Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • Living Treasure from the Past
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Warm Winter Woes: Iris “Lightbulbs” and Scanty Bloom
Warmer than usual winters can cause all sorts of problems for plants, including bearded iris. In a recent post at the American Iris Society blog, World of Irises, Bonnie Nichols of zone-8a Dallas explains:
“In December [last year] when the Christmas Day temperature was 82 degrees ... we knew the iris bloom season was in jeopardy. And, it didn’t get better when on January 31 the high was 79 degrees.
“When I saw various bearded irises blooming in December and January, I asked friends if they thought it was rebloom or what would have been our spring bloom. We all had no idea. In April, we knew [it] was the ‘spring’ bloom because we ... had no additional bloom. Maybe 20% of tall bearded irises bloomed....
“We saw more than normal increases on some of the plants because they did not use their energy to bloom. On other plants we noticed something that we had not had much experience with – ‘lightbulb’ rhizomes. Lightbulbs are rhizomes with no increases and the roots wither away.... The rhizome increases in size and twists slightly as if it is pushed out of the ground. [If it blooms] the stalk comes up in the middle of the fan and dies back quickly. The rhizome eventually dries up and dies also....”
Commenting on Bonnie’s post, Phil Williams offered an alternative explanation: “Strong root growth is what produces good bloom here. Makes me wonder if the prolonged heat [in summer and fall] might have created a false dormancy ... and the plants did not root deeply.”
Either way, warmer temperatures are the culprit. Is that global warming? Bonnie says she’s not sure but “I’m beginning to believe it is.”
It’s definitely “a stunner,” as co-author David Michener of the University of Michigan Peony Garden told me, with page after page of glorious photos, many by co-author Carol Adelman of Oregon’s Adelman Peony Gardens. After chapters on peony history and origins, peony types, gardening with peonies, and peonies as cut flowers, most of the book is devoted to mouth-watering close-ups and short descriptions of nearly 200 peonies.
Although I wish there were more heirlooms in it, David and Carol have put together a line-up that’s impressively diverse. Most are herbaceous peonies, but there are plenty of intersectional and tree peonies, too, all dating from 1824 to 2015, and the incredible range of colors and forms is sure to have you ooo-ing and ahhh-ing. The book’s price is impressive, too – just $19 at Amazon. So what are you waiting for?
You don’t have to be a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books or TV series to enjoy it. The illustrations – antique images, original artwork from the books, and historic and modern photos – drew me in immediately, and Marta’s writing reads more like a conversation with a friend than a dissertation. The Wilders homesteaded in a half dozen states, from New York to South Dakota, and their story is more about growing food than flowers, as well as the untamed natural world they lived in.
At the end are chapters on “Visiting Wilder Gardens” and “Growing a Wilder Garden” today, and then just before the index there’s my favorite photo: a snapshot from 1962 of Marta’s family standing in her great-aunt’s backyard – “the flower garden that I imprinted on” – next to a big beautiful swath of tiger lilies.
Garden Insects of North America, second edition – I got a copy of this book for my birthday recently, and it’s even better than I expected. First of all it’s BIG: 704 pages, weighing a hefty five pounds. It’s so well bound, though, that it opens flat for easy reading, and the cover seems so durable that I won’t hesitate to take it with me into the garden.
Then there are the photos: 3300 of them, all in full color, and helpfully organized into chapters such as “Insects That Chew on Leaves and Needles.” I admit my first reaction to them was “gross!” Most bugs, after all, aren’t as photogenic as the caterpillar on the cover, and it’s daunting to see page after page of damaged plants. But before long I was discovering insects I’d seen before but didn’t know what they were – such as the tiny, mosaic-patterned ailanthus webworm moth – and I realized this book is going to be both useful and fun.
Superstar garden blogger Margaret Roach recently called it “a must for every gardening household,” and I couldn’t agree more. One caution, though: be sure to get the brand-new second edition which is bigger and better than the 2004 original.
Bulbs in Winter: Tips for Forcing, Tips for Storing
FORCING is fun, and end-of-season bulbs are often deeply discounted at local garden centers – so why not try blooming a few indoors this winter? Some are easy enough for children, while others require more finesse. For inspiration and tips, see our Forcing Bulbs How-To page and our Forcing Bulbs newsletter archives.
STORING tender bulbs like dahlias, glads, and tuberoses is even easier (although please remember that it’s also fine to just let them go). For our expert advice, see the “Winter Care” sections throughout our spring-planted Planting and Care page.
For example, you’ve probably noticed that seed pods can form on your tulips, lilies, and other bulbs if you don’t deadhead them after flowering – but how do those seeds end up as bulbs six or eight inches underground, without a gardener to plant them there?
The fascinating answer involves contractile roots, blue light, and – for tulips – the evolutionary pressure of marmots.
One caution, though: In an accompanying article, Larry recommends planting tulips a foot deep and says Darwin Hybrid and Viridiflora tulips often return best – but that’s not been our experience. For our tips on how to get your tulips to return and bloom year after year, visit oldhousegardens.com/HowToFall#Tulipa.
Protect Peonies and Iris with an Easy Fall Clean-Up
For healthier plants and more flowers, give your peonies and iris a simple fall clean-up.
PEONIES – Although peonies are generally care-free, they can be afflicted by powdery mildew (pictured here) and other fungal diseases.
To prevent spores from overwintering, cut peony stems as close to the ground as possible, carefully bagging everything as you go, and dispose in the trash instead of composting. For best results, do this earlier rather than later, before the leaves dry up.
IRIS – Fall is also the best time to control iris borers. Borers hatch in spring from eggs laid in fall on iris leaves and anything similar that’s close by. To destroy them, simply wait until after a hard frost kills the adult moths and then (a) cut back all leaves to a couple of inches and (b) remove, bag, and trash – don’t compost – the clippings and any debris or mulch that’s near the plants.
Heirloom bulbs are survivors, but even we were surprised by these two reports:
Here’s what our good customer Marianne Schmidt of zone-5b Stuyvesant, NY, had to say about one of our most fragrant tulips – although please note that we can’t guarantee it will work for you:
“Last spring the deer devoured all of my tulips EXCEPT ‘Generaal de Wet’. I don't know if it was the fragrance or color that turned them off, but this year I'm pinning all of my tulip hopes and expectations on this beautiful tulip!”
And though we’d never recommend planting tulips THIS late, we were happy to get this news about one of our oldest tulips from our long-time customer Tara Fitzpatrick of zone-6a South Hadley, MA:
“Testimony for your ‘Couleur Cardinal’ – I forgot a bag I had intended to force inside in the basement fridge all winter. I found and planted them in the garden in March during a thaw, and they bloomed perfectly in May!”
Pumpkin Spice Latte has returned, and coffee drinkers everywhere are rejoicing.
So why isn’t this wildly popular drink offered year-round, asks Joseph Tychonievich in the current issue of Michigan Gardening. Because then, he says, “we’d drink it, grow tired of it, move on, and forget about it. The fact that this special drink only comes around once a year makes it special.”
And we gardeners can learn from this, Joseph says. “Often in the garden we gravitate to things that bloom or look good for as long as possible,” but “gardens aren’t some math problem. . . . The really important harvest is not flowers or even food, but joy. So maybe it is time to step back a little from all of the long-blooming, forever-performing plants and embrace flowers that . . . instead inspire us with wild joy, anticipation, and glee.”
His top suggestion, we’re happy to say, is peonies – and we’re offering more than ever this fall! Although they don’t bloom forever, “for a few glorious weeks in late May or early June, they’ll positively cover themselves with huge, extravagant, powerfully fragrant flowers.”
“You'll look forward to that . . . all year long. As the buds swell, you'll check them each day. When they finally open, you'll sit next to them drinking in the rich scent. You'll cut armloads of them. . . . You may even throw a party in their honor.”
Of course “it doesn’t have to be peonies,” Joseph adds. “Find a plant that you truly love, that really thrives and performs in your garden, ignore the fact that it only blooms for a couple weeks in a year, and then plant them by the dozens and revel deeply in the sheer magic of their performance.
“Don't let anyone tell you they aren't practical. Gardening is about passion, not practicality. . . . Remember the lesson of the Pumpkin Spice Latte and keep some magic and anticipation in your garden.”
A long-time customer – who asked to remain anonymous – emailed us this sad report after reading our article “The Queen of Garden Antiques” in last month’s newsletter:
“While collecting garden antiques is a wonderful adventure, there is a sad downside. Our garden was burgled last summer with more than 20 garden ornaments taken, many of them antiques.
“Someone had obviously cased the garden and knew what to take. They even went into my greenhouse and potting shed in search of portable items.
“Alas, I had a photograph of only one of the stolen pieces, taken for a garden tour brochure. Lesson learned. Everything will now be photographed and kept in a file along with all of the receipts, which I do have safely stored.
“Since then I have had a welder bolt some of my smaller urns in place, and though I refuse to consider security cameras, I have hung up signs up that say ‘Smile, you are on camera.’ We keep our six antique iron gates locked, along with the greenhouse and potting shed, and I am like a little old lady walking around with my ring of keys. Not a pleasant way to have to live.
