Time For Tulips

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I am embarassed to admit I did not take the time to plant a single tulip last fall-how lame. But I had the entire spring season to regret that decision at my leisure. They smell divine; the colors are not only luscious, they are so welcome after our long grey winter. They are swell as cut flowers.  So what was my problem?  It is easy to let the spring bulb planting slide, especially if the fall weather is nasty.  I am not particularly fond of gardening in freezing weather, beyond digging myself a shelter in the compost pile, and settling in there for a hot lunch and warm apple pie with coffee. Planting bulbs is not especially satifying. You repeat the work of little holes six to eight inches deep times the numbers of bulbs you have; all the while your hands, nose and feet are going numb from the cold .  When you have finished, you have nothing to show for your work-just the same dirt surface that was there before you started.

Spring 2005 (3)They say delayed gratification is the most adult of all pleasures, so maybe I was being childish about the long hiatus between the planting and the blooming.  But when spring finally comes, tulips deliver.  It is no small miracle that those small white bulbs with their papery brown covers become a plant that can reach thirty inches tall or better, with strikingly large flowers.  Even people whose vocabulary does not include the word “garden”, know the word tulip. 

tulips _0002As is my habit, I welcome the one odd plant out in any mass planting. This ocean of Mrs. John Sheepers is all the better looking for it. The blooming of the tulips is one of those garden moments to be treasured. I certainly was not thinking about how cold it was the day I planted , on this spring day. My tulips shake off any late frost; most of any damage is to the leaves that appear early. They are remarkably resilient to rain and wind.

Spring05 (7)Despite some literature to the contrary, I would not describe a tulip as a perennial. Once they flower, the top size bulb breaks down into smaller bulbs and bulbils. As flower size is directly related to the size of the bulb, a smaller bulb, or collection of will produce smaller flowers, or possibly, no flowers at all.  In Holland, once the tulips have bloomed, the bulbs are dug up, sorted as to size and replanted for growing them back to top size.  I do not want to dig tulips, separate the bulbs and replant; the Dutch do a much better job of this than I could. This is a long way of saying that I treat my tulips as annuals.  When they are done flowering, I dig them and give them away, or compost them.

dgw spring_0004Daffodils are a much better choice of a spring flowering bulb, should you have a requirement that your bulbs rebloom reliably. But they are not tulips.  Treating the tulips as annuals permits me to plant them in places where I will later plant summer annuals. As I do not discriminate against summer flowering plants that are only able to grace my garden for one year, so why not have tulips?

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More often than planting in the ground, I do manage to plant tulips in containers which I winter in the garage, or under a thick coating of compost outdoors.  I may plant boxes or baskets or galvanized buckets-whatever seems handy.  I also may companion plant; the basket of red tulips pictured above was planted in tandem with the giant frittilaria imperialis.  The frits were done blooming, but their curly foliage was attractive with the tulips.

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Tulips in containers have the added advantage of mobility.  They can be moved to a good spot in a spring garden, or placed on a table, or delivered to a friend who is ill.  It also enables me to plant standing up, in the shelter of my garage. 

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I did plant tulips yesterday-1800 in all.  I did a mix of World Expression, Avignon, Maureen and Cum Laude.  Should you be interested in checking out my choices, or planting some tulips of your own, I highly recommend Sheepers. www.johnsheepers.com  They have a great website, with pictures that will make your mouth water.  It is not too late for you to have tulips in the spring.

Broom Corn

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Broomcorn, or sorghum vulgare, is an annual that can grow to fifteen feet in a season. It is a crop grown primarily for the manufacture of brooms, and whisk brooms. It appears in the literature in the late 1500′s, in Italy;  Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have introduced broomcorn to the US in 1700.  Though I have been using broomcorn ornamentally in fall pots for years,  the above mentioned facts I learned only yesterday.  As I am focused on how plants look, I am impressed with that enterprising person that dried this plant, and made brooms. I will admit I did go and check out the broom in my office.

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They make a swell centerpiece in a fall pot. For this six foot tall centerpiece, I loosely zip-tie two  levels of material to a vinyl coated steel stake, and stuff my way down. The metal stake is a good idea-these stems are juicy, and very heavy.  I like to use fresh cut sorghum and millet as they dry in whatever position you have them. 

Oct 13 014The metal stake is inserted as close to the bottom of the pot as possible. A listing, out of vertical centerpiece-on my top ten list of things I really dislike. The long fibrous panicle of the broomcorn plant arches over gracefully in a pot.  I repeat that graceful arching with some leggy Tuscan blue kale; this combination is a good foil for those utterly organized cabbages. 

