Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Spring Bulbs, Part Deux.

My previous post covered the 'backbone' bulbs, the smaller varieties that naturalize well and form nice low clumps of flowers.  Now we can look at some of the bigger bulbs that make more of an individual statement.  These look great in nice clumps, but not in such great quantities.  The contrasting colors of the species Tulips are wonderful at breaking up large waves of blue Scilla or Muscari.  Yellow or pale Daffodils in small clumps breaking up groups of blue Scilla, make them stand out even more.

While 500 or a 1,000 of the smaller bulbs blend to form waves of color, 50 or 100 of the following bulbs will have a wonderful impact.  Maybe some more of the species Tulip because they are a little smaller.

Following are a selection of SOME of my favorite accent bulbs.  Click the links to see more about them.  Try some, you have nothing to lose.  From my experience, unless you have multiple acres, try to focus on fewer different types to maximize the effect.  I believe that repeated groupings of similar bulbs provides a more dramatic and cohesive feel.  But...that doesn't mean you can't try your own thing and experiment.

Everyone knows the Daffodil, but there are so many species, colors, heights, shapes.  The classic trumpet Daffodil, like the pictured Mt Hood, is so easily recognized.  The Poeticus on the other hand has a tiny contrasting cup with wonderful fragrance.  Then the Triandrus have drooping heads and great fragrance.  Daffodils are the accent mark in the garden, and planted in groups of 5, 7, 9+ provide nice tall contrast among other bulbs.  Though not all Daffodils are tall, there are some neat small and dwarf varieties.

Daffodils are the quintessential spring bulb and there are hundreds of different types and color of daffodils.  I prefer to pick three or four different daffodils (same type) in different colors and similar size that flower from the early to late part of the daffodil season, and mix them together in groups from 9-15 or more.  The result in the Spring is a clump of daffodils that seems to always be flowering.  A favorite mix includes the three trumpets below:  Mt Hood, Marieke and Spellbinder.  There are some times when they are all flowering together, and they form a nice grouping of similar flowers and heights of different colors.  This strategy works well with all the other types of daffodils like Poeticus, Triandrus and Jonquil.

Daffodils will do best in full sun, but they can tolerate some shade.  Cut off the spent flower stalks to help neaten them and to regenerate for the next season.   More than most bulbs, they need their leaves to absorb sunlight to regenerate after flowering, so just tuck them into the surrounding plants as they grow in during the season, and cut them back in mid-Summer when they turn yellow.

Mt Hood-Trumpet
Thalia-Fragrant Triandrus
@Van Engelen

Flower Record-Large Cupped
@Van Engelen


Lemon Beauty-Split Cup
@Van Engelen

Species Tulip
I feel that these are one of the lesser known jewels of the Spring bulbs.  Their colors can be so bold and refreshing that they can mix beautifully with the purples, blues and whites of the backbone bulbs.  I generally and not a fan or the larger, more common, tulip because the squirrels and other varmint love to eat them, they don't naturalize very well and I just don't think they are particularly attractive unless you plant them in groups of 100's.  Their smaller brethren are great naturalizers and do great in groupings.

Beware that critters do like these bulbs too.  The best trick I use in areas where there are active bulb-eaters is to place chicken wire over these planted bulbs so they can't reach them.  Pick a grade of chicken wire wide enough that the plants can grow through.  I will go into this in greater detail when I post in the fall on planting bulbs.

These bulbs do best in full to mostly full sun.

Species Tulip bakeri
Lillac Wonder
@Van Engelen
Species Tulip clusiana
@Van Engelen

Species Tulip linifolia
@Van Engelen

I often seem to change my mind on the Alliums or Onions.  They can be great bold additions to the early season perennial bed, but sometimes in large groupings I think they are a little tacky.  The Allium azureum,  atropurpureum,  sphaerocephalon are great smaller flowers that naturalize and are great late season additions, but 'Pinball Wizard' is a crazy 8" ball of lilac purple.  It is a more compact plant than others, but still just to he far side of ostentatious.

Like the daffodils, they need full sun to stand tall and the critters don't like them.  Give them a try in your perennial beds for some bold early color with your other early flowers.

Allium azureum
@Van Engelen

Allium-Pinball Wizard
@Van Engelen

What a great name for a plant, I think the name says it all.  You only need a few of the bigger ones for an impact, and with bulbs the size of baseballs you don't want to be planting to many of these 8" down.  These are two of my favorites, but the melagris species is a great small naturalizer that needs a little more shade.