“Forty-plus years of collecting, gone. And I will not be able to – or even want to – start replacing many of these lost treasures. They took a pair of cast-iron tulip urns, for example, that I loved. I saw a similar pair (pictured) offered recently for $4200. Mine were a bit smaller, but when I bought them years ago I probably spent less than $100 each.”
My condolences, friend! And here’s hoping that your heartbreaking story will be a wake-up call for the rest of us.
New and Improved: The “Bible” for Restoring Historic Gardens
Like most people, I never thought about plants and gardens having a history – until almost 40 years ago when I bought my first old house and walked out into the tiny yard eager to make it my own.
There behind the overgrown privet hedge, I discovered a few barely surviving plants, including a white, single-flowered peony. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t just my yard. Someone else had loved it before me. But who, and when? Was the peony ten years old, or 50, or 100? And what about the hedge?
Looking for answers proved frustrating at first. This was back in the dark ages – before Google. But finally I discovered this book by Rudy and Joy Favretti – or rather the original, 1978 edition of it – and I was no longer wandering in the wilderness.
I’ve been using and recommending it ever since, and as I say on the back cover of this updated and expanded third edition, “Bravo! A new edition of this indispensable work has been long overdue. It’s the original guide to researching and restoring American home landscapes, by the dean of American landscape preservation. For decades, savvy home-owners and museum sites have turned to it for guidance – and now, with its many updates and additions, it’s better than ever.”
Although the core of it is unchanged, Rudy and Joy have added illustrations and updated information throughout. Best of all are the additional examples from their long careers, including a page on the archaeological excavation that revealed the long-vanished, mid-1600s garden at Bacon’s Castle in Virginia.
If there’s an old yard you care about, Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings is the book for you. It may not change your life the way it did mine, but it will certainly help you see any yard – and the wider landscape all around us – with new eyes.
Extra Easy Growing (and Storing) Dahlias in Buried Pots
If you haven’t planted your dahlias yet, here’s a simple way to grow and store them from our good customer Jenn Hovland of Fleur de Louise Flower Studio in Stillwater, Minnesota.
“For several years now I have stored my dahlia tubers ‘in the dry’ as they do in England,” Jenn wrote on her spring order. “I start by planting a new tuber in a 1 or 2 gallon plastic pot. I lay it flat near the top of the pot, cover it with just an inch of soil, water it once, and then leave it alone until sprouts emerge.
“When the weather warms up, I plant it outside, pot and all, with the pot buried about halfway and a stake pounded in the ground next to it. I always use black or green pots so whatever isn’t buried or hidden by other plants is still pretty much invisible.
“At the end of the season when frost blackens the foliage, I wait a few days, lift the entire pot, cut back the dead foliage, let it dry on my porch for a couple of days, and then put it in the basement and forget about it. In March or April when I notice new growth, I move it upstairs to a sunny window and it’s ready for the new season.
“By using this method, I've lost very few tubers to rot or drying out. Although it takes a little extra space to store the pots, it has worked very well for me.”
Wanting to know more, I emailed Jenn and she cheerfully answered all of my questions.
One-gallon pots seemed small to me, so I was surprised to learn that she sometimes uses even smaller ones. Pot size doesn’t seem to matter much because, although the tuber-cluster remains confined within the pot, its feeder roots grow through the holes in the bottom. When the pot gets crowded after a couple of years, Jenn divides the cluster and starts all over again.
During the winter she keeps the pots as dark as possible because light encourages sprouting. In March she starts checking for new growth, and when the first sprouts appear – this year in mid-April – she adds an inch of compost to all pots, waters them once, and moves them to a sunny window.
“Then in May,” she told me, “I take the plants outside to harden them off for a couple of weeks, bringing them in at night until they adjust to outdoor living. By mid-May they’ll be staying outside overnight, except when frost is predicted. I finally plant them in the garden around Memorial Day. By then they are quite large plants – which means they’ll bloom earlier.”
That sounds good to me, and I’m planning to give Jenn’s method a try. If you do, too, please let us know your results so we can learn from you as well!
Try This at Home: Multiplying Glads by Dividing the Corm
Even if your glad planting season is still months away, here’s a tip from expert Cliff Hartline that you can use whenever that happy time arrives.
Cliff writes my favorite section of the NAGC journal Glad World. It’s a Q & A column titled “Talk Radio,” and a while ago a reader asked, “I heard you can cut corms in two to multiply them. How do you do that?”
First of all, Cliff replied, it’s important to “make sure there are eyes and root nodes on both halves. The eyes go across the corm in only one direction. They are not like potatoes that have eyes everywhere. Peel the husk off before cutting, so you can identify the line of eyes.” Look for small, individual flaps of shiny husk that protect the eyes, or the emerging tips of the eyes themselves.
Don’t do this too early, though. “Without the husk, the corm will dry out quicker, so you need to do this close to the time of planting.”
“After cutting it, put powdered sulfur [available at garden centers or online] on the open wound. This helps seal the scar and protect the corm when it is planted.”
Before going on to cut another corm, sterilize your knife with alcohol.
If you’re feeling lucky, “you can even cut the corm into three or four pieces,” Cliff says, although “this increases the chance that it may not survive.” Even if you only cut it in half, there’s some risk involved, so we recommend you try it with inexpensive glads first (although not Abyssinian glads).
Good luck, have fun, and please let us know how it goes!
We’ve all been there. It’s the first beautiful Saturday of spring, you’ve spent hours blissfully working in the garden – and the next morning you’re sore all over and hoping you haven’t seriously injured yourself.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re heading out to the garden after a long winter off or just a long week at work, you can protect your body from pain and worse by doing a few easy exercises ahead of time.
Our friend Doug Oster recently posted some simple tips and a short video at his excellent Everybody Gardens blog. We hope you’ll give them a look and do your muscles, back, and joints a favor!
Garden Tips for February: Stored Bulbs, Forced Bulbs, and Getting Ready
Even if your garden is buried in snow, here are some helpful tips for now or soon:
Check on Stored Bulbs – If you stored any tender bulbs last fall, it’s important to check on them periodically. Problems discovered early can often be remedied, but if you ignore them until planting time, everything may be dead. Learn more at “Check Stored Bulbs Now.”
Don’t Skimp on Chilling – If your forced bulbs try to bloom before the stem has lengthened, it’s most likely they haven’t had enough chill-time at 48 degrees or less. Returning them to cold storage now could help. Learn more at our Forcing Bulbs page.
Loosen Matted Leaves – Small, early bulbs often emerge much earlier than seems possible, especially in warm micro-climates. Matted leaves and winter mulch can hamper their growth, so get out there early and gently loosen or remove it.
Fertilize Before They Emerge – Although it’s always best to be guided by a soil test, if you haven’t fertilized in a while, you may want to do so this spring. It’s easier and safer if you scratch it into the surface before bulb foliage emerges. Learn more at “Fertilize Early.”
Get Tools and Supplies Ready – Check your garden tools and supplies now, before the mad rush of spring. Buy more fertilizer, twine, stakes, potting soil, animal repellant, gloves – and what else will you need? Be sure you know where all of your tools are, and maybe even treat yourself to a new one.
Although some bulbs are rarely bothered by animals (see our complete list here), others are quite tasty.
“Trying to garden in the mountains of Colorado is no easy task. Some plants may be deer or rabbit resistant, but voles and pocket gophers don’t care what kind of roots they eat.
“To protect plant roots from these burrowing critters, I buy wire baskets from the dollar store and sink them into the ground, leaving an inch or two above the soil to prevent voles from coming in over the top. I then plant the root-ball inside the basket, backfilling with soil to the appropriate level. The basket rim can be hidden with mulch if your plant doesn’t cover it.
“Wire baskets can also be turned upside down and secured with U-shaped pins to protect new seedlings from rabbits and chipmunks.”
Can Landscape Cloth Turn ALL Glads into Perennials?
Here in zone-6a Michigan we leave our Byzantine, ‘Boone’ (pictured), and ‘Carolina Primrose’ glads in the ground every winter and they come back and bloom the next year just like any other perennial.
But wouldn’t it be great if ALL glads were that hardy? A recent article in the NAGC journal Glad World makes me think that might just be possible.
In his always excellent “Talk Radio” column, Cliff Hartline says that glad grower Bert Blanton “is noted for NOT digging his glads yearly,” even though he lives in zone-6b Missouri. Bert used to protect his glads in winter with a thick mulch of straw, but he says it “always blew around and I was constantly replacing it.”
So three years ago he tried landscape cloth instead, and it worked so well that he’s been using it ever since.
“I plant my rows six feet apart,” he says, “and cover my aisles and rows with landscape cloth, putting the seams right over the rows.” He pegs it down with wire landscape-cloth pins (also called sod staples), and then rolls it back in the spring.
The only problem? After three years of no digging, “I now have jillions of flowers,” Bert says. “I have about 20 spikes to a foot, and the rows have expanded themselves to 15 inches wide. I am getting so many spikes, it is more than I can sell at the Farmers Market or give away. My spikes are larger than anyone else’s, so I sell them for $2.00 each.”