Oct 13 002Sometimes I sort the broomcorn bunches for color.  The dark stems are a beautiful compliment to this Francesco Del Re pot; plugs of angelina sedum infill the gaps. As I discussed yesterday, elevating the pots allows water to drain away freely. We will need this when dressing the pots for the winter.

Oct 13 011The green-cream and peach sorghum contrasts well with its counterpart in a dark purple-brown. I do not know if any of these stems would pass muster for broom-making material, but they make for a great fall pot.  That blue kale foliage is an unusual color in Michigan landscapes; it stands out.

Oct 13 008Ornamental cabbages only get better as the night temperatures drop; they color up.  They are best planted as a tutu.  Plants with a stiff aspect need some friendly and loose companionship.  Thus this combination. The lime green angelina will take on an orange cast in cold weather, as in  37 degrees when I came to work this morning.

Oct 13 007This lace leaf kale is all about air, at the same time that it defines an overall shape.  What more could any gardener ask of a plant?  As kales and cabbages shed their lower leaves, I may bury the trunk as needed in the soil, and pitch the head forward some. The entire arrangement-saucy enough to attract attention. 

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I plant my clients pots four times a year;  her pair of concrete squares, and three Francesco Del Re pots get dressed up for each season.  Every season she is looking out her kitchen window expecting to see something beautiful.  I suppose if I made a big issue of the history and ornamental use of broomcorn, she would listen. But her attention to that horticulture would not be the point.  As I try to provide her with a view to something,  I am interested in any plant, including a big rangy annual usually grown as a crop, that delivers.

At A Glance: Great Gourds

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When They Are Good

Oct5a 027The cultivation of dahlias brings to mind the famed Longfellow little girl verse.  “When she was good/She was very very good/But when she was bad she was horrid”.  Even if you give them everything you’ve got in the way of rich soil, good sun, staking, fertilization, good air circulation and your utmost devotion, it may not be enough.  You still need the blessing of the patron saint of all sulky, troublesome prima donna garden flowers-whomever she may be.  Not that one could ask for that blessing; it must be bestowed.  I do have one client for whom they perform on demand.  He says its the soil-I say what he manages with them is magic. 

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There are lots of reasons not to grow them.  Their stems are weak and floppy, and snap off without any provocation; a wind is likely to send them, along with the building of stakes you have erected around them, crashing to the ground.  Bugs love them even more than you do.  Earwigs set up housekeeping deep in the petals.  They can become infested with, and succumb to spider mites in what seems like the blink of an eye.  The plants are as awkward and ungainly as a teen-aged tea rose. Some shorter more stocky varieties are shy bloomers-figures. They hate cold weather, and cold weather goes with our gardening territory.

Oct5a 035Some sport blooms so large the word vulgar comes to mind. Some “dinnerplate dahlias”  have stems so weak the plant perpetually looks like someone spent the last hour giving them a thorough dressing down.  Fungus spreads like crazy from the bottom up; I have grown plenty of dahlia stalks with a few anemic and forlorn flowers on top.  When I grow them in pots, I face them down with something that has the decency to grow vigorously, and hide those ungainly dahlia legs. 

Aug 29b 018So why do I grow them?  In a good year, they are magnificent.  Loaded with flowers,  they remind me of the 19th century flower paintings of Rachel Ruysch; they are supremely grand.  The range of colors and forms is astonishing.  This dahlia is a “formal decorative” type.  Park Princess has petals shaped like quills; this form is known as a ”cactus dahlia”.   

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If you have a love of color, dahlias deliver.  From pure white to the most audacious orange to carmine, all of the warm colors are represented. The bicolor varieties  evolve in appearance over the summer. When temperatures start to cool off in the fall, the contrast in colors seems to intensify. No doubt they are the big brass band of the flower world. 

Sept 18 044I am looking at these dahlias now as they have been at their peak this first week of October.  There is something to recommend about how they last into the fall.  They do hate cold weather; the best grown dahlias are those that have spent May and June in a greenhouse.  They transition from that museum like setting to the Michigan outdoors poorly.  It can take weeks before they loose that insulted look, and take hold.

Oct5a 024I think a too early planting can set them back such that they never recover.  They thrive in that rarefied hothouse atmosphere where wind, bugs, cold soil, and various pathogens are simply not permitted.  Dahlias are not great garden plants; they are an event you may wish to attend.

Oct5a 028Some of these party girls dress in a way that’s just plain fun to look at.  When they are at their overblown best, they make me smile.

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Now is the perfect time to decide if and which you will grow next year. They have put on the most glorious show this season I have ever seen, and I would not mind being treated to that again sometime soon.