Like the Daffodil and Allium, critters don't like these and they need a nice sunny spot.  Try a few of these big late season bulbs for fun.

Fritillaria persica
'Ivory Bells'
Fritillaria assyriaca

Be sure to order up your bulbs soon, because come September and October, there will be limited supplies and many of the nicer bulbs will be sold out. As mentioned in my earlier post, for little money you can add a whole new layer and season to your gardens for a relatively small price.  In October, I will post on easy and efficient ways to plant bulbs and what care they need.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Are You Thinking About Next Spring's Bulbs?

Snowdrop - Galanthus ikariae
@ VanEngelen
Now is the time to start thinking about bulbs and getting your orders in for late fall planting.  It may already be too late for some real specialty bulbs, but ordering now ensures you won't have a problem getting most everything you need.

I have two favorite places to shop online:  Van Engelen and Brent and Becky's Bulbs.

Both have a broad selection of bulbs and their quality is consistently excellent.  This is important because sometimes you may get a bag of bulbs and find that half of them are moldy or have gone bad.  I find these suppliers take great care to ensure the bulbs arrive in good condition.  This means that they should be firm and appear as though they were freshly harvested, not overly wrinkled, dry or hollow feeling.  Bulbs are essentially living seeds that are not meant to dry out.

Crocus tommasinianus 'Barr's 
Purple'@ VanEngelen
My favorite time of year starts when the sun starts warming the ground in late February and early March.    The Witchhazel (Hammemelis) is flowering and the first snowdrops and crocus start to push through the soil and snow.  This year with no snow cover and early warmth, everything popped in March and made for an incredible display.  If the weather cooperates and you pick a wide range of bulbs, you can have color and flowers in your garden from late February well into the perennial season, and the great part of bulbs is that they can fill beds with color because no other vegetation is around to cover it up.  When they are finished, they quietly fade away as the other plantings fill in the garden beds.
Crocus tommasinianus 'Lilac
Beauty'@ VanEngelen

This added dimension in the garden bed takes away nothing as bulbs can be easily planted in between existing plants and in the Spring these bulbs add months of flowering.

When using bulbs, I prefer making a large impact with greater concentrations and groupings of similar bulbs.  I try to focus on making sure that the garden has consistent color from the beginning of the bulb season through to the perennial season.  I feel the best way to accomplish this is to limit myself from buying lots of different bulbs and to focus on maximizing the impact with a core selection bulbs.

Iris reticulata 'Gordon'

Smaller flowers like Snowdrops,  Crocus, Rock IrisScilla and Muscari are the backbone of my favorite bulbs and they need to be in large groups, 10-15+ bulbs, to have a real visual impact, and then they need to be repeated throughout the bed and other beds.  Small patches of these bulbs just seem to get lost.  All of them are great naturalizers, so after a number of years the patches will get bigger and more dense.  The Scilla will spread by seed and can be a little invasive, but for that beautiful blue color I don't care if it spreads around.

Iris reticulata 'Katherine
Hodgkin @ VanEngelen
These bulbs provide the background color starting with the Snowdrops(March), then the Crocus(late March/early April) and Rock Iris(early April) overlap and then continue until the blue Scilla(April) takes over and then itself is overtaken by the rich purple/blue of the Muscari(May). This year in Boston, we had some very early warming and many of these bulbs flowered at the same time, making for an amazing display that started in late February.  Next year could be cold with heavy snow cover and push everything back.  You just don't know, but the great attribute of bulbs is that they reliably come every year and perform.  They bloom based upon Growing Degree Days not time of year, so very warm early weather can wreck havoc on plant schedules.

Muscari armeniacum
@ VanEngelen
When buying, don't be afraid to order 100's of Crocus and Snowdrops.  Five groups of 20 Crocus is 100 bulbs and that might only be good enough for one bed.  They are inexpensive considering their impact and long life in your garden.  If I were going to add some Crocus and Snowdrops to an average suburban front yard(with some existing perennial beds), I would buy at least 250 of each bulb, and maybe split the crocus into two or three different colors or species.  This will give you a nice display in the first year but would not be overwhelming and 500 total bulbs would cost less than $100. 
Scilla @ VanEngelen

If you did the same again with Scilla and Muscari that would also cost less than $100 and you would have up to three months of beautiful flowers.

In the fall I will post on easy ways to plant bulbs for a natural look and how to protect them from squirrels.  Planting a 1,000 bulbs may seem daunting, but it can be done in a couple of hours and is well worth the effort.