We’re going to experiment with Bert’s technique this winter, even though our gardens are half a zone colder than his. If you try it, too, please let us know how it works for you and we’ll share our results here.
Here’s a cool idea I stumbled upon recently in a 1957 book called Bulb Growing for Everyone.
I’d seen images like this one in catalogs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but since all sorts of implausible things are pictured in catalogs old and new, I never gave it much thought. But the well-known Dutch bulb-grower Johan Frederik Christiaan Dix explains how it’s done:
“The receptacles in which we place [crocus] must not be so deep as those required for other bulbs, and they require far more attention insofar that a more gradual transition from a dark, cool place to a light, heated room is necessary.
“They should not be taken out into the light until the noses are fully two inches long and . . . they must on no account be brought into a hot temperature, otherwise the bulbs will shrivel up. So keep them cool until the buds rise from among the leaves. This is the moment to bring them into the room or onto a warm windowsill.
“Most crocuses cannot be expected to flower before the end of January. . . . There is one exception, however, the crocus ‘Vanguard’ which begins to flower as early as New Year’s Day, and even at Christmas.”
We plan to give it a try – with ‘Vanguard’, of course. We’ll start the bulbs as soon as possible because they need months to root and grow, and we’ll store them in the refrigerator to make sure they stay below 48° but above freezing. If you try it, too, please let us know how it goes!
It’s been a hot, dry summer in much of the US. In fact, it’s been so bad in Maine that we had to drop a whole page of rare glads from our catalog because our grower there is worried he won’t have any corms to share with us!
But how will it affect your bulbs? First some good news:
Bulbs are one of Nature’s clever survival strategies. They’re essentially underground bunkers where the plant can stay cool and store moisture. And once the weather improves, bulbs often bounce back better than most plants.
Some bulbs even prefer dry summers. Tulips and hyacinths, for example, evolved in parts of the world with little to no summer rainfall. That means yours may bloom better next spring than they usually do – at least if you’re in the eastern half of the country where normal summers are rainier.
And some bulbs like it hot. As long as you’ve kept them well watered, your tuberoses, rain lilies, crinums, and cannas are probably thriving this summer, and we hope you’re enjoying them!
On the other hand, dahlias often struggle or fail in hot summers. That’s because they’re native to the highlands of Mexico where days can be hot but nights are much cooler. When nights in your garden stay warm, growth will slow or stop and they may even die. If you water them too much when growth has stalled, they may rot underground.
Don’t despair, though! If you can just keep your dahlias limping along until temperatures cool, they’ll kick back into gear and bloom gloriously until frost. And for dahlias that can handle warm nights better, look for “heat-tolerant” in our descriptions – although even these have their limits.
Glads in hot summers can be attacked by tiny, almost invisible sucking insects called thrips. Thrips proliferate when it’s hot and can leave glad leaves and blossoms mottled, or even prevent buds from opening. For tips on control, see oldhousegardens.com/Thrips.
Glads may also develop kinked stems in hot weather, as they sag a bit during the day and then grow upright at night when evaporation slows. To minimize the kinks, keep your glads well-watered and avoid damaging their shallow, wide-spreading roots.
High heat also affects flower colors. Deep-colored lilies such as ‘African Queen’ may be paler, bicolor dahlias such as ‘Deuil du Roi Albert‘ may bloom temporarily as solids, and the rosy tones of ‘Kaiser Wilhelm‘ and others won’t develop fully until the weather cools.
This fall is expected to be warmer and drier than usual, too. Since most spring-blooming bulbs start growing new roots in late summer or early fall, keep their soil reasonably moist then, and be sure to keep the bulbs you plant this fall especially well-watered.
And try not to worry. Bulbs have been dealing with challenging weather for millennia. And there’s always next year – which, as every gardener knows, is one of the great things about gardening.
Perennializing vs. Naturalizing: What’s the Difference?
Although the words “naturalize” and “perennialize” are often used interchangeably, their meanings aren’t exactly the same – and it can make a big difference in the garden.
“Perennialize” means the bulbs will behave like perennials, coming back year after year and multiplying under-ground. “Naturalize,” on the other hand, means the bulbs will also multiply by seed, with little or no care, and as a result they usually spread further and faster.
“The experience of one of my neighbors with Siberian squill helped me understand the difference,” wrote Karen Bussolini in the September 2013 issue of The American Gardener.
“For many years, the neighbor divided and replanted clumps of the tiny bulbs in the lawn, trying to create a blooming blue spring carpet. They spread slowly, producing a mass more akin to a bath mat than a carpet, despite having everything they needed – winter cold, good drainage, and dry conditions during dormancy.
“It turns out,” she concluded, “that what they lacked in order to naturalize was enough time for the seed to ripen. Once the family began mowing the lawn later in the season, they seeded abundantly.”
Dead-Heading Iris and Peonies – Cutting off faded blooms redirects your plants’ energy from seed-making to future growth and bloom. Cut down iris bloom-stalks (not leaves alone) as close as possible to the rhizome, but cut back peony bloom-stalks no more than is needed to make the plant look good.
Growing Bulbs in Pots – Container gardening is great, but it’s not the same as growing bulbs in the ground. For the best results, see our Bulbs in Pots page.
Multiplying Your Rarest Tulips – In most gardens, the best way to give your rarest tulips the dry summer rest they need is to dig them up after the foliage yellows and store them in a dry, well-ventilated place – maybe hanging in mesh bags from the rafters in your basement or garage where they’ll be safe from mice and chipmunks, too. Then put a note on your calendar so you don’t forget to replant them in the fall!
Staking Dahlias – For a bushier plant, pinch out the center shoot after three or four sets of leaves develop. Although dahlias grow upright and may look like they don’t need support, they do. Learn more.
Controlling Red Lily Leaf Beetle – The earlier you find and destroy these pests – which are currently expanding beyond New England – the better. Learn more.
Save the Bees – In Your Own Backyard, Neighborhood, and City
Just in time for National Pollinator Week, June 20-26, our bee-keeping neighbor and friend Eileen Dickinson knocked on our door asking, “Will you sign a pledge to make your yard pollinator-safe?”
Eileen – whose garden was featured in Country Gardens last year – explained that the Bee Safe Neighborhoods pledge offers various levels of commitment. The first and most important is to stop using any lawn or garden product that contains neonicotinoids – which are especially harmful to bees – or any other systemic herbicide or pesticide, since systemics are absorbed into the plant and poison the pollen and nectar that pollinators collect.
To learn more, visit the Bee Safe Ann Arbor Facebook page which has a lot of useful information about pollinators and gardening more safely, including a link to a “Grow Smart, Grow Safe” list of weed control products ranked from least to most hazardous.
Eileen also shared the good news with me that Ann Arbor has applied for certification as a Bee City USA community. “Launched in 2012, the Bee City USA program endorses a set of commitments for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators, which are vital to feeding the planet,” I learned at the organization’s website. “Communities across America are invited to make these commitments and become certified as a Bee City USA affiliate.”
I signed the Bee Safe pledge, and even if Eileen doesn’t make it to your door, I hope you’ll celebrate National Pollinator Week by pledging to make your yard a safer place for these critically important and vulnerable creatures.
Like most gardeners, I’m a big fan of rain. But until I read a short article in the Ann Arbor News recently, I had no idea that lightning itself is also good for my garden.
“Lightning is nature’s greatest fertilizer,” writes meteorologist Mark Torregrossa. “The air around us is 78% nitrogen. Nitrogen is the main nutrient in most fertilizers. But the nitrogen in the air is not usable by plants, until lightning strikes through it.
“Once the air is heated by lightning, two [atoms] of nitrogen are split apart. The single [atom] of nitrogen then joins with oxygen or hydrogen and is rained into the soil. Now it’s usable by plants. A lightning storm applies more nitrogen on lawns and crops than we could ever afford to buy.”
With Google’s help, I learned that lightning can briefly heat the air it passes through to 50,000 degrees F, almost ten times hotter than the surface of the sun. That enormous energy breaks up the nitrogen (N2), freeing the atoms to recombine into nitrate (NO3), ammonia (NH3), and ammonium (NH4). The latter two are also produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of the enormous Fabacaea or legume family, but some scientists believe that lightning is responsible for as much as 50% of the nitrogen available to plants.
Lush and romantic, peonies are fabulous in bouquets. To get the most out of yours, here are some tips from Dr. Patricia Holloway of the University of Alaska, as quoted by Debra Prinzing in her 2013 Slow Flowers:
“‘Cut peonies during the coolest part of the day. Cut once you see the true color of the flower with one or two petals separating at the top [the “soft marshmallow” stage] – or any time after that. Then the flower will continue to open in your arrangement.’ If you cut prior to this stage the buds either will not open or they will be stunted. Fully-opened blooms can also be harvested, but their vase life is shorter. . . .
“Dr. Holloway also offers this commercial growers’ tip; ‘Once cut, your flowers should be chilled in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to one week before putting them into a vase. That chilling very definitely extends vase life.’ Wrap the peonies in paper towels and lay them flat in the crisper drawer, away from the refrigerator’s other contents.”
