Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • So Much More Than New
How Bulbs Plant Themselves
Nature is amazing, as every gardener knows.
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.
A few days after his team won the World Series this fall, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander (former star of our hometown Detroit Tigers) married super-model Kate Upton in an intimate ceremony in Tuscany – and ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia was there!
At least we think that’s what’s decorating the aisle in this photo the happy couple posted on Instagram. The shape is right, the soft, dreamy color is right, and ‘Café au Lait’ is very much in vogue for weddings. (Although some blooms pictured have open centers, this is common late in the season when there’s less sunlight for petal production.)
To add some All Star/super-model romance to your garden, order ‘Café au Lait’ now for spring delivery!
Workers repaving a street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past August were surprised by what they found buried under the layers of old asphalt – wooden paving bricks from over a century ago, many of which were still in perfect shape.
In his 1891 History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter explains that “a change in Grand Rapids pavements from cobblestone to wood was made in 1874. The first wood pavements were made of blocks cut from four-inch pine planks set on end upon a gravel bed, . . . making a wood roadway six inches in depth.” Unfortunately the pine decayed after five or six years, so “the next advance was in the use of cedar blocks.” Cedar is naturally rot-resistant, and “the cedar block has proved much the more durable, and is the popular pavement to this day.”
I learned a lot more about the evolution of the city’s streets in Baxter’s book – and the early history of paving in your city was probably similar to it.
“Naturally the first wagon roads to the village,” he writes, followed “paths which the Indians had trod and were correspondingly crooked.” In 1835 the first right-angled streets were laid out and cleared but otherwise unimproved except for “little plank or log bridges across streams and mud holes.”
Further improvements “involved a vast amount of labor and expense.” Although Grand Rapids isn’t especially hilly, some high spots were cut down by as much as 40 feet and the resulting fill dirt used to raise low-lying streets by up to 15 feet – all without the help of mechanized equipment.
The next advance was paving, with Canal Street “macadamized” in 1847. This relatively new process involved layers of crushed stone that, with use, would bind into a solid surface. Unfortunately the mud under Canal Street proved to be too much for the macadam which was soon riddled with “mire holes.”
Next the city tried a few sections of wooden plank road, a “passably good pavement,” before turning to cobblestone in 1856. “Cobble stone well laid on a solid even bed is a good pavement, indefinitely durable,” Baxter writes, but it is “very noisy and hard upon the horses’ feet.”
“During the war period,” he continues, “not much progress was made in paving,” but starting in 1866 some streets were paved with “round stone” – which, as best as I can figure, consisted of smooth, uncrushed stones. (If you know more, please let me know.)
Wooden blocks came next, and “after this little if any stone pavement was laid except along street borders and gutters” – although Baxter does mention recent “experiments” with a brand-new paving material for sidewalks known as “artificial stone or concrete.”
If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy the entire Chapter 50 of Baxter’s History, “Village Roads and City Streets.” As you can probably tell, I found it fascinating.
Heirloom Gardener Spotlights the “Noah of Hyacinths”
Our good friend Alan Shipp and his ark of hyacinths are featured in the fall 2017 issue of Heirloom Gardener magazine.
Editor Rebecca Martin tells the inspiring story of how Alan, a third-generation vegetable farmer, became the world’s leading expert on historic hyacinths and guardian of some 250 rare varieties.
Nine of Alan’s treasures are pictured in the article, and if some of the photos look familiar it’s because you’ve seen them at our website.
As Rebecca writes, shortly after Alan sold his first hyacinths he started exporting bulbs to “Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens, who’s also passionate about saving old cultivars. OldHouseGardens.comis a Michigan mail-order company specializing in heirloom flower bulbs, and the exclusive U.S. dealer for Alan’s hyacinths. ‘There’s nothing like a phone call from Alan, out of the blue, telling me about some exciting new hyacinth he’s found,’ Scott says. ‘It’s like the sun suddenly bursting out of the clouds on a beautiful spring day. He’s truly an inspiration and a world treasure.’”
We’re proud to have made the short list of Martha Stewart’s “top bulb sources” in the September 2017 issue of Martha Stewart Living.
“My excitement for tulips,” Martha writes, “is a bit like what occurred in 17th-century Holland during the time of Tulipomania.” She reminds her readers to check tulip bulbs as soon as they arrive to be sure they’re “firm, with no soft spots, rot, or cracking,” but wait to plant them until “nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 40s.”
Although spring may be a long way off, tulips are “more than worth the wait,” she adds. ”It’s always pure joy to see those first shoots appear after a long winter.”
“Outstanding Excellence” – 42 RHS AGM Winners for Fall Planting
The Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest honor for garden plants. It was first bestowed in 1922, and the list of winners has been regularly updated since 1993 to make sure all are still of “outstanding excellence,” “good constitution,” problem-free, and widely available.
