Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Fine Bulb Book

I don't know of a finer American book about small, early-flowering bulbs than M. M. (Dickey) Graff's vintage book, Flowers In The Winter Garden . Dickey died at 97, about a year and a half ago, and one of the regrets of my gardening life is that I never wrote to her and told her what a fine book she produced.
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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

If You Like Maples...

If you like maples, especially Japanese maples, there is a very useful message board you should check out. It is the acer message board for the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. If for nothing else, check out the gallery portion, which has multiple pictures of just about every variety of ornamental maple. The discussions are however, equally invaluable and interesting.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Plants I Mean To Have (Part II)

I had Daphne mezereum in my first garden, in a perniciously winter-cold river valley in northern Iowa. I was blissfully unaware of the finicky reputation and cultural requirements of this genus, and just by luck planted my daphne on a sunny, dryish hillside with excellent drainage, where it grew like a privet, blooming faithfully in earliest spring with the most garishly mauve, sweet-scented flowers, and the rest of the year looked rather like the ugly duckling of the shrub world... I loved it to pieces. To further clarify my taste (or lack of same) in gardening, I planted bright yellow daffodils in front of it.
I left it behind when I moved, which is probably also lucky, as they have a reputation for being very difficult to transplant, probably because of their very deep, extensive root systems; when moved they often go into decline and die.
So, I mean to have this shrub again, but I must find the right spot for it first; not an easy task in a woodland garden.
The photo above is not mine (since I am daphne-less at present); it was taken from Wikipedia Commons, for which I am grateful.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plants I Mean To Have...

It has somehow gotten to the point where a shoehorn would be more useful than a trowel in our garden; I suspect over the years that somebody around here has bought more plants than they quite know what to do with. Nevertheless, there are a few little oddments I'd like to add... more types of surprise lilies (lycoris), for example (and I suppose it will be a surprise if I can figure out where to plant them). These same garden oddities were on last winter's wish list and I have doubled our total since then; L. squamigera, at top, the common surprise lily or August lily, which we've had for many years, and at bottom the new kid on the block, the tie dye lily, L. sprengeri.
Many of the species of lycoris are only suited for the south; for example the iconic hurricane lily, L. radiata. There are, however, a couple of other species that I'd like to try here in 5a Iowa. It's a little tricky, because with lycoris you can't pull that old, cold climate trick of just planting them very deeply; lycoris bulbs supposedly will not bloom well if planted more than a few inches deep (there is not complete agreement on this; some say no more than two inches deep, a few say you can plant six inches deep; some of this disparity may be due to confusion about whether you're talking about depth to the top or the bottom of the bulb).
Basically, culturally one can divide the Lycoris into those which produce their foliage in the fall, after blooming (like radiata); these are tender. Then there are quite a number of species which (like sprengeri and squamigera that we already have) produce their foliage in the spring; some of these species may be at least borderline hardy in zone 5 (it is claimed that lycoris are more hardy than they are commonly given credit for). There is the lovely apricot-orange L. sanguinea; the "peppermint striped lily", L. incarnata; light yellow longituba; white-pink L. shaanxiensis (I put this species in here tentatively, as some say it's a tender fall foliage plant, and some say it puts out its foliage in spring and is fairly hardy); creamy yellow L. caldwelii; and yellow L. chinensis. The first three of these have funnel-like flowers like the species I already have, and the last three are "spider" lilies.
Now if a couple of roses would just suck in their guts, I think I could squeeze in a couple of new lycoris species.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Get Out The Checkbook!

We've grown some fall-blooming colchicums, one being shown above, for probably twenty years, but I find that there are several species of spring-blooming colchicums that might stand a chance of growing in our garden. Actually, we already grow what used to be Bulbocodium vernum, which is now classified as a colchicum, so we have a start.
I'm not quite sure why I would be worked up over colchicums that bloom in the spring, but we're not talking about logic here, anyway...this is gardening.
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Friday, December 26, 2008

More Than An Afterthought

The flowers of Adonis amurensis are among the brightest and cheeriest in the early spring garden, often blooming while snow is still on the ground, and while the plant's foliage is just starting to spread out. The foliage however, is quite a treat in itself, being somewhat waxy and fernlike; it then goes dormant as the weather warms. Adonis doesn't stick around very long each spring, but while here it is certainly a double dipper of a plant.
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Thursday, December 25, 2008