We’ll also remind you that for future growth and bloom it’s best to leave as much foliage as possible on the plant. This is especially important during the first two years after planting, and in fact many experts recommend that you cut NO flowers the first year. We know how hard that can be, but your patience will be rewarded.
Have you ever looked at your spring garden and thought, “That spot needs a pop of color” or “I should plant more daffodils right there” – but then later everything has grown and changed so much that you can’t remember what you were thinking? Here’s a tip that will both help you find those perfect spots again at planting time and help you avoid disturbing any other bulbs that are growing nearby.
Right now, before spring is over and everything has changed, walk your garden with your smart phone or camera and a bag of fish-tank gravel. Snap photos of the areas where you want to add more flowers, and use the gravel – which comes in a variety of water-proof colors, from hot pink to subtle shades like green and brown – to outline the exact planting spots.
Later when you’re ready to order or plant bulbs, look at your photos to remember the places you had in mind and to see what your garden looked like in the spring. Then find the gravel outlines, plant your bulbs with confidence, and simply mix the gravel into the soil where it will virtually disappear.
The only hard part is you have to do it NOW, before spring has gone and faded from your memory – so get out there, and while you’re at it, enjoy your beautiful spring garden!
Although the West Coast drought has eased a bit, we thought you’d be interested in this success story from our good customer Pat of zone-9bWC San Jose. We can’t guarantee it will work for you, but . . . .
“I grew some of your ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias last year and found them great for our arid climate. I planted them very deep, maybe a foot down, which is low enough for our clay soil to remain moist with almost no watering, if you can believe it. Maybe once a week.
“I followed the directions at your website and put the tubers at the bottom of the hole and then filled in soil little by little as the leaves emerged, which they did very quickly.
“My tiny garden on the west side of our garage gets a good five to six hours of blazing, direct sun and then light shade later in the afternoon. Since we’re in a valley and not near the ocean, nights are generally cool and dry. [OHG: This is exactly what dahlias love!] The plants wilted on the hottest days but they perked up afterward, as you’d see with tomatoes or potatoes.
“Thank you for letting me ramble on. No one in my family is interested. My neighbors like all the free flowers, though! I give quite a few away.”
Although it may be too late for you lucky souls who garden where spring is already well advanced, here are some tips for those of you in colder zones:
1. Crocus, snowdrops, and other bulbs start to emerge earlier than many gardeners realize, especially in warm spots where the snow melts first. Matted leaves and winter mulch can distort their growth, so get out there EARLY and gently loosen or remove it.
2. Rabbits and other animals love to eat crocus, so you may want to spray leaves and buds with a repellant the moment they emerge. Check to see if you have some on hand before you need it, because the animals won’t wait! Tulips and lilies are two other, later-emerging animal delicacies that you may also want to spray.
3. Very early spring is also one of the best times to scratch a little fertilizer into the soil above your bulbs. If you wait too long, particles tend to get lodged between the leaves at their bases where they can burn the tender new foliage. Early spring is also when bulbs need the fertilizer to fuel their rapid growth and bloom. Don’t overdo it, though, and remember it’s always good to be guided by a soil test.
4. Now is also a good time to wash any pots that you’re planning to use for starting dahlias or growing tuberoses, etc. Finish by sterilizing them for a few minutes in a mix of 10% bleach and water. Later when you’re scrambling to keep up with your burgeoning garden, you’ll be glad you did.
If you stored any tender bulbs last fall, it’s important to check on them now. The longer they’ve been in storage, and the closer it gets to spring, the more vulnerable stored bulbs are.
KEEP THEM COOL – It’s often hard to keep storage temperatures down as the weather outside warms up. Colder temps are usually better for stored bulbs – just like the refrigerator is better for storing most vegetables – though you never want them to freeze. Warmer temps can lead to premature sprouting and the development of rot, mold, and disease.
Monitor temperatures with a maximum-minimum thermometer. Opening doors or windows in your storage space whenever outdoor temperatures drop may help. Bulbs can also be stored in the refrigerator but remember that the air inside refrigerators is usually VERY dry, so adjust accordingly.
Although most stored bulbs can handle a wider range of temperatures, the ideal for glads and crocosmia is 35-45 F, for dahlias 40-45, and for tuberoses and rain lilies about 50.
ADJUST THE MOISTURE – If storage conditions are too damp – and especially if they’re also warm – bulbs will rot or develop mold, etc. On the other hand, bulbs that are too dry – especially dahlias – may dry out completely.
If you find condensation on the inside of storage bags or boxes, leave them open a bit to let excess moisture evaporate. On the other hand, if your dahlias are shriveling or feel unusually light, sprinkle a little water on them and whatever they’re stored in – coarse vermiculite, wood shavings, peat moss, etc. – and if you don’t already have them stored in plastic, do so. Check back in a few days and adjust as needed.
MAKE A BREEZE – Good air circulation helps prevent disease organisms from developing on bulbs which are stored in mesh bags (glads, crocosmia, and tuberoses). Add a small fan to your storage space, but don’t have it blowing directly on the bulbs, just moving the air around a little.
WATCH FOR SPROUTS – If you’ve stored your bulbs dry in their pots, start checking for new growth long before it’s warm enough to move them outside. A little sprouting is okay, but once it starts to advance, move the pot into your sunniest window and barely water it.
Remember that a pot of tuberoses will usually bloom for a second year if watered and fertilized well, but by the third spring the bulbs will be too crowded to bloom well. Report them then, composting the ones that bloomed previously (since each individual bulb blooms only once) and replanting the largest of the daughter bulbs.
KEEP IT DARK – Light is one of the cues that spurs bulbs into growth, so keeping your storage space as dark as possible will help keep your bulbs happily asleep until it’s time for another year of awesomeness.
“My bulbs are already coming up! What should I do?” We’ve been hearing that from a lot of customers recently.
The good news is that most plants are tougher than you might think, and they’ve been evolving to cope with erratic weather for millennia.
Most fall-planted bulbs, for example, require a certain number of hours below 40 degrees or so in order to produce enough gibberellic acid to allow the leaves and flower stems to lengthen normally – which means most foliage won’t emerge very far above ground this early. And most bulb foliage and even flowers can take freezing in stride. When temperatures drop below 15 degrees or so, any foliage that’s above ground may be killed, but whatever is still underground will be unharmed and continue growing normally in the spring.
On the other hand, there’s not much you can do to protect your plants from the weather.
You could scatter a layer of loose straw, hay, or evergreen branches over any foliage that has emerged. This will help protect it from the drying effects of winter sun and wind, and prevent the ground from repeatedly freezing and thawing which can damage roots.
Other than that, we suggest you just relax, accept that Nature is a lot more powerful than we are, have faith in the resiliency of plants – and maybe make a New Year’s resolution to do something more this year to be good to the Earth.
Speaking of lilies, here’s an unexpected way to enjoy them up close, from our good customer Kathryn Hubler of Falls Church, Virginia:
“I thought you’d enjoy this photo of the gold-band lilies we received from you last year blooming in our living room. We’ve discovered we like to grow them in pots so we can enjoy their beautiful blooms and scent indoors. A pot of them is now a necessity, so we ordered fresh bulbs from you this year and will rotate the old ones into the garden.
“I grow the lilies outside, protecting the pot in the winter, and then when the first bud opens I bring them inside by our sunny, south facing window. I started doing this by accident one year when I brought the pot indoors to protect the flowers during a big rain storm. They last longer indoors, they’re never damaged by deer, slugs, or earwigs, and their fragrance is divine!”
Two of the most influential gardeners of the 20th century, Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West, would probably approve of Kathryn’s technique. Both recommended growing fragrant lilies in pots and then moving them onto the terrace, near doorways, or alongside garden benches when they came into bloom, as they did in their own famous gardens.
Kathryn planted her lilies in the fall which gave them plenty of time to develop a good root system before they had to start growing above ground. Spring-planted lilies may be more of a challenge in pots, but we plan to try gold-band and ‘Uchida’ ourselves this spring, and we’ll let you know how they do.
For tips on growing all sorts of bulbs in containers, see our Bulbs in Pots page. Have fun, and send us your photos!
We love animals, but we love flowers, too. In a recent article for the Associated Press, our good friend Dean Fosdick passed along some advice from an esteemed colleague about bulbs that are “noxious and unpalatable to foraging wildlife:”
“‘Members of the amaryllis family are the best long-term choice for predator control, particularly daffodils, snowdrops, and snowflakes,’ said Christian Curless, a horticulturist with Colorblends, a wholesale bulb company. . . . All contain lycorine, an alkaloid both repellent and toxic to animals. . . . ‘These plants we label as deer-and-rodent-“proof” because even a starving animal won’t eat them. The bulbs we classify as “resistant” are, for reasons we often don’t understand, not preferred by deer or rodents or both. Bulbs in this category include allium, hyacinth, fritillaria, and anemone.”
Learning from California: Gardening with 28% Less Water
Congratulations to our friends in California who, faced with what’s been called the drought of a lifetime, have cut their water use by 28% in the first three months of state-mandated reductions.
