Careless Gardening, or Planting 200 Crocuses in 2 Minutes

Well, maybe 5 minutes. I’d wanted to get these corms of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ planted for a while, but could never find the time when the weather was decent and the ground wasn’t a muddy mire. (How odd to write that after enduring this year’s drought.) When I woke this morning, I was possessed by an overwhelming urge to plant my crocuses before I left for work.

Crocus tommasinianus Lilac Beauty
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’
Photo: John Scheepers

It was simple enough:

  1. Dig shallow hole, about 5″ deep.
  2. Throw a bunch of crocuses in the hole. They should be about as crowded as the Red Line “L” train at 3 PM, but not as crowded as it gets at 5:30 PM.
  3. Cover up the hole.
Crocuses thrown in hole, about as crowded as an “L” train at 3 PM

In this way I was able to deposit the 200 crocuses, about 80 in one hole and 120 in the other, before heading to the office. (I took the picture above with my cell phone, so it is not up to Judy’s usual standards.)

This episode reminds me of one of the big changes in my approach to gardening since I started. I used to be a very careful gardener. If the catalog said space plants 14″, I would try to measure out 14″ – not 12″ or 16″.

With crocuses, the instructions generally say plant 3-4″ apart. As a result, you could find me on a blustery fall day, making little individual holes three inches apart, dropping a crocus corm in each hole, then smoothing over the ground.

That was before I had a startling revelation: plants, if they’re in the right kind of spot, are pretty resilient. For the most part they do not need to be coddled. They certainly did not evolve in nature depending on exact spacing provided by the elements. And the ones that do, to hell with them. I have prospered as a gardener by acting on this philosophy.

Admittedly, this is not a good approach to growing, say, orchids. But I have no interest in growing orchids.

But I do like growing crocuses. (And I checked and the plural is either crocuses or croci, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been fond of crocuses since I was a little kid. They provide a bright splash of color in early spring, when the landscape is still mostly brown and tan. Crocus tommasinianus is supposed to be more squirrel resistant. You need to plant them in big bunches to have an impact, though. And that’s where careless gardening makes life so much easier.

‘Autumn Brilliance’ Indeed

Right now the showiest foliage in my yard is displayed by ‘Autumn Brilliance’ Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’).  I have six of these upright, multi-stem shrubs in a couple different spots in my yard, and I consider them pretty much indispensible. There are few shrubs that are happy in shade that have as much to offer.

serviceberry Amelanchier autumn foliage autumn brilliance
Serviceberries along our east property line.

The foliage turns to glowing red and orange fairly early in the season. Powdery mildew is an occasional problem, but never too serious for me. I think the color is just as striking as that of Burning Bush (Euonymous alata), which is considered invasive in some areas.

Serviceberry foliage shows even brighter against the green hedge on our west property line. Some misguided pruning accounts for the odd shapes.

Serviceberry covers itself in white flowers in early spring. This year it was very early, the flowers were open by the last week of March.

Serviceberry flowers on March 24th of this year. The neighbors’ crabapple makes for a nice contrast.

And in June there are berries, which look very similar to blueberries. The berries are edible, some say they taste like a cross between blueberry and almond. They are also well-timed for the many birds nesting at that time. We like to watch the Robins hopping from branch to branch, helping themselves to the berries. They’re also a favorite of other fruit-eating birds, such as Cedar Waxwings.

Serviceberry berries, not quite ripe. They’re a deep blue-purple when ready to eat.

While the books say this shrub grows 15-25′, the specimens I planted almost 10 years ago have grown from five to about twelve feet high.

What has the most colorful foliage in your yard right now? And have you had good or bad experience with Serviceberries?

I Get the Tulips Planted!

Yep, all 90 of them. I planted them in containers for the first time, having decided that tulips weren’t really a good fit in my perennial beds. For starters, the dying foliage flops over other emerging plants. Also, they are often short-lived, and since tulips need to be planted deep, replacing them can be disruptive to established plants.

But Judy loves hybrid tulips. She picked the varieties we ordered and decided how they should be combined in the containers. Here’s what we did:

Tulip 'Flair'
Tulipa ‘Flair’ Photo: Van Englen

Combined tulip ‘Flair’ (red and yellow, early, 14″) with ‘Bellona’ (yellow, early, 14″).

Combined ‘Flair’ with ‘West Point’ (yellow, lily-flowered, 20″, mid-season).