More Fritillaries = A Better Garden

As if I needed any more reasons to be anxiously awaiting spring (I know winter has barely begun... I'm not blind, just in denial), I planted this last fall, about half a dozen new fritillary bulbs (F. pontica, above is already resident). Amongst them will be three different selected, named clones of F. meleagris, the snakeshead fritillary: 'Jupiter', 'Mars', and 'Saturnus'. These three all have large, heavily patterned flowers (Jupiter looks particularly striking in photos). Fritillaries are not easy here; some are too winter tender for Iowa, and many of them are not appreciative of hot, muggy summers. Some like afternoon shade, some full sun; some like a summer baking, some never can dry out. I guess we grow about twenty-five species or cultivars now; I'd go check, but the garden is buried under a foot of snow and ice at present. Anyway, next spring we will be growing thirty-one kinds (I think).
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

If I May Repeat Myself

I have previously mentioned the website of the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC) as a wonderful resource; it is especially rich as a flower bulb reference. There are two main sections to check out if you log on: the forum, which has several message boards that have a wealth of knowledge and pictures of various bulbs (there is a very active board just about snowdrops). In addition the delicious, dry British wit is prevalent. The second section to visit there is Ian Young's bulb log from Aberdeen; a mind-boggling display of pictures and information about erythroniums, fritillaries, crocuses and other rarities. You can spend hours on the SRGC website, and come away much wiser, but with a wish list that will bankrupt you for sure.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Spring Full Of Crocuses

For some reason, crocuses have never been a big part of our present garden. Perhaps it's that I'm still disgruntled about my crocus experience in my first garden; I bought a bag of 1000 mixed crocuses. The price was a trifle, and they all came in a bag that you could put your sack lunch in. I can tell you though; planting a thousand of anything, even tiny bulbs, takes a lot of time. Well, the squirrels came along, and the next spring exactly one lonely little crocus came up, and it was gone by the next year.
Maybe I've never quite gotten over that; the only crocuses we've had here have either piggybacked in here from my third garden (this is my fourth), or they are Dutch crocuses that came from a bag of bulbs I bought from my Sister-in-law, who was selling them for her church.
On a whim, this last fall I did put in a few new species crocuses, and this winter I've been looking at pictures on the internet of the amazing variety in crocuses. I've also been eyeballing a scruffy, weed and brush overgrown, south-facing bit of dry hillside that's right next to our garden. All I'd have to do to have a crocus garden is grub out all the brush and roots, dig up the whole hillside and replace the clay with loose soil, haul in a ton of rocks, and move about a hundred feet of deer fence to include this bit of land in the garden.
Winter in the midwest has a way of fostering such fantasies and delusions... it's how we cope.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Snakes Up!

It's easy to forget how cool Arisaemas look when they first raise up in the cool early spring, like so many cobras raising their dark heads, to eye the garden... wonderfully sinister amongst all the bright, frilly daffodils and primroses.

Above from top: Arisaema ringens, sikokianum, and serratum, last April.
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

One Good Thing...

One good thing about gardening in the U.S. is that our garden catalogs are somewhat lacking in offerings of primroses (at least those that can be grown outdoors in Iowa). If I lived in Great Britain, I'd be fat from eating fish and chips, and I'd be broke from buying new primroses... maybe not such a bad situation after all.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Must-Do Spring Garden Project

There comes a point in your gardening life where in the winter you should stop plotting out new flower beds, and instead daydream about thinning out the anemones; your garden is full!
However, I for some reason can't seem to bring myself to pull up all of the hundreds of little hellebore seedlings that keep popping up in the garden... they're just so cute!. I guess deadheading the hellebores after they flower might at least be in order (kind of like getting the tubes tied after you've already got a houseful of kids). I'm going to try and find a couple of spots to move some of these seedlings to, before they get their roots down any further. I just hope they don't expect a four star room; it's going to be Iowa clay full of tree roots at best.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

A Future Gardening Magazine Picture

I'm not good at landscaping or combination planting; I follow the time honored method of gardening; wander about with a plant in one hand and a trowel in the other until I find an open spot to stick the plant in. However, this might be a future picture for Fine Gardening magazine; yellow ladyslipper orchids blooming last May, backed up by a clump of deep purple Primula sieboldii. The clump of primroses just needs to get bigger (which it will).
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The First Time