In September, my wife and I saw the drought first-hand while visiting our son and daughter-in-law in San Francisco. Plants drooped, dead leaves littered the sidewalks, and lawns in the city’s parks sported signs proclaiming “Brown is the New Green.”
It’s no wonder our orders from California are down 25% this fall! But bulbs, ironically, are built for drought. Many have evolved in areas where summers are so dry that to survive they have to hide out underground. Tulips, hyacinths, alliums, Byzantine glads, freesia, and oxblood lilies, among others, actually do better with dry summers – although they need some water in fall through winter to develop roots and more in spring to grow leaves and bloom.
In August the Pacific Horticulture Society newsletter offered some excellent tips for xeric gardening, by editor (and OHG customer) Lorene Edwards Forkner:
“Recently I read some great, if somewhat blithe, advice from garden writer Amy Stewart on tending a low/no water garden:
Earthworms: The Good, the Bad, and the Latest Research
“Why would anyone want to destroy earthworms?” we asked in our July article “Advice from 1683: Killing Earthworm Pests with Tobacco.” In the 1600s it was to keep unsightly worm castings from blemishing gravel paths, but today there’s a different reason.
“In northern parts of the country, earthworms are not native,” our good customer Robin Schachat of Shaker Heights, Ohio, explains. “It’s now thought that the greatest loss of the duff layer in our native forests is due to earthworm infestations, not to deer browsing.”
Although worms can be beneficial in the disturbed and compacted soils of our backyards, since the last glaciers retreated some 14,000 years ago there have been no native worms in the area once covered by them —north of NYC and the Ohio and Missouri rivers, and in the Rockies and parts of Washington — so in those areas forest ecosystems evolved without worms.
Recent research at the University of Minnesota has shown that “without worms, fallen leaves decompose slowly, creating a spongy layer of organic ‘duff.’ This duff layer is the natural growing environment for native woodland wildflowers. . . . Invading earthworms eat the leaves that create the duff layer and are capable of eliminating it completely. Big trees survive, but many young seedlings perish, along with many ferns and wildflowers.”
Fresh, local, and almost free, bouquets from your own backyard are one of the great pleasures of gardening. And they’re easy – so I admit I was skeptical when Vanessa brought a little wire doohickey called an Easy Arranger into work one day. It’s a grid of woven wire that fits over the top of a vase and holds flowers upright and in place. Once I tried it, though, I was convinced. This thing really does make bouquet-making easier.
It’s all but invisible, too, and relatively cheap. We ordered a set of three different sizes from thegrommet.com for $12 plus $2.20 shipping. You can find look-alikes elsewhere, but the Grommet sells the original by Annabelle Noel Designs, “a firm with a mission to launch innovative household products designed and manufactured by women. Its founder Anne Cork tapped her jewelry-making skills to create Easy Arranger after being inspired by the tape grids she saw florists using to hold their flowers in place.” Check it out here – and happy bouquets!
You might not expect it, but daylilies make fine cut-flowers – or at least our graceful heirloom varieties do. Although an individual flower lasts just one day, buds will continue to develop and open for up to a week indoors.
Way back in 1954, two University of Illinois professors wrote in a USDA booklet that “daylilies have become very popular for home flower arrangements.” They recommended cutting stalks with “several perfect full-blown flowers and a number of well-developed buds,” ideally in the morning when they’re “still fresh and undamaged by wind, sun, or insects.”
“With a little practice, almost anyone can display them to advantage,” the professors continued. “They may be used alone or in combination with other garden flowers and a wide variety of green and dried materials. Delphiniums, gaillardias, gladioli, Japanese iris, Shasta daisies, snapdragons, and zinnias are only a few of the many annuals and perennials that work up nicely with daylilies. Endless combinations can be devised that will brighten up the mantel, party table, or altar. Leaves of caladium, canna, hosta, iris, and peony can be used effectively in place of the natural foliage, as can also the graceful branches of various shrubs and evergreens such as huckleberry, magnolia, rhododendron, and yew, [or] the silvery leaves of artemisia.”
Dealing with YELLOWING FOLIAGE – If you want your spring-blooming bulbs to multiply and bloom again next year, you have to let their foliage continue to photosynthesize until it begins to yellow. Learn more.
Giving Bulbs a DRY REST – Many bulbs – especially tulips and hyacinths – do best in soils that stay relatively dry in summer, so avoid watering them after they go dormant, and don’t overplant them with thirsty annuals.
DIVIDING DAFFODILS – When daffodils get overcrowded, they bloom less. The best time to dig and divide them is when their foliage yellows or shortly afterwards. You can replant them immediately or store until fall.
DEADHEADING PEONIES – After bloom, trim flower-stalks back for a neater appearance, but be sure to leave as much foliage as possible to feed the plant for future increase.
PINCHING DAHLIAS – For a bushier plant, pinch out the center shoot after three or four sets of leaves develop.
Controlling IRIS BORER – The first signs of this pest are leaf edges that look water-soaked or chewed. Poison-free control is relatively simple. Learn more.
DIVIDING IRIS – If you want to divide or move your bearded iris, it’s best to do that during their semi-dormant period four to eight weeks after bloom. Learn more.
Controlling THRIPS ON GLADS – These virtually invisible insects multiply quickly in warm weather and can be devastating. The first step to control is keeping a sharp look out for early signs of damage. Learn more.
Making CUT FLOWERS Last – Picking your own fresh bouquets is one of the joys of gardening! Learn more.
Do yourself a favor and walk your garden now, while spring is still fresh in your mind. Where did you need more flowers? And when – early, middle, or late? What flowers did you admire elsewhere this spring that you’d like to see blooming in your own yard next spring?
Take a couple of minutes to jot down a few notes, snap some cell-phone photos, sketch a simple map, or even mark a couple of spots with plant labels, golf tees, or small sticks. At planting time this fall – when spring has faded from your memory and your garden looks so different – you’ll be glad you did.
Even better, why not get a start on your fall order now at LAST year’s prices? Crocus and other little bulbs to scatter about, deer-proof daffodils, fragrant hyacinths, and a rainbow of tulips can all be yours. And you can add to your order anytime before October 1, so there’s no need to wait. Simplify your life, beautify your garden, and save money by ordering NOW!
Celebrate Dirt with the International Year of Soils
Getting your hands in the dirt is one of the great pleasures of gardening (am I right?), and we gardeners understand first-hand the importance of soil. Now you can help spread the word about this critical natural resource by celebrating the International Year of the Soil. The global campaign is built around six key messages that highlight how we all depend on soils:
1. Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production.
2. Soils provide us with plants we use for feed, fiber, fuel, and medicine.
3. Soils support our planet’s biodiversity, hosting a quarter of the total species.
4. Soils help combat climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle.
5. Soils store and filter water, improving our resilience to floods and droughts.
6. Soil is a non-renewable resource and its preservation is essential for a sustainable future.
That last one really gave me pause. A non-renewable resource is defined as one whose “loss and degradation is not recoverable within a human lifespan,” and today 33% of the world’s soil is considered “moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, and chemical pollution.”
To learn more, visit the Soil Science Society of America’s activities page at https://www.soils.org/IYS where you’ll find “I Heart Soil” stickers in a dozen languages including Klingon, recipes for “soil desserts,” educational packets for teachers, and monthly themes such as “Soils are Living.” It’s already given me a whole new appreciation for soil’s importance – and its vulnerability. Save the Soils!
Au Naturel – Although we always look for strong stems when we’re evaluating peonies for our catalog, even the strongest stems will bow when their gloriously double flowers are drenched by rain. If you gently shake the water out immediately afterwards, most of the time they’ll stand back up, so most gardeners simply cross their fingers and grow their peonies without support, au naturel.
Cheap and Easy – Although garden centers offer all sorts of wire-ring and linking-stake supports for peonies, most of these are surprisingly pricey. A less expensive option (and what we usually do here at OHG) is to cut a wire-ring tomato tower in half just above one of the rings, so you have two shorter towers. Use the narrower one for newly-planted peonies or smaller perennials, and the wider one for mature peonies. Set it over the plant, pushing the legs securely into the soil. The earlier you do this the better, because once the plant has leafed out you’ll need a helper – or twine – to contain the foliage while you slip the support over it. Leave some stems and foliage outside the support for a more relaxed, natural-looking plant and to hide the wire which is virtually invisible anyway, especially once it rusts.
The Hildene Star – There’s a better, more historic way they use to support the 175 peonies at Hildene, the summer home of President Lincoln’s son in Manchester, Vermont. Basically you insert five short stakes in a circle at the outer edges of the plant, weave twine back and forth to create a star, and then finish by circling the stakes with twine. Hildene’s Andrea Luchini offers complete instructions. Although I can’t imagine doing it for 175 peonies, for a few it’s actually kind of fun.
Planting Tip: Glads Bloom Facing the Most Sunlight, But . . .
We love the way glads add vertical exclamation points of color to the summer garden. To enjoy them the most, though, it pays to site them carefully, as explained in the NAGC’s journal Glad World:
“Glads, like daffodils, tend to face the direction from which they receive the longest period of direct sunlight. While you might expect this to be south, early morning or late afternoon shade from nearby trees or buildings might cause those glads so shaded to face due east or west, or southeast or southwest, depending upon how the shade pattern moves with the sun during the day. . . . Facing is an important consideration since you would like to view the front of the spike from whatever vantage point you usually view the bed, border, or pot.”