Although many of our bulbs are too rare to make the list, here are 42 AGM-winners that we’re offering this fall. Some are already sold out, and others will be soon, so don’t delay – add some of these exceptional flowers to your garden today!
Did you know, for example, that Mozart had a pet starling that he loved so much that he held an elaborate funeral for it when it died? Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt turns this historical tidbit into a fascinating book that’s part biography, part nature study, and part detective novel, as well as a heart-warming memoir of Haupt’s life with her own pet starling, Carmen.
Although starlings today are one of the most reviled birds in North America, outcompeting native birds and destroying some $800 million worth of crops, in Mozart’s time they were often sold as pets. One day as he was walking down the street, Mozart was surprised to hear a starling whistling a phrase from his brand-new piano concerto. Delighted, he brought the bird home where it soon became, in the words of one reviewer, “his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse.”
Starlings, it turns out, are bright, inquisitive, playful, highly sociable, and extraordinary mimics – much like Mozart himself. They are closely related to mynas, and their songs, which have always sounded like random squawking to me, are actually bits of mimicked sounds they weave together into complex, individual compositions.
Haupt’s pet Carmen mimicked everything from the beeping of the family microwave to phrases such as “Hello, honey.” She also turned “my household and my brain completely upside down,” Haupt writes, leading her on a pilgrimage far beyond anything she had envisioned. Their surprisingly intimate relationship gives the book its emotional heart and reminded me of books I once loved such as Rascal and The Yearling.
Mozart’s Starling is both entertaining and inspiring, and you’ll learn a lot from it about birds, Mozart, creativity, animal intelligence, and what we all have in common with wild creatures – including those you may have once scorned as nothing more than pests.
‘Little Beeswing’ Stars at Hampton Court Flower Show
No, that’s not a typo in the title above. We recently learned that the dahlia we’ve always known as ‘Little Beeswings’ – with an “s” at the end – is actually ‘Little Beeswing’ – without the “s.”
Whatever you call it, this cheery little pompon dahlia has been a favorite of our customers ever since we first offered it in 2003. And this past July it was a hit at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show where it was part of a display by Plant Heritage, the world’s leading non-profit devoted to preserving garden plants.
As Lucy Pitman explains at the Plant Heritage blog, “‘Little Beeswing’ has been offered in the Plant Exchange for several years by a National Collection Holder in Cambridgeshire, he having obtained his original plants from Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Michigan. Because this bright Dahlia was flowering so beautifully in perfect time for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, it became the star of the show in the Plant Guardian display.”
The National Collection Holder she mentions is our good friend Alan Shipp, the Noah of hyacinths, who’s been growing ‘Little Beeswing’ ever since we sent it to him years ago. When Lucy asked Alan about its history, he sent her to us, and after several hours of research in the OHG library and online, here’s what we think we know.
‘Little Beeswing’ (the earliest spelling of its name) was introduced in 1909 (not 1886 or 1938, as some sources indicate) by Keynes, Williams, and Co. (not J.K Alexander), a celebrated nursery in Salisbury, England (not Australia) that introduced dahlias from at least 1863 to 1938. It apparently made its way to the US shortly thereafter (not in 1938 as Lucy believed when she wrote her blog) because by 1916 it was noted as “new” in a list of “best dahlias” published by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, and in 1917 it was mentioned in the Bulletin of the Dahlia Society of California.
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!”
How do you move a tree that’s 98 feet-tall and weighs 800,000 pounds?
That’s exactly what happened in Boise this past summer when Idaho’s largest and most historic giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantean) – a gift from naturalist John Muir in 1912 – was moved a couple of blocks to make way for a hospital expansion.
Giant sequoias are the world’s largest trees, growing up to 300 feet tall with trunks over 25 feet in diameter, and they can live a very long time. The oldest one documented by ring count was 3500 years old, so the 115-year-old Boise tree, as one of the moving crew pointed out, is “still a young tree.”
Unfortunately Boise’s summer was brutally hot and dry this year, and giant sequoias are native to very humid regions where, according to Wikipedia, they “supplement water from the soil with fog taken up through air roots, at heights to where the root water cannot be pulled.”
Nevertheless, the Texas firm that moved the tree gives it a 95% chance for survival, and Boise’s City Forester Brian Jorgenson (who I had the pleasure of meeting this past summer at my sister’s wedding) says he’s “cautiously hopeful.” Jorgenson checks on the tree daily, monitoring four soil-moisture testing stations and a hose running up its trunk that sprays water on the upper branches to humidify them.
Almost three years ago, the same Texas firm moved a 250-year-old oak tree here in Ann Arbor (see “Save the Oak!” and “One Year After”) and it’s still alive and well. Here’s hoping the Boise sequoia will thrive as well – and outlive us all.