Mind the rake

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) blooming above their carpet of unraked leaves.

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) blooming above their carpet of unraked leaves.

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Snowdrop walk

On Saturday, Montrose hosted a short tour to see the snowdrops at their best. At least, it’s their best between now and, say, Christmas. I expect to see them blooming in the woods throughout the winter and into the spring.

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) beneath a fallen trunk of Maclura pomifera, commonly known as osage orange.

Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) beneath a fallen trunk of Maclura pomifera, commonly known as osage orange.

Nancy started with a packet of snowdrop bulbs purchased at the local feed store. She tended them, divided them, shared them, transplanted them. At some point, the casual interest metamorphosed into a passion.

In late November, the snowdrop ridge turns from a hill of fallen leaves into a rippling white ribbon.

In late November, the snowdrop ridge turns from a hill of fallen leaves into a rippling white ribbon.

On my second or third day at work, I helped to weed the ridge pictured here. Microstegium grew in billowy clumps, camouflaging English ivy and the foliage of various species of cyclamen. Out came the Microstegium, just before it set seed, as well as the ivy. The fallen leaves remain to decompose on their own schedule.

At the time, I found no evidence of snowdrops anywhere. My colleagues promised it would be lovely in time. (And it will look even more heavenly when the Podocarpus [left-hand side] fill in behind them.)

snowdrop ribbon

I know of four Galanthus species in the garden (G. elwesii, G. nivalis, G. reginae-olgae, and G. woronowii) but I am sure there are more. Then, there are named varieties and the charming mutts begotten of self-hybridizing.

clump of snowdrops

I particularly like them grouped amongst Pulmonaria.

Snowdrops growing amidst Pulmonaria sp.

Snowdrops growing amidst Pulmonaria sp.

I’m sorry if you had to miss it (Susie and Erica…). Hope you can come next time.

Great garden bulbs: Sternbergia lutea

Last year, I visited Montrose and became bewitched by a charming little bulb I’d never seen before: Sternbergia lutea.

A diminutive amaryllid native to the Mediterranean, Sternbergia lutea isn’t widely grown, but it should be. It looks like a tall yellow crocus, but blooms in September. The blooms can be short-lived, but they are followed by grassy green foliage that persists through the winter, then disappears as the rest of the garden wakes up in the spring.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

They like their summers dry–so dry, in fact, that the bases of oak trees provide ideal planting conditions –and prefer being left alone. Heavy clay doesn’t bother them,  either. Don’t lime them, whatever you do, and keep them clear of automated watering systems.

I think they’d look spectacular mixed into a bed of black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which will tolerate the drought-like conditions the Sternbergias need in the summer, or another dark-leaved ground cover like Ajuga reptans ‘Mahogany.’ Alternatively, a broad-leaved, yellow-variegated ground cover like Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway,’ would complement the blossoms handsomely.

Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway.’ Photo by GrowingColors.com.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’ Photo by RareFindNursery.com

Unusual garden bulbs make great garden plants. They’re easy for the novice gardener, cheap to buy and grow (many reseed or reproduce by offsets, and require little in the way of fertilizers or pest management schemes), and many bulbs can last forever in the home garden.  Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA, carries Sternbergia lutea, among other terrific and unusual plants. And they’re not a sponsor of my site; I just like them.

What are your favorite plants for the fall garden?

Rain lilies

Late last year, I stopped by a favorite nursery and binged on plants for which I did not have a place prepared in the garden. Among the must-haves that found their way into my cart were Habranthus robustus, the nodding rain lily.

Habranthus robustus, rain lily

Zephyranthes sp. and Habranthus sp. are two genera commonly known as rain lilies, because they come into flower after summer rainstorms. Interestingly, they don’t respond in the same way to a shower from the hose or watering can–even if the water comes from a rain barrel. I am fascinated to know how these plants know the difference between the water sources. I have read a suggestion that it’s to do with nitrogen in the rainwater fixed by lightning, but they bloom after storms without lightning as well.