Keep that in mind when deciding where to plant your glads, but don’t worry – you can get your glads to bloom facing any direction you want if you (a) plant them in a pot (say, in your vegetable garden) and then (b) when the first florets open, move the pot into your flower garden or onto your front steps and turn it any way you like. To try this trick yourself, why not order a few glads – such as the graceful, fragrant Abyssinian glad or our customers’ favorite ‘Atom’ – for spring-planting?
Spanish bluebells are great. Also known as squill in the South, they’re tough enough to bloom and naturalize just about anywhere. But if it’s English bluebells you’re looking for – the iconic wildflower of British woodlands – you’ll need to know how to tell them apart, because counterfeits are ubiquitous.
As head gardener Quentin Stark explains in the May 2015 issue of The English Garden, English bluebells are “a wonderful rich blue. The flowers are tubular and grow on just one side of the stem” – which you can clearly see in this accompanying photo – “and they have an amazing scent. Spanish bluebells are taller, with paler blue, more open flowers, have no scent, and the flowers grow all the way around the stem, making the plant more upright.”
Our true English bluebells are the real deal. They come to us from a small nursery in Wales where they’re native, and you can order yours now for fall planting at last fall’s prices.
Tips from 1954: Companion Plants for “Up and Coming” Daylilies
“Gaining rapidly in popularity, daylilies are truly one of the most up-and-coming perennials we can choose for our gardens,” wrote G. M. Fosler and J. R. Kamp in a nifty little 1954 booklet titled Daylilies for Every Garden. With its mid-century vibe, the booklet offers these tips for companion plantings:
“Daylilies are often planted with early bulbous stock, such as tulips and daffodils. The daylily foliage does not interfere during the blooming periods of these plants. Later in the season the maturing and unattractive bulbous foliage is hidden by the expanding lush daylily clumps.
“The earliest blooming varieties [such as ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Sovereign’, and ‘Orangeman’] are effectively combined with bearded iris, the whites and the delightful shades of blue and purple in iris contrasting beautifully with the gold and yellow daylilies. The later daylilies . . . also make ideal garden companions for bearded iris and peonies. Daylily foliage does not grow very large until after the iris and peony blooming seasons are past. It is then that the daylily really comes into its own to continue the succession of color in the garden.
“For pleasing effects later in the summer, the artistic gardener will think of endless combinations. Some daylilies work in well with colorful phlox, columbine, and blue delphiniums. Purple liatris is very striking with yellow daylilies. Many daylily colors also harmonize pleasingly with Shasta daisies, floribunda roses, oriental poppies, platycodon [balloon flower], hardy lilies, and even fall chrysanthemums. Highly interesting foliage contrasts are also possible with such plants as canna, coleus, dusty miller, and hosta. . . .
“An all-season perennial border made up of tulips, iris, peonies, daylilies, and chrysanthemums will provide continuous interest from early spring until frost.”
We’re shipping all 18 of our heirloom daylilies right now, but please note that in a few weeks they’ll be too large to ship safely, so if you want them, NOW is the time to order.
Spring Tip: Fertilize Early, Before Foliage Emerges
Like all plants, your bulbs will do better when their nutritional needs are met, and that usually means fertilizing them every now and then. Early spring is one good time to do it, before – or as soon as – the foliage emerges. Don’t wait too long, though, or you’ll find it’s hard to keep fertilizer granules from lodging among the emerging leaves where they can burn the tender foliage.
Although it’s always best to be guided by a soil test – and over-fertilizing can cause long-term problems – if you haven’t fertilized in a while, you’re probably safe doing it this spring. A relatively balanced (something like 8-8-8), slow-release fertilizer is best, but anything other than high-nitrogen (the first number) lawn fertilizers will work just fine. Fertilizing can be especially helpful in revitalizing crowded clumps of daffodils that no longer bloom well.
Our good customer Amy Reynolds of Saint Louis, Missouri, emailed us this helpful tip:
“Your lily bulbs are fabulous! I popped them in the ground immediately. To protect them from an abundant local rodent population, I’ve planted them (as I always do with lilies) with several allium companions. I’ve found that squirrels and chipmunks won’t excavate past the alliums to get to nearby lily bulbs while they’re dormant, and the rabbits won’t go near allium foliage come spring.”
To try this yourself, why not order a few of our fabulous lilies and alliums right now?
Learning from You: Pink Surprise Lilies Beyond Zones 6-7
Thanks to all of you who responded to our query about growing pink surprise lilies, Lycoris squamigera, outside of the narrow range we’d been recommending for them. You gave us lots of great feedback, and here’s the short version of what we learned.
ZONES – Many readers told us they’ve had long-term success with surprise lilies in zones 5b and 8a, and for the past couple of years we’ve been getting our bulbs from a third-generation bulb farm in 8a, so we’ve now expanded our zone recommendations to include zones 5b-8a(8bWC).
SOIL – Although well-drained soils are usually recommended for surprise lilies, several readers say theirs grow just fine in clay soil. Clay is dense, though, which makes it harder for bulbs to multiply, and it holds water longer which can cause bulbs to rot.
WATER – Many readers say they never water their surprise lilies, and that may be a good thing. Like most bulbs, they do best when they’re relatively dry during their summer dormancy. Since many of us water our gardens then, this could be one reason they’re often found surviving in lawns and “neglected” areas that get less watering – though of course they do need water when they’re not dormant, from fall through the end of spring.
SUN/SHADE – Full sun seems to suit them best, especially the further north they’re planted. But many of our readers said they do well in partial shade, too, especially if it’s from deciduous trees which leaf out later.
PLANTING DEPTH – Some authorities say to plant them with the neck just under the soil surface, but our expert North Carolina grower recommends planting them so they’re covered with 2-4 inches of soil. Since the bulbs we ship are 3-4 inches tall, that means planting them with the base 5-8 inches deep.
LONG WAIT FOR BLOOM – If you dig them from a neighbor’s yard you probably won’t have this problem, but if you plant dry, dormant bulbs you’ll have to be patient. Although most will put up leaves their first spring, sometimes nothing emerges until the spring after that, and they virtually never bloom until their second or even third year.
Thanks again to everyone who helped us “crowd-source” this article! For the longer version, including quotes from customers growing them everywhere from zone-3 Saskatchewan to zone-9 Florida, see our More About Surprise Lilies page.
That’s the title of an excellent article by Karen Bussolini in last September’s American Gardener. “The best surprise of the first spring in my new home in Connecticut,” Karen writes, “was a mass of shaggy, fragrant daffodils that bloomed like crazy. . . . They were growing all over the neighborhood, but I couldn’t find them in any of my books or catalogs.” It turned out they were ‘Van Sion’, from 1620, and “twenty-five years later, they’re still going strong.” Bussolini asked experts around the country to recommend other “durable bulbs” like that which “come up every spring [and] bloom with no effort on a gardener’s part,” and many of them were heirlooms:
MOUNTAIN WEST: In zone-9 Tucson, Arizona, Scott Calhoun recommends T. clusiana and white rain lilies. In dry, zone-5b Fort Collins, Colorado, Lauren Springer says “only grape hyacinths and foxtail lilies survive . . . without irrigation,” but with one inch of water a month C. chrysanthus, tommies, and Byzantine glads do well, and if you double that in spring so will species tulips such as T. clusiana. “Most alliums are champs,” too, she adds.
Although peonies are rarely bothered by pests or diseases, powdery mildew has become a problem in some areas. We first wrote about it in 2012, and expert Don Hollingsworth recently offered his perspective in the APS Bulletin. Don has been growing peonies since the 1930s but he says “it was not until 2014 that I noticed the striking sight of white mildew” on a few of the hundreds of peonies at his farm in Missouri. He searched the web but found no explanation as to “why powdery mildew is only now taking hold on peonies, while it has long been known to affect other commonly grown ornamental plants.”
To control it, Don says “the first line of defense is to clean up and destroy all infected plant parts at season’s end” to prevent spores from overwintering – and earlier is better than later. Instead of waiting until late fall, cut infected plants to the ground and carefully bag and remove all foliage “before the leaves dry up, which is best accomplished well before frost.” Don also offers a recipe for a preventative spray by the Massachusetts Master Gardeners: “In a quart of water add a few drops of liquid dish soap and a teaspoon of baking soda.” That’s similar to the spray we recommended two years ago: Mix 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of horticultural oil (or vegetable oil) in a gallon of water. Spray weekly throughout the spring, using a new mix every time and avoiding overuse to prevent a build-up of salts in the soil.
Dahlias are incredibly diverse, and most of the time that’s a good thing — but not always. Unlike most living things which have two sets of chromosomes, dahlias are octoploids which means they have eight. This wider range of genetic possibilities is the source of their astonishing diversity, but it also creates more opportunities for things to go awry.
