Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The fall garden, and planting bulbs

We're coming up to my favorite season of all, the autumn.  I love everything about it:  the changeable weather, the cooler temperatures, the bright blue skies with high wispy clouds, the low humidity, the frost edging the plants, the changing leaves, the plants going dormant, the seed pods gracing the branches of almost every growing thing, the harvest activities, fresh-picked apples and pumpkins, the snuggly fleece shirts, being able to leave my hair down and not roast to death under it. . . . 

This is also one of my favorite times of year in the garden.  I love the "putting the garden to bed" routine each year.  I remove dead/dying annuals after the first hard frost knocks them out.  I cut off the perennials that look sad all winter (peonies, daylilies, irises, hosta), but leave ones that look good in the snow (grasses, sedums, astilbes).  I often edge the flower beds in the fall, so they look fresh first thing in the spring.  I empty out the flower pots, and bring in ceramic ones that can't take the freeze/thaw cycle.  This year I'll be digging up some cannas and dahlias to store in the basement until spring.  I wasn't impressed with how the cannas did (they were small tubers from a big box store), so I'm hoping they made nice big tubers that will get a head start next spring if I pot them up early.  I also grew the dahlias from seed (a mix of 'Bishop's Children' - i.e. open pollinated seed from descendants of the classic variety 'Bishop of Llandaff), and they were a really successful bloomer for me, so I'll try to save those too.

This is also a marvelous time of year to plant.  Oh, how I love end-of-season plant sales!  I stalk the clearance tables and look for bargains on things I've been wanting to try, or things I just need/want more of.  Anything I can get planted by the end of September will be just fine to make it through the winter.  Some things I can plant into October - that depends on how tender I think they'll be in my exposed location.  Our average annual "first frost" date is September 15, but the ground doesn't freeze solid until late November to mid December usually.  Anything I plant needs to be able to establish some roots before the ground freezes solid, so I'm not going to plant anything from a pot past early October, just to be safe.  We're in USDA Climate Zone 5a up here, but really close to being borderline Zone 4b, and I'm still getting used to our new location farther north.

My favorite fall activity is planting bulbs.  I'm like a squirrel burying nuts every fall - tulips, daffodils, crocuses, I love them all.  I have a couple special tulip varieties I want to get from Brent and Becky's Bulbs (particularly the deep true blood red  'Jan Reus,' and the early Darwin hybrid tulip 'Daydream,' which is lemon yellow with chiffon-white edges).  I could spend serious $$$ on bulbs, if I had it to spend, so I have to be careful and try to get only what I really want each year.  Still, it's hard to pass up and easy to justify the occasional extra bag of bulbs while going to Lowes for something else.  Fortunately, my husband loves seeing the spring bulbs as much as I do, and he casts a forgiving eye on my seasonal bulb spending spree each fall.

Tulips must be the easiest bulbs EVER.  You can plant them up until the ground freezes.  Some years I've been able to plant tulips in mid-December, and they grow just as well as ones I planted in October.  Bigger bulbs make better flowers in the spring, so don't buy mingy little bulbs - you'll be disappointed.  Naturally some plants tend to make larger bulbs than others, and after a while you'll recognize which varieties generally make larger ones.   But make sure when you buy tulip bulbs that they are solid and unblemished - if they're soft, crackly, or look bruised, they'll either die quickly, or put on a poor show if they survive.  (Having called them easy, I must qualify that statement:  they're easy if you don't have trouble with squirrels or voles - in which case you may need to plant the bulbs in galvanized wire cages with extra grit under the bulbs to frustrate voles, or lay a piece of galvanized wire fencing flat over the freshly-planted area to deter the squirrels.)

Daffodils are another favorite of mine.  On my list of MUST BUYs is the classic pheasant's eye narcissus, or the poet's daffodil (Narcissus poeticus recurvus).  It has pure white petals around a small, vibrantly red-orange and gold small cup with a tiny green "eye" in the middle.  It blooms late, and is wonderfully fragrant.  I didn't plant any last fall, and I really missed them this past spring.  This year, I'll plant an armful of them where I can enjoy them up close.  I am floored by the variety of daffodils that have been bred over the past century, but I generally like more old-fashioned looking varieties the most.  Again, Brent and Becky's Bulbs is my go-to source, although the John Scheeper's catalog also has wonderful selections and good quality.

A tiny little bulb that I want to get this year is bright violet Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant.'  It's neither ruby-colored, or particularly huge, but in my old yard it was always the first bulb to bloom, tough as nails, and it spread modestly.  Again, I didn't get it last year, and I'm determined not to go another year without it.  It's like an old friend.

One bulb I did bring from the old house was the heirloom hyacinth 'Chestnut Flower,' a soft, double pink variety with a lovely fragrance.  It wasn't cheap when I bought it from Brent and Becky's, so rather than re-order them I just dug them up and toted them along.  They made the move, and bloomed this past spring - a little piece of my old life brightening our first spring in our new home.

I also want to plant some asiatic lilies, and some "tiger" lilies.  I used to have Lilium tigrinum 'Sweet Surrender,' which is creamy white with dark speckles - oh so elegant.  Also, I wish, oh how I wish I had brought some of my 'Avignon' asiatic lilies with me from the old house.  I planted them over 10 years ago, and now I can't find that variety any more.  They were the glowing orange of campfire embers, an amazing color that drew your eye in any light.  They fell through the cracks in the move - I meant to dig up a clump of them, and forgot them in the craziness.

Now I want to go look at my bulb catalogs before I go to bed, to dream of spring.