I can quite clearly remember the first time I saw the place that became our present garden. It was late fall of 1993, and we just happened upon the for sale sign, pointing down a wooded, dead end road. I wandered out in the brushy woods behind the house; I stood in a spot just to the right of where the Japanese maple is now and, looking around, thought that this would be a great spot to garden!
Sometimes things work out.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


As this already dreary winter descends into a snowy tomb for garden dreams, I begin to consider the birds: they are often thought of as being somewhat dim-witted (calling someone "bird-brained" is not considered a compliment), but most of the birds from our woods are probably sitting in palm trees right now.
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

First Robin Of Spring

When spring finally arrives next March, one of the first bloomers in our garden is this little bulb, Bulbocodium vernum. It is often endearingly called 'raggedy robin' because its flowers look somewhat rumpled even when they first bloom.
It looks for all the world like a little, spring-blooming colchicum, and in fact recently it has been moved into that genus and re-labeled Colchicum vernum. I had always read that this is a monotypic bulb (the only species in its former genus bulbocodium). However, I recently found that some botanists have differentiated out a second species, Bulbocodium (now Colchicum) versicolor which is smaller and native more to the east, in southeastern Europe to the Caucasus (vernum is native in the southern Alps and Pyrenees). The territories and the plants overlap and some consider versicolor just a subtype of vernum. Versicolor is rarely offered for sale and possibly is a little less hardy than vernum; it looks from its pictures even more like a typical little colchicum (though also spring blooming).
There is another small, related genus (merendera) of bulbs native in southeastern Europe that are similar and have also now been melded into the genus colchicum. Merenderas look like a prohibitive stretch to grow in our climate, being from more Mediterranean locales, and as best I can tell being fall-bloomers that put out their foliage in late fall after blooming.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Watching The Glacier...

Springs may come and go in the garden in an eyeblink, but some things, like the growth of Japanese maples, can be glacially slow. This is Acer palmatum 'Beni Otake' last April. It is currently about four foot tall, but should reach ten or fifteen feet, when it will be quite spectacular. It has its roots down finally, and is starting to grow almost a foot a year; about the year 2015 it should be quite nice, if an asteroid doesn't hit Earth that year.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pictures In A Crowded Closet

Maybe you can have it both ways in your garden; have good, clear views of flowering shrubs so that they photograph well, and yet have those meandering pathways, mystery, and sense of discovery in the garden that most of us like. If so, I don't have the secret.
I think our garden is an interesting one to wander about in, but it doesn't photograph worth a lick; you will notice that an unusually high percentage of the pictures in this blog are close-ups, or at best medium-range shots. When I try to show one of the shrubs or trees, more often than not I show one branch, which pretty much gets lost in the picture in the surrounding background tangle. Once a reader asked me to post a full picture of an uncommon shrub, and I finally just gave up; it was hemmed in on one side by a hydrangea, on the other side by a double-file viburnum, overhung by an amur maple, and a red climbing rose draped over it. It's like trying to take a photograph in a crowded closet. Last year, a charming gal from Chicago stopped in for a garden tour; she works for a publishing company that puts out a couple of well-known garden magazines, and her job is to travel about and find gardens to photograph and feature in these magazines. I told her that our garden just doesn't photograph well, but she stopped by anyway, and took some snapshots that she would share with her editors, and they would get back to me if they wanted to formally photograph the garden. I suspect they had a good laugh trying to pick out the flowers in the jungle; sort of like 'Where's Waldo?" Needless to say, I've not yet heard back from them; perhaps they are waiting until they start their new magazine, "Midwest Gardens Close-up".

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gardening Catalog Winter Re-Run

It's that time of year for the gardening catalog winter re-run; every year I think I've got plenty of hostas (well, even maybe a few dozen past plenty). Then two things happen: snow blows down from Alaska, and the garden catalogs start arriving. You know, maybe I could find spots for just a couple more hostas, after all.

Above: Hosta 'Eternal Flame' just coming up last spring.
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Friday, December 12, 2008

A Place Called Spring...

With snow blanketing our valley, and the pond creaking with new ice, it is that time of year when this blog needs to go to a kinder, gentler place... a place called Spring (a flowery way of saying that you can either look at recycled pictures from last spring or listen to me bitch about winter... your choice).
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