Tulip 'Coleur Cardinal'
Tulipa ‘Coleur Cardinal’ Photo: Van Engelen

Combined ‘West Point’ with ‘Kingsblood’ (red, early, 24″).

Combined ‘Kingsblood’ with ‘La Cortine’ (yellow and red, late, 26″).

Tulipa ‘West Point’ Photo: Van Engelen

Combined ‘La Cortine’ with ‘Coleur Cardinal’ (red and plum, early, 12″).

Combined ”Coleur Cardinal’ with ‘Rainbow Warrior’ (yellow with red edge, mid-season, 22″).

Tulip World Expression
Tulipa ‘World Expression’ Photo: John Scheepers

Combined ‘Bellona’ with ‘Rainbow Warrior’.

Filled a container with ‘World Expression’ (cream and red, late, 24″).

We put 10 tulips in 16″ containers and 8 tulips in smaller containers – probably could have squeezed a couple more into the larger containers. My understanding is you can stick as many tulips as you can into a container, as long as the bulbs aren’t touching. If you’re interested in how to plant tulips in containers (or how I did it, anyhow) it’s pretty simple:

  • Pull out all the container plants and dump them on the compost pile.
  • Pour the potting mix or soil from your containers into a larger container and mix with a few handfuls of compost.
  • Fill the containers with the refreshed mix until it is 6-8″ from the top. Throw in some bulb food if you want, following label directions for quantity.
  • Place the bulbs in the container. You can crowd them in there but they should not be touching.
  • Fill the rest of the container with mix, and give it a good soak with the hose. The containers should not dry out over winter.
  • Store in the garage or basement, a place where the bulbs will be chilled but the container won’t freeze.
Tulip bulbs in container
Tulip bulbs in container. I could probably have squeezed in a couple more. Sadly, I don’t have a proper potting bench, have to make do with the front steps.

And now, to dream of tulips until spring …

Is Synthetic Fertilizer Really So Bad?

Most of the gardeners I know, read, and talk to have a strong bias in favor of an organic approach to soil fertility. I share that bias. In almost all of my garden, all I do is add mulch with some compost here and there. (And I’m planning on cutting back on the compost after I got back the results of my soil test.) Most of my plants are native wildflowers, cultivars of same, and vigorous exotics that just don’t need fertilizers if grown in the right kind of soil.

Even flowers with a reputation for being “heavy feeders”, such as Clematis and Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) do fine in my garden with just a few shovelfuls of compost.

My Jackman Clematis gets only compost and it’s pretty happy.

But I have a confession to make: I do use some synthetic fertilizer. I’ve used it for three things: container plantings, my vegetable garden, and my roses. The first two have a rational basis: constant watering makes nutrients wash out of containers, and vegetable plants really are heavy feeders. As for the roses: OK, I won’t do this again, but I had just planted my first rose bushes and I wanted SO BADLY for them to do well and the roses on the package looked so happy …

Anyhow, I feel a definite sense of guilt when purchasing synthetic fertilizer. At Home Depot I asked for a plain brown wrapper for my container of Osmocote. But is the guilt warranted?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I just finished a course at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Soil Basics. Very worthwhile course, very much geared toward gardeners and not scientists (very easy on the chemistry, etc.). From the class and assigned as well as supplemental reading I drew the following conclusions:

  • Synthetic fertilizers are greatly overused in home landscapes, and as such they can do substantial environmental damage.
  • Organic fertilizers and soil conditioners improve soil structure, generally contain micronutrients at appropriate levels, and are much less likely to create excess concentrations of nutrients and cause nutrient runoff.
  • Synthetic fertilizers are not inherently bad. The degree of concentration and the extent to which a fertilizer is fast acting are more important than whether the fertilizer was created through an industrial process or through the decay of organic materials.

Some have argued that synthetic fertilizers should not be used at all because they damage or destroy the soil food web – the vast number of bacteria, fungi, and other critters of varying size that are essential to soil fertility. This position is laid out in Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. I found that particular argument unconvincing, though otherwise I found this to be an excellent book.

Synthetic fertilizers usually make nitrogen available to plants in the form of nitrates, a kind of salt. “Fertilizers are salts,” say Lowenfels and Lewis, and these salts “suck the water” out of soil microbes, drive away worms, and cause the overall soil food web to decline.