Next week I will cover some of my favorite standout bulbs beyond these 'backbone' bulbs.  Selections will include Daffodils, Tulips, Fritillaria, Allium among others. The Van Engelen online catalog is very easy to navigate so you can see all the bulbs available in an easy format, and familiarize yourself with size and flower time.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Time to give your lawn some love!

They are so lazy they only take a few steps before trashing my lawn
I have dogs... and I love them (as dogs).  However, I would put diapers on them if only they wouldn't eat them and explode from the expanding gel.   Dog urine, and especially if coming from a female, is a nightmare for the lawn of a perfectionist.  For years I heard that female dog urine was somewhat more caustic than male urine, but a few years ago I was informed that all dog urine from neutered and spayed dogs is essentially the same, it is the method of delivery that damages the lawn.  Female dogs squat and all of their urine is focused in one tight area, while male dogs like to mark and put it all over the place and therefore they put less urine in one specific spot (no comment).  The result are spots of dead or dying grass.

You can't help but love Quinn
Dog urine, uric acid, is actually a fertilizer, but it is often applied heavily and it burns the grass, but if you look at a urine burn, the grass surrounding is dark green and very dense.  The acid has been diluted enough when it gets to these outer roots and provides a nice shot of nitrogen.  While chasing your dog around with a hose and diluting their urine every time they 'go' is a little ridiculous, the best thing to do is soak spots when you start to see them.  So, once a week, take a walk around the lawn with a hose and where you see brown spots starting to develop, give it a deep watering to leach out the urine.

Even if you don't have dogs, your lawn is probably still a mess from the summer heat and lack of steady rain.  Here in Boston we had a wet June, totally dry July and now a pretty wet August.  You were either watering too much or not enough.

Now is the time to plan your attack!   Determine what needs to be done, so you are ready by the end of the month when the weather will start to cool down.  Right before Labor Day is the best time to work on the lawn because the weather is cooling, grass will start to grow again and you have two or three good months of growing before Winter dormancy.

Fall is always the best time to do lawn work, because you have the Fall and Spring growing seasons to establish before the heat of summer.  Also there is a tendency to put down weed control in the Spring which keeps weeds from germinating and will also keep grass seed from germinating.  I imagine that millions of dollars are wasted every year trying to grow grass seed in the spring after weed control has already been placed on the lawn.

As with garden beds, a soil test is a good start to determine what your lawn needs. For $15 a test (soil + organic matter), it is one of the single best tools you have at your disposal.  Test your lawn, perennial bed, around the shrubs that aren't doing well and any other spots.  For each test take several samples from different spots and blend them so you get a good representation from the area, and be sure to follow their instructions carefully for how to collect the soil.

Here in New England with acidic soils, lime is a constant additive to make the soil neutral, the best pH for lawns to grow.  Check my post on Soils for more talk about the science behind pH and macro nutrients.  The test will also tell you whether you have a sufficient amount of organic matter and other nutrients.  Calcium and magnesium are components of lime and are critical elements for turf grass or a healthy lawn.  It is important when submitting the soil test that you fill out the application specifying you are testing turf grass, and the recommendations will be based upon grass use, which can be quite different from other garden beds.  Organic matter should be above 5% but below 10%, and this can be managed by adding compost.

If your pH is in line, your nutrients are in balance and you have a good amount of organic matter then your lawn is in excellent shape and you only need some cosmetic improvements.

If your lawn is low in organic matter, then top-dressing your lawn with compost will provide immediate benefits and results.  A tired lawn will respond within a couple of weeks with a nice layer of good compost.  Aggresource is one of the leading commercial suppliers of compost and soil in New England, and they have an excellent comprehensive summary for topdressing lawns.  There are many excellent contractors who can perform this service if it seems a little overwhelming.

If your lawn is looking tired and is compacted from lots of activity, Core Aeration and overseeding may be the best solution.  This process involves an unwieldy, medieval looking machine that drives hollow spikes into the ground and pops out plugs of dirt.  This helps to open up space for roots, letting air and moisture into the root zone.  The holes and dirt plugs are also excellent receptacles for new grass seed and you will see a newly revived lawn within the month, and the aeration will provide long term benefits.  You can rent these machines at a local rental center, and if you do it yourself, please mark all of your sprinkler heads in advance because this machine eats then as a snack.  Or, again, you can use a good local lawn contractor for this service.

