Holland.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Late season revelations

Some garden bloggers had a bit of show ‘n’ tell on the Plurk network today. The idea was to fearlessly display large areas of our gardens so that we could have a sense of what each of us is actually talking about when we describe a plant or a problem. It’s impossible to really see a garden in photographs, of course. I know I always try to go for the most flattering angle possible, which isn’t what you’d see in person. Above is my favorite view—through the walled sunny bed to the pond, across the patio.

This is the front; its ground cover will soon be all tangled with leaves. What a pain. You can’t see some side perennial beds I am developing to the left, along the walkway to the back. I will working on those further in the spring.

This is behind the house, toward the alley. It’s an area that requires very little care exceopt some watering; it’s all ground cover, a few perennials and bulbs, and, of course, tree roots.

On the micro level, I still have some flowers: dahlia, boltonia, verbena boniarensis, heliopsis, and plenty of potted annuals.
The hydrangea are turning color, but there isn’t much fall color anywhere else—not in the Boston ivy or the maples. It’s all still pretty green.

And here are some potted blush noisettes I’ve had for about eight years. I store them in the root cellar. I sometimes wonder how much of the pot is now filled with their roots. Pretty much all of it, I’d say.

Two other plurkers who showed their gardens are Mary Ann/Idaho Gardener and Cindy/My Corner of Katy.

ADDENDUM: For a full view of the autumn garden, click here.