One problem with this argument is that nitrate salts are also produced by bacteria and fungi breaking down organic matter. Moreover, Jeff Gillman over at The Garden Professors cites a peer reviewed study showing that synthetic fertilizer was actually more effective than aerated compost tea at growing microbial populations in soil samples (though it also found that compost was better at helping poor soils retain nitrogen).

So that is my semi-informed, amateur take on the issue. What about you? Are you organics-only when it comes to fertilizer, or do you use a mixed approach?

As Ye Self-Sow, So Shall Ye Reap

As winter closes in, I find myself turning more and more to that emotional survival trick of gardeners everywhere: obsessing over what I’m going to plant next spring. As I peruse my books and catalogs, I keep running into an ominous phrase: “self-sows freely”.

Experienced gardeners know what this means. It means that you are bound to a plant in holy and implacable matrimony, no divorces or annulments allowed. It means this plant will be in your garden forever. It means you will be pulling out seedlings far and wide, or watch this plant choke out the competition.

Or perhaps not. “Self-sows freely” is perhaps a phrase that is more ambiguous than ominous, since it does not adequately describe the variety of self-sowing behaviors exhibited by garden plants. To remedy this problem, I provide the following glossary of variations in self-sowing.

Self-sows charmingly. Pops up with endearing randomness around the garden. A good example of this would be Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canandensis). Sure you’ll find seedlings showing up in odd and inconvenient places (in between pavers, for example). But it’s impossible to be mad at a columbine, isn’t it? Of course, it is! Just move the seedling or, if you have to, scratch it out.

Native flowers in a front yard garden
A gauntlet of self-sowers: Brown-Eyed Susan (yellow daisies to right), Anise Hyssop (blue spikes to left). Not to mention the Purple Coneflower!

Self-sows quixotically. Insists on germinating in places it couldn’t possibly survive for more than a year or two. My Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba), for example, is always emerging in unlikely spots, such as next to the base of a huge Siberian Elm tree.  Apparently, it dreams the impossible dream.

Self-sows maliciously. Puts down roots where you don’t want it, AND the seedlings are stubborn little buggers. Example: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

Northern Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, native grass for the garden
Sure, it looks nice, but Northern Sea Oats has a definite mean streak.

Self-sows perversely. Self-sows, but never in the places where you want it to spread. Example: Calico Aster (Symphyotricum lateriflorum).

Self-sows exuberantly. Every single one  of a multitude of seeds germinates, carpeting the land with seedlings. Example: Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

Blue Stem Goldenrod seeds are very enterprising.

Self-sows adventurously. Example: Blue Stem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). Seeds travel far from the mother ship, I mean plant, boldly going where none of their species has gone before.

So what other types of self-sowing have you seen in your garden, and what are the self-sowing plants you love or hate the most?

Drought, Deadly Nightshade, and a Happy Birthday

Yesterday we drove up to St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate my birthday with my younger son, my brother Richard, and his wife Diane.

When we get to St. Paul, we like to take a little hike at Minnehaha Park, site of the waterfalls made famous, though never actually visited, by the poet Longfellow (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining big sea water,” etc.) This time we saw dramatic evidence of the severity of the drought that hit this part of the Midwest not just this year, but for the past several years.

Minnehaha Falls, showing water flow before the drought
Minnehaha Falls, seen from above, Spring of 2011
Minnehaha Falls from the top today, showing effects of drought
Minnehaha Falls from the top today, with barely a trickle of water.
Minnehaha Falls today, showing effects of drought
Minnehaha Falls today, as seen from the bottom.

Normally the falls are a roaring torrent of water. Today we saw barely a trickle, and Minnehaha Creek was essentially a string of puddles.

Even so, we had a pleasant hike.

Though David may have grown taller than I, I have the stature that comes with the wisdom of years.

I also got to see my brother’s garden, though at this point in October there isn’t much color. I did admire his water feature, however. The little pond has its own waterfall created by pumping water up a hole drilled through a small boulder. Shallow depressions have been cut in the boulder for the benefit of the birds.

Water feature for the garden
Thou shalt not covet thy brother’s water feature, but I do. Note sedges growing along boulder, not sure the species.

Blurring the line between weeds and ornamentals, Richard is growing Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) up the side of his house. They do have colorful berries …

Deadly Nightshade as an ornamental vine for the garden
Deadly Nightshade as an ornamental vine. Nice berries, just don’t eat them.