Another challenge for a lawn is thatch.  Thatch is a layer of dead grass on the soil that makes your lawn cushy.  There is always some dead grass, but if you can't see the soil or there is a thick mesh of dead grass, you have too much thatch.  It mostly results from too much watering, over-fertilizing with nitrogen or a lack of organic material and biological activity.  A de-thatching machine is not quite as medieval as an aerator, and basically it is a spinning rake that helps pull out all of the dead grass.  Of course, you can use spring rake and do it yourself depending upon the size of your lawn and the severity, but a de-thatching machine is so simple and back saving.  Mostly dethatching is done in the Spring as the grass enters it fastest growing period, but if you have some bad thatch the late summer as the grass starts to grow again is OK too.

Area raked out after morning dog photo shoot
If none of these more drastic measures are needed and you have some spots that need a little help then a little seeding is a great late summer project, and when preparing to overseed, it is important to scratch up the soil  so the new soil can get good contact and the grass roots can easily enter.  Grab a Bow Rake or Stirrup Hoe to loosen the earth in the spots you want to address, then clean up and rake out all the thatch and stuff.  Add a nice layer of compost or good top soil, throw some seed on top and even out and mix in the seed by running the back of a Spring Rake over the soil.  It is important that the seed be in the soil and have good contact.

Good topsoil and seed thrown on to cover
What grass seed to use is another big question, but most stores sell well-marked packages of seeds for sun, shade, high traffic and any number of other applications.  Each package will contain a mix of seeds that will work in the application, and the lawn becomes a battlefield for darwinian competition with the most appropriate grass species prevailing in the condition.  The mix of seeds is helps the new grass to blend in with the surrounding grass.

When watering new seed, it is important that it stay moist to germinate, which is why cooler weather is better, and this needs to continue for the first few weeks of growing.  The seed and the roots are at or on the surface and can dry out quickly.  This does not mean they have to be soaking wet, just moist.  If you have an irrigation system you can turn on the zones where the new seed is several times a day for just a few minutes.  You only need the surface to be wet and you don't want to waste water, which is also detrimental to the lawn.

Smoothed out with back of spring rake
For many people across the country who have suffered from a bad drought, adding a layer of compost will help in keeping moisture in next year and in a small way help to keep your lawn alive.

This may seem like a lot to consider, but spending a late summer day helping out your tired lawn will pay big rewards immediately and in the next year.  With all the time we spend pampering our gardens, why not give your lawn a little attention too.  As a final comment, many people I talk with are adverse to using chemicals in their lawn for weeds.  The best defense against weeds is a healthy lush lawn, and it will for the most part keep weeds from getting a foothold.  Making sure that  you take care as mentioned above will minimize weeds from infiltrating your lawn.

Get out there and commune with your lawn, it will respond immediately to the care you provide.

Being watered in and it will be lush in about a month, so
that the pups can pee all over it again...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beautiful, Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario

Every summer our family has an opportunity to visit with friends who have a place in northern Ontario, Canada.  While visiting with friends is the priority, it is hard to ignore the incredible natural beauty.  The place is MacGregor Bay, on the northern part of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.

The place was shaped by the glaciers and receding ice has left a series of rocky islands that reveal soil creation and the plant growth process in its simplest form.  With years of weather, the rocks fractured and formed smaller rocks and grains.  As seeds and organic matter were blown, carried or drifted from place to place, plants started to grow.  As plants decayed, they formed more organic matter that ultimately supported larger plants.  Only the most rugged and adaptable plants survive on these islands

The evergreens are a mix of Pines, Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar and Juniper, while the deciduous trees seem to be mostly Maple, Ash and Birch.  Rarely do they grow to full size or have perfect form, but they simply try to survive long enough to set seed and hopefully start another generation.  Birch is by far the most prolific as it grows in just about any open space, and as it dies and decays, it provides much needed organic matter to continue the cycle.

The rocks in time become covered in 'soil' for plants, as well as lychens and moss.  The Cushion Moss is stunning and forms a natural garden that I could never duplicate.  Through the moss smaller plants and seedlings will grow.  This summer was tremendously dry up north and plants have definitely suffered, but they will return in future years.

I am continually amazed by the beauty of nature even with a limited palette of plants in the harshest of conditions.

It reminds me that we don't always need to cram in more plants, textures, colors, or fill every space.  We need to spend more thought to better use the space.  Beauty can often be found in the space not occupied.

Islands framed by a grouping of Pines.

Some seeded and native plants, grasses and sedges in the rocks by the water

A large field of Cushion Moss on a slope.

One of the few cultivated gardens in the ultimate
rock garden

Sunset on a calm evening.

Another sunset in unstable weather.