I am not sure why it’s called nodding rain lily–I didn’t observe the blooms nodding downward to any extent, but perhaps mine were duds. The position of the bloom, though, is one way to tell the genera apart: Zephyranthes species’ blooms tend to face upward, while Habranthus species’ blooms face outward, like those of their relative, the amaryllis.

The bulbs begin blooming in late summer, when little else shows up, and will often multiply steadily if planted in a happy spot. Unfortunately, I think mine may have been lost to last winter’s polar vortex. Plant Delights Nursery and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs carry lots of these fascinating plants, which are hardy between USDA Zones 7-10. I have read that Zephyranthes citrina is hardy to Zone 5. I’m keen to repopulate my garden with them all, but I may have to wait until next spring. I hear that another polar vortex may be in future this winter.

Crop experiment: Growing shallots

Have you ever grown shallots? I haven’t, but I’ve just ordered my first sets to plant this fall. I love the way they taste, so I’m excited to try them.

Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are botanically related to onions and garlic. They are native to Central Asia and have a very mild, delicate onion flavor that is wonderful in salads and egg dishes. They grow like garlic, forming clusters of offsets (small bulbs that form off the main bulb). Inside the bulb, shallots are layered like onions.

I’m growing French gray shallots (Allium oschaninii), which some consider to be the “true” shallot, and French red shallots, the ones most often found in grocery stores and markets. The red shallots are supposed to be easier to grow, but the gray ones allegedly have better flavor. The red shallots grow larger; the grey produce prolifically.

Like other root crops, they like well draining soil amended with lots of organic matter. My raised beds should suit them very well, as they contain equal parts composted manure, decomposed bark, and washed sand. I’ll perform a soil test before planting to make sure the pH is appropriate. I cannot plant them until mid-October, but if I wait until then to order them, they won’t be available. I made that mistake last year.

What crops are you trying out in your fall garden this year?

Crinums

Crinums are wonderful plants for warm-climate gardeners. Blooming in late summer, graceful flowers on tall stems fill the air with a honey-like scent.

Crinum bloomLooking very much like the amaryllis to which they are related, crinums grow from sturdy bulbs and have wide, strap-like leaves. They will not refuse a good garden soil but will grow just as easily in junkyards, if that is where you happen to garden. Like your friend who refuses to pick a restaurant for dinner, crinums are indifferent to their surroundings: sun, shade, wet, dry–oh, whatever. Just plant them up to their necks someplace and leave them alone. The only thing they fuss about is cold–they’re not reliably hardy north of Zone 7. But mine came through the polar vortex without complaint.

I never feed them. Sometimes they get mulched with shredded leaves if I need to empty my shredder bag nearby. Pinching off the spent blossoms keeps them going.

If you insist on moving one, be sure to get as much soil around the bulb as possible and don’t sever the bulb. Understand before you attempt this extraction that bulbs can grow to be absolutely enormous, basketball size (29 inches or 75 cm in circumference) or larger. Brush soil off the top of the bulb until you can discern its width, give it five inches on either side, and dig straight down. But really, if you’re the uncertain type, better plant it in a nice, large container, and move the container instead.

Crinum sources:

Garden log, 3.31.14

A gorgeous, clear spring day, high of 72. Planted a ‘Yuletide’ Camellia sasanqua, dug up Helianthus and Crocosmia to share with a local plant sale.  I am not entirely sure how I feel about these plants. They are gorgeous in flower and can fill a space quickly if that is what’s required, but demand active management if they are going to be kept in bounds. I believe for now that they’re an easy way to fill a border until the gardener has money to buy replacement plants or trade with friends.

HelianthusAnother four winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, emerged today–some corms/bulbs (it is time I mastered this terminology) sprouting two stems! Moved them promptly to a new home with more summer shade and a touch more lime in the soil. I think they’ll look fabulous next to the purple crocus, assuming that in their new location they don’t choose to bloom a month earlier than usual.

Tilled leftover manure-grit mixture from last year’s project into the new raised bed on the south side of the house. I cannot wait to get this bed planted; I have visions of the bed bursting with tomatoes and peppers. Salsa forever.