Chimeras — named for a mythological beast that was part lion, goat, and snake — are plants in which cells of two different genetic make-ups exist side by side. Many bi-tone, speckled, and other variegated dahlias are chimeras, and the interaction between their genetically different sections or layers is often unstable. ‘Nonette’, for example, is usually an apricot colored dahlia sprinkled with tiny bits of red. Sometimes, though, its flowers are all apricot or all red. (See photos of this and more at our new Wacky Dahlias page.) Most of the time most flowers of a chimera are normal with only a random few that are different, but sometimes the plant changes completely so that all of its flowers are different, and sometimes only one part of a flower goes wacky.
Growing conditions can make a difference, too. Flower colors often change as the weather cools and sunlight diminishes in the fall, and stressful conditions — too much heat or not enough water, sunlight, or nutrients — can sometimes make double flowers bloom with fewer petals.
Most of these changes are only temporary (and often entertaining), but if you have a dahlia that bloomed all wrong this year, please let us know so we can send you a refund, credit, or replacement. And if you have a photo of one of our dahlias gone wacky in your garden, we’d love to see it!
“Best” Blogger Chats with Scott about Bulbs from Snow to Iris Season
Margaret Roach’s AWayToGarden.com was named “Best Overall Blog” at last year’s first-ever Garden Bloggers conference. If you’re not already a devoted reader, why not take a look at Margaret’s recent talk with me about having bulbs in bloom from snow to iris season.
We started with winter aconites (with a great photo of them in Margaret’s garden) and other small, mostly animal-resistant beauties including Turkish glory-of-the-snow (Margaret’s favorite). I did my best to talk her into hyacinths (today’s un-coolest bulb, but awesome), and we touched on fragrant daffodils, tulips, and the very animal-resistant snowflake.
Although it’s not in the written version, if you listen to the podcast of our talk you’ll hear why Margaret says the voles, chipmunks, and rabbits in her garden “never got the memo” about Crocus tommasinianus being animal-resistant. One fall she planted 4000 for a Martha Stewart Living photo shoot but only four survived to bloom in the spring — a painful reminder that animal-resistance ranges from “extremely” to “moderately,” and if they’re hungry enough animals will eat just about anything.
Rogue Voles Teach Cornell Scientist about Animal-Resistant Bulbs
When voles ate bulbs intended for a study on deer-resistance, Cornell University’s Bill Miller made the best of it. In the fall, Miller had potted up the bulbs and put them into cold storage. Unfortunately in spring he discovered that “during the winter, prairie voles had taken up residence in the stacks of crates and had eaten more than 35% of the bulbs. We found two large nests of voles, and the youngsters were quite happy, well fed, and growing fast from their nutritious meals. . . . Of course we were not happy with this, but we used it as an opportunity to learn some things about vole feeding and flower bulbs.” The voles’ favorite bulbs included tulips, crocus, Anemone blanda, and Chionodoxa luciliae, but they avoided those listed below. Deer would, too, Miller points out, since deer and voles are known to have similar tastes.
Hyacinths – “Bulbs were not attacked and shoots were perfect when uncovered. . . . From this we can conclude that hyacinths are pretty immune to attack from voles, and my own experience suggests that deer usually leave hyacinths alone.”
Daffodils – “Voles dug in about 10% of the pots but did not damage the bulb or emerging shoots” – and most gardeners know that daffodils are reliably deer-resistant.
Buzzing about Pollinators: It’s National Pollinator Week!
The eighth-annual Pollinator Week kicks off on Monday, June 15, and we’re hoping gardeners everywhere will join the celebration.
As Hunter Stanford writes in the current issue of American Gardener, “Pollinator Week is an opportunity to celebrate pollinators and promote awareness of the important role birds, bees, butterflies, bats, and many other pollinators play in our food supply and maintaining healthy and diverse ecosystems worldwide.”
Pollinators account for one out of every three bites of food we eat, and the populations of many of them have declined drastically over the past decade, so one of this year’s goals for Pollinator Week is “teaching people about the causes of pollinator decline and how they can help.” (Learn more at “A World Without Bees.”)
One way to help is to garden with pollinator-friendly plants, so I asked our bee-keeping neighbor Eileen Dickinson what bulbs she’d recommend. “Winter aconite and crocus are really important early bulbs,” she emailed me. “I see bees all the time in the Scilla siberica, bringing blue pollen into the hive. Grape hyacinths are good. And of course German garlic.”
Eileen also pointed me to the website of Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary where I found a great page about bee-forage plants which includes “all spring bulbs” on its short list for gardeners with limited space. For a more specific list of bee-friendly bulbs, see the recommendations posted at our Facebook page by our good customer and avid bee-keeper Ron Geer. Thanks, Eileen and Ron, and Go Pollinators!
Bulbs in Pots: Our New Page of Tips for Tuberoses, Rain Lilies, and More
Every summer we decorate our front porch with pots of fragrant tuberoses and little pink rain lilies, while out in the back yard we tuck pots of glads in among the perennials to provide exclamation points of color.
You can, too! Most spring-planted bulbs are easy to grow in containers, and you’ll find everything you need to know at our newly expanded “Bulbs in Pots” page.
Read it now and get ready for a summer filled with beauty, fragrance, and fun.
In her weekly column in South Carolina’s Greenville News, Marian St. Clair offers good advice for shade gardeners everywhere — and recommends several of our bulbs that she’s planting this fall.
“Spring-flowering bulbs grow and bloom from energy stored within the bulb the previous year,” Marian explains.
“For repeat bloom, gardeners must maintain nutrient-rich and moist soil conditions to nurture the bulb until foliage dies back and the bulb becomes dormant.” It’s also critically important, she adds, that bulb foliage receive “the maximum amount of sunlight. For success, shade gardeners should select bulbs that flower early, so foliage has time to restore energy to the bulb before trees produce a new crop of leaves.”
For her zone-8, South Carolina garden, Marian writes that she’s “especially excited about a pair of early-blooming daffodils from Old House Gardens. . . . ‘Early Pearl’, a tazetta . . . rediscovered in an old garden in our region’s ‘Spanish moss belt,’ [and] Campernelle; a tried-and-true heirloom grown for more than 400 years. . . . This fragrant yellow daffodil looks like a wildflower compared with many of the new, chunkier hybrids . . . and its slightly twisting petals remind me of a child’s pinwheel.”
Container gardening is increasingly popular, and we’re big fans of it. But you can’t grow bulbs such as daffodils and tulips in containers the same way you’d grow them in the ground. Even the largest container is a tiny, cramped, highly artificial world where the wrong potting soil, extreme temperatures, or a few days without water can spell disaster.
If you know what you’re doing, though, it’s easy – and we’re here to help. For step-by-step guidance from choosing the best containers to spring bloom and beyond, check out our new Bulbs in Pots page.
Blasting: Why So Many Good Buds Went Bad This Spring
“Why didn’t my buds open?” That’s a question we heard a lot more than usual this spring. When buds form but fail to develop into flowers it’s called “blasting.” This usually happens because the plant didn’t get what it needed, and first-year plants with immature root systems are most at risk.
Too Little Water – Spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils and tulips need plenty of water (a) in the fall to grow roots and (b) in the spring to grow leaves and buds that open successfully. If there’s a stretch of dry weather in the fall, initial root growth will be hampered and the bulb may never catch up. The same thing can happen when there’s a stretch of dry weather in spring. Either way, once the rush of spring growth begins above ground, a bulb without plenty of roots may manage to develop foliage and buds, but if it can’t draw up enough water fast enough, those buds will blast.
New Bulbs and Late Planting – Inadequate root development is more often a problem for newly planted bulbs, and even more so for bulbs that are planted late in the fall.
High Temperatures – When spring heats up or temperatures spike, even bulbs with good root systems can struggle to supply their buds with enough water to make up for what’s being lost through transpiration. When they can’t, the buds blast. Late-blooming varieties are most at risk, as well as bulbs planted in hot spots.
Too Little Sun – Sun-loving plants such as marigolds and peonies won’t bloom well in the shade, and the same is true of sun-loving bulbs. If they can’t photosynthesize enough to fully develop their buds, they’ll blast.
Storage Problems – Dormant bulbs should be stored at temperatures above freezing but cooler than 72 degrees or so, and protected from ethylene gas which is contained in automobile exhaust fumes and produced by ripening fruit.
Doubles, Etc. – To develop their many extra petals, double flowers require more moisture and sunlight, which means they blast more easily. Pheasant’s-eye narcissus do, too – and especially double pheasant’s-eyes – because their roots develop slowly and they bloom late when spring is at its warmest.
Solutions – In most cases – and especially for newly planted bulbs – the most important thing you can do is keep your bulbs well watered from early fall, when they start growing new roots, until a couple of weeks before the ground freezes solid (or all winter if it doesn’t), and then again in the spring while they’re busy producing leaves and flowers. If you do that, and Mother Nature is kind, you can expect to have very few blasted buds and lots of beautiful spring flowers.