In his front yard, Richard took down a big Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and replaced it with a Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), now only about 4′ high. The rest of the front is planted in native perennials and shrubs, including Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and a Redbud (Cercis canadensis). Along the street he’s planted a “lawn” of Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) that is spreading very nicely. It’s remarkable that this garden has received no supplemental water (except from a water barrel), even with the drought.

Front yard with native grasses and flowers
Front yard in October with native grasses and flowers.

After inspecting the garden, we headed to a restaurant called the Bachelor Farmer for a fine birthday meal. Tomorrow we have brunch with an old college friend, then back to Chicago.

Favorite Spring Annuals?

A recent article by Linda Wesley in Fine Gardening magazine has inspired me to think more about using annuals to supplement the spring color in my flower beds. Yes, I have spring bulbs and early-blooming perennials, but there’s still an awful lot of bare brown spots in April and even in May where later-blooming perennials have yet to make their presence felt. Eventually I hope most of those areas will be covered by bulbs like Muscari, Crocus, Scylla, and species tulips – but in the meantime I feel the call of the annuals.

I had initially been considering pansies, stock, and forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica). (Though I haven’t been able to find a retailer who sells forget-me-not seed.)

Forget-me-not

But the article got me thinking about other alternatives I have never grown before, including:

  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis).
  • Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).
  • California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). (Frost tolerant, according to the article. Who knew?)
  • Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas).

A couple of the annuals mentioned by Fine Gardening are not on my list of options. Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), because Judy doesn’t like snapdragons. Also sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), which I have never grown, because they grow so tall. I want annuals that will graciously fade into the background to make room for the perennials and summer annuals.

So, which cool weather annuals have been most successful for you, and which are your favorites?

Adventures in Soil Testing

So I’ve been taking a class called “Soil Basics” at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The instructor is Ellen Phillips, who has many years experience as a soil scientist in the US and overseas. (She’s an excellent teacher, and I recommend the class for those of you in the area.) As part of the class we each brought in a soil sample to be tested.  My sample was from the raised flower bed along the path to the front door. I’ve often suspected that the soil in this bed is actually too rich, because plants tend to grow like gangbusters.

So here’s what I learned:

  • This flower bed has one heck of a lot of organic matter: 14.7%. Usually 5% is considered pretty good. Guess all that compost and mulch didn’t go to waste. Actually, though, turns out that soils with too much organic matter can be hard to rehydrate once they are thoroughly dried out. I was given an explanation for this that completely baffled me. Fortunately that problem has not yet occurred in this bed. My plan is to continue mulching, but no more compost for you!
  • The nutrient levels ranged from “Medium” (calcium) to “Very High” (phosphorous). It’s good to have enough nutrients, but too much of anything can cause runoff or even toxicity. Given the performance of plants in this bed, I don’t think anything is at a toxic level. I have read, however, that very high phosphorous can inhibit mycorrhizae (the critters that help roots absorb nutrients).

  • The testing company recommended that I apply three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, even though the test can’t measure nitrogen. Isn’t that odd? My instructor explained that this recommendation was based on research showing that in general, comparable soils in this area need this much nitrogen. Okay … if you say so, but I think I’ll pass on adding more nitrogen.
  • No big surprise, but my soil is alkaline, with a pH of 7.5. The testing company recommends that I till in 10 lb. of sulphur per 1,000 square feet. But why should I, since most of the plants I’ve tried in this bed are perfectly happy with the pH and everything else. Seems like tilling in sulphur could mess up my perennials, so again I’ll take a pass.
  • The test indicated that the soil in this bed has a low cation exchange capacity (CEC). What is the CEC? Basically, it’s the ability to hold nutrients that take the form of positively charged ions. What is a positively charged ion? When you’re older you’ll understand. However, Ellen explained to me that the results of this test were probably skewed by the high level of organic matter, so not to worry.

What I conclude from this: Soil tests can be very useful, but don’t run off to the garden center to buy stuff based on the recommendations until you really understand what they mean.

October Morning

Bumblebee on New England Aster

“Oh, hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all …

Oh, hushed October morning mild,

begin the hours of this day slow.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day,

At noon release another leaf.

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst…”

From “October” by Robert Frost

Short’s Aster
Ripe seedheads of Swamp Milkweed

Japanese Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’
Joe Pye Weed Seedhead
New England Aster
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