Gardening Topic for September 2011

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Sherry Wilson, Master Gardener



September marks the end of the growing season for most people in our area, yet it is also a critical planting season. If you want spring-flowering bulbs in your garden next year, now is when you must plant them. What is a spring landscape without crocuses, daffodils and tulips? To use an old cliché, they are food for the soul – especially after a long winter like last year's. Crocuses, daffodils and tulips are the most popular bulbs for fall planting. They make quite a splash in the landscape. But there are dozens of other "little bulbs" which gladden the heart and don't cost a lot of money. Snowdrops are well-known but have you planted winter aconite, ipheion, iris reticulata or camassia? Look for them at your local independent garden center or order online or by mail. Reputable mail-order companies include Brent & Becky's Bulbs, John Scheepers, Inc., McClure & Zimmerman or ColorBlends. Purchase them as soon as possible to assure good selection and then keep them in a cool and airy place until planting in October. Planting bulbs is quite easy. They come with next year's flower deep inside the bulb so they don't even require heavy fertilizer at planting time. All they ask is good soil, preferably on the dry side instead of a bog, and most of them need sun. There are exceptions, however, to every rule. The bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) that carpet English woods don't mind some shade and our native Camassia is perfectly happy in soil where water pools. The spring flower show begins with snowdrops (Galanthus) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), both small bulbs that are easy to tuck into a garden corner. Plant them where the sun melts the snow cover early in the year and you will be rewarded with blooms long before the first crocus. Crocuses are everyone's favorite from early childhood. The only problem is they are also a favorite with squirrels, chipmunks and voles as well. For some reason C. tommasinianus aren't as tasty for these rodents, so look for that species and its hybrids. One solution is to lay a square of chicken wire mesh over the soil and cover with mulch. You can remove it in the spring or just leave it in place if there is enough mulch to camouflage it. This won't suffice, alas, to deter voles who burrow underground. To stop them from feasting on the corms you'll need to make hardware cloth cages, which are a bit of a chore. Instead try planting them in sharp gravel or chipped crustacean shells.

Did you know there are bulbous irises that bloom in early April, long before the dramatic bearded perennials or gorgeous Japanese ones? Certainly they aren't as breath-taking but a half dozen little blue iris flowers stand out in the late winter landscape. The bulbous iris is I. reticulata and there is a yellow form called I. danfordiae, which is less reliable here.

Scillas and chionodoxa spell spring for me. Scilla siberica is the common form of squill with little blue parasol flowers. It blooms at the same time as the chionodoxa or glory-of-the-snow which has upward-facing star-shaped flowers often with a white eye. They self-sow freely and don’t seem to mind if the lawnmower cuts them down in the lawn. There is another form, S. tubergeniana with milky white flowers which I first saw at the New England Flower Show and have planted ever since. They are quite stocky and make a good show with just a dozen or two little bulbs.

The spring snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) can be a real eye-catcher. It looks like a tall snowdrop but has more toothed flower edges. The variety 'Gravetye Giant' grows to 18 inches. It is one of the few bulbs that doesn't mind wet feet. Another wet-tolerant charmer is Fritillaria meleagris or checkered lily which is a meadow flower in England. There are several other fritillaries which are worth seeking in catalogs.

Ipheion was new to me a few years ago when I saw it at the local college bulb shows. Now I try to plant more every year. Unlike fickle tulips, ipheion multiplies nicely year after year. It is another little bulb with star-like flowers in white, deep or light blue.

You probably remember grape hyacinths from your childhood. Plant the common Muscari armeniacum in rivers beside your tulips for a dramatic effect inspired by the famous Keukenhoff Gardens in Holland. The basic deep blue grape hyacinth also comes in white, pale blue ('Valerie Finnis') and in bicolors like 'Ocean Magic'. You’ll notice them at the spring bulb shows and wish you had planted some in your own garden this fall.

Alliums or ornamental onions are becoming increasingly popular. For years I've grown the lily leek (Allium moly) with small yellow flowers. Finally last fall I splurged on a 'Purple Sensation' with its round purple balls that grow 18 inches to 2 feet tall. You don't have to break the bank with 'Globemaster'. The ones I planted are just $12 for a dozen.

Finally the spring show ends with Camassia or quamash. This native plant with tall spikes of blue flowers was a staple food for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark brought back the edible bulbs to Thomas Jefferson and gardeners on the East Coast have been growing them now for nearly 200 years. They grow in wet meadows in the West and will adapt well to damp conditions in your garden.

Other "little bulbs" include anemone blanda, erythronium and puschkinia, Eremurus or foxtail lily is an elegant flower that blooms in June but requires protection from wind, rich soil and plenty of space for its octopus-like tubers.

While six or 10 daffodils or tulips make a fine show, you'll need at least two dozen of most of the smaller bulbs to make an impact in the landscape. They won't take up much space, however, and for $10 you'll get as many as 50 bulbs instead of just a dozen of their bigger siblings. When planting, place bulbs twice the depth of their size in good soil enriched with organic matter. Avoid planting in military-style rows. Take a handful of bulbs and toss them over your shoulder (gently) and plant them where they fall in natural drifts. If you plan to mulch, wait until Thanksgiving so you don't give varmints a cozy winter home, but do cover the newly-planted bulbs with chicken wire to protect against squirrels and chipmunks.


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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association