Glads for Free: Tips for Growing Your Tiny Cormlets into Big Fat Corms
If you dug and stored your gladiolus last fall, you probably found lots of tiny cormlets – aka cormels – clustered around their bases. Plant those this spring and before long you’ll have hundreds of glads for free. Cliff Hartline in the NAGC’s Glad World offers these expert tips:
“Generally speaking, any cormel that falls thru a 1/8-inch screen does not produce well. . . . I only plant cormels the size of a pencil eraser or larger. I pass all my cormels over a 1/4-inch screen and plant those that do not fall through. . . . The larger ones will definitely give you a larger corm to harvest and . . . if they are planted early, they will often bloom in September. . . .
“One year after I finished digging my large corms about September 20, I had the time to dig my glads from cormels. After pulling a few out of the ground, I saw that the corms were the size of a quarter or smaller. I decided to foliar feed them, and I applied fungicide at the same time.
We had a frost October 15 so I dug them immediately after that. Many of the corms were jumbos, most were large, and very few were smaller. I would encourage people to wait until frost to dig cormel stock, and foliar feed late in the year. . . . The September feeding seemed to rejuvenate the growth and the fungicide kept the foliage healthy.”
We’ll remind you that cormlets have nearly impenetrable outer shells and they’ll sprout much better if you either nick or gently crack these or simply dissolve them by soaking in full-strength household bleach for a few hours immediately before planting.
Plant cormlets in full sun, 1-2 inches deep and 1-2 inches apart, depending on size. Keep the soil moist but not soggy until grass-like foliage emerges and, for optimal growth, throughout the summer.
Good luck, have fun, and let us know how they do for you!
When our good customer Jane Baldwin of zone-6a Moreland Hills, Ohio, found herself with surplus bulbs late one fall, she improvised an easy solution that ended up delighting her.
“A couple of years ago,” she writes, “I got caught by early snow so I planted the last of my daffodils in baskets. It looked fabulous and I highly recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not in the same predicament. In fact, it’s how I’m planting most of the daffs I ordered from you this fall.
“The baskets were just ones I found in the garage when we moved in. [If you don’t have any in your garage, thrift shops often sell them for a dollar or two.] They were nothing fancy, older and seasoned by years of use, approximately 6 inches deep and 1-3 feet across. I put a few inches of good potting soil in them and then planted the bulbs right smack against one another with their tips just barely covered by the soil. Smaller-flowered varieties such as ‘Thalia’ and ‘Niveth’ went in the smaller baskets and bigger ones such as ‘Beersheeba’ and ‘Carlton’ in the bigger baskets.
“I put them in our attached garage so they would get the necessary cold, and made sure that mice couldn’t get to them. I watered them at first but eventually the soil froze. At the end of winter when it started to thaw, I brought the baskets out on the patio to a sunny spot where they bloomed to perfection. Even though there were only 2-3 inches of soil under the bulbs and they were planted right next to each other, they performed just fine and looked exquisite in the baskets for a good long time. It was really very easy, and even our chipmunks and squirrels left them alone out there.
“At the end of spring I took the bulbs out of the baskets and kept them dry over the summer in the garage. Now they are planted on a hillside along my driveway where they continue to bloom beautifully – and every fall I plant more in baskets.”
In the early 1900s, peonies reigned as one of the country’s leading cut-flowers, in part because they can be stored in bud for months. Yes, months! And it’s surprisingly easy.
Here’s how you can do it yourself, in an article adapted from The American Cottage Gardener magazine by our good friend Nancy McDonald.
“Choose perfect buds of semi-double to double varieties (the heaviest ‘bomb’ types and singles don’t work as well). In the cool of early morning or late evening, cut buds on six-inch stems, just as the petals begin to loosen but are not yet open.
“Place in gallon-size, zip-lock freezer bags. I put ten to twelve buds per bag, with half the heads facing one way and half the other. Wet a small, new, cellulose sponge or clean dishcloth, wring it out so it’s just barely damp, and put it in the bag. Gently work as much air as possible out of the bag and seal it.
“Store flat in your refrigerator. You may wish to put the bag in a plastic storage box, so the buds don't get bruised by people rummaging for that last chicken leg. Make sure everyone in the house knows that they are not to be eaten.
“After the peonies outdoors are just a fragrant memory, start enjoying your stored ones. Cut an inch of stem (underwater is best) and put the peony in water all the way up to the bud. Within half an hour it will begin to open. Arrange in a vase or float in a bowl of water (a charming way to display peonies anytime). Floating ones seem to last the longest.
“Trim stems an inch shorter each day, if needed. Using this simple technique, I have stored buds for as long as three months, and dazzled everyone with bouquets in early September.”
Most bulbs are easy to grow – and of course we guarantee everything we sell 100%!
But sometimes even the best bulbs don’t bloom well. If that ever happens in your garden, it might be because:
1. Leaves removed too early. To multiply and recharge for future bloom, bulbs need to photosynthesize. The more the better, so leave foliage alone until it yellows.
2. Planted too late. Bulbs need to establish good roots before the ground freezes. Bulbs stored too long, especially small ones, may dry out so much they struggle or fail.
3. Fall was too dry. Good root growth in the fall is essential for good bloom in the spring, and roots can’t grow well in dry soil.
4. Too much shade. Most bulbs need plenty of sun, more the further north you garden. As nearby trees and other plants grow, once sunny areas may become too shady for bulbs.
5. Soil too wet. In heavy, clay, or water-logged soils, many bulbs struggle or rot. Plant in sandy to average soils, improve heavy soils with organic matter, or plant in raised beds. Even average soils can be too damp for some bulbs during their summer dormancy. This is especially true for tulips in the rainier eastern half of the country and in gardens that are regularly watered.
6. Over-crowded. As bulbs multiply they can become so congested that they’re starved for moisture and nutrients. Gently dig and divide.
7. Too small. You’ll never have this problem with our bulbs, but under-sized bulbs are widely sold. In difficult conditions, even the best bulbs can dwindle until they’re too small to bloom.
8. Wrong climate. Both winters and summers can be too cold or too warm, too wet or too dry, depending on the type of bulb. Tulips, for example, need a certain number of winter hours below a certain temperature or they won’t bloom, and they rebloom best where summers are dry.
9. Under-fed or over-fed. Bulbs can starve in nutrient-poor soils, but over-rich soils cause problems, too. Too much nitrogen, for example, spurs leaf growth at the expense of flowering. Let a soil test guide you.
10. Animals, insects, or diseases. Burrowing rodents and daffodil flies can eat bulbs, leaving little trace, while other pests attack their flowers and foliage. Learn more here.
Whew! The good news is that most bulbs are tough and adaptable. And once you understand what they need, it’s even easier to keep them blooming gloriously year after year.
“February and March are my favorite gardening months,” our good customer Carole Bolton wrote us last week – from snowed-in Coldwater, Michigan, where temperatures were well below freezing and the sun hadn’t been seen for days.
Had she lost her mind? Quite the contrary! For years now, Carole has been forcing hyacinths indoors every winter – lots of hyacinths – and this year’s “are especially beautiful,” she wrote. “They’re healthy, tall and fully flowered. They make the freezing rain and weather advisories bearable.”
Although warmer, shorter winters are probably the biggest reason why so many glads are surviving in colder zones, other important factors seem to include:
reliable snow cover,
plenty of sun, and
the time-tested vigor of heirlooms.
To add your two-cents to the discussion, email email@example.com. And if you’d like to experiment with glads as perennials in your own garden, we suggest starting with the tough little one that our readers recommended the most: ‘Atom’.
There you’ll find a few simple charts and formulas to help you figure out:
(a) the square footage of any planting area and
(b) how many bulbs you’ll need to fill that space, whether they be crocus at 3 inches apart, lilies at 18 inches apart, or anything in between.
But we didn’t stop there. Hoping to inspire you to try a bit of historic pattern-bedding, we added antique images and advice from historic catalogs in order to show you how to plant bulbs in true Victorian style.
It’s easy and fun – and not just for grand public gardens like Keukenhof or the lawns of Victorian mansions. Take a look!
“In my area which is at 5,000 feet in Arizona‘s northern section there is an animal called javelina or wild pig. With cloven hoofs, tusks, and large foraging families, it devastates unprotected bulbs in gardens – except for iris. Seems they can’t eat iris. So at thousands of homes here, where the yards are unfenced, iris naturalize and are ubiquitous.”
If you like picking bouquets from your own garden – and who doesn’t? – Garden to Vase is a refreshingly down-to-earth guide full of great advice for getting all sorts of flowers to look better and last longer when cut.
Did you know, for example, that your daffodils will stay in top shape much longer if you let them sit for twenty minutes in a bucket of water while their gooey sap drains out?
And Garden to Vase goes way beyond technical advice. Author Linda Beutler writes as if she were your next-door neighbor, offering tips for collecting vases, using what you already grow, and making cut flowers an everyday pleasure in your home.
She’s funny, encouraging, irreverent, and real. “Don’t be afraid to get this book dirty,” she writes, and we plan to do just that.
In fact, we liked Linda’s advice so much that we asked her if we could post excerpts from it at our website. She was glad to help (thank you, Linda!), so check out our new “Bulbs in Bouquets” page. There you’ll find both cut-flower fundamentals and bulb-by-bulb specifics (“harvest peonies in the ‘soft marshmallow’ stage,” for example) for everything from Abyssinian glads to tulips.