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Better Bulb Planting

By Colleen

November 22nd, 2013


Hardy cyclamen


Did you know that now is the very best time to plant hardy bulbs? Yes, indeed. The soil is still warm, however nippy the air. Other autumn garden chores have been completed. The annuals composted, perennials cut down, and the lawn mowed short. So grab your gear and a bag of bulbs and prepare for your spring flower show. With careful planning of early, middle and late bulbs, the spectacle can extend for months.

Where to plant:

Choose freebie space vacated by annuals. Those spots offer room to nest bulbs in for their long winter’s nap. And make sure the plots are exposed to plenty of sun, which most bulbs need to perennialize. Shun wet areas.  To mark bulb beds, stick in a few grape hyacinths. Unlike most hardy bulbs, these have leaves which emerge in autumn. The gardener then knows where to scatter fertilizer.

How to plant:

The bulbs go in at the depth recommended in the packaging, accompanied by a bit of granular fertilizer mixed into the bottom soil. Plant pointed side up, and cover with a mixture of compost and garden dirt.  If the area has previously been troubled by voles or other digging creatures, soak vulnerable bulbs such as tulips and crocus for one minute in Ropel or other bitter liquid. Allow to dry for several days prior to planting.

What to plant:

Most of us appreciate the strong color and sturdy stems of daffodils, tulips and crocus. But don’t forget the peanut gallery. Chionodoxa and scilla are tiny, critter-resistant bulbs that blossom blue in the early spring garden and are not eaten by deer. Their leaves die back inconspicuously without interfering with the beauty of the springtime garden.

I go for the old fashioned cultivars of daffodils despite the many fancy types available nowadays. The newer ones are gorgeous, with frilled cups and double blooms, but the older “King Alfred” types perennialize better. Also look for “Ice Follies” and “Carlton”.

About the only tulips I plant any more are the Darwin hybrids. These mid-season, strong, colorful flowers will happily return for several years if planted deeply enough and in full sun. Most other tulips, excepting botanical types and some lily-flowering, are best viewed as annuals.


Did you know there are hundreds of types of snowdrops? A clutch of fragrant, tiny snowdrops pushing through the snow in late February brings hope of springtime.

The name “fritillaria” comes from the Latin name for dicebox, which these apparently resemble. They’re tall, checkered flowers related to true lilies, which renders them susceptible to the dreaded lily leaf beetle.

Though they are exquisitely fragrant, and will often perennialize, I don’t plant many hyacinth. They have a formal air about them that doesn’t seem to blend well with my cottage garden. They are, however, easy to plant and admire.

English bluebells spring into color when most bulbs have gone by. The upright stems with fragrant blue pendant flowers attract beneficial insects. They’ll graciously multiply in the semi-shade garden.

Also remember to grab a few allium. Ornamental onions generally bloom later than traditional spring bulbs. Being in the onion family, they are critter–resistant. Ranging in size from humongous to petite, they bring a touch of blue to the border. When finished blooming, spray paint the dried flower heads any hue you desire. They’ll remain colorful all season and no one will know the difference!

Another hardy bulb often overlooked is cyclamen. These shade-loving, dainty pink or white flowers bloom in late fall into winter, and pop up when you’ve forgotten them. Though expensive, if happy they’ll gradually colonize into a sizeable patch.

So there you have it. A bunch of bulb facts, tips, and lore. There’ll be plenty of gorgeous autumn days before the ground freezes in mid-December, so get out there and plant!




Watch Out for these Garden Invaders!

By Colleen

October 26, 2013

Garlic mustard in bloom

With the advent of autumn it becomes easier to spot interlopers in our yards and gardens. I’m referring to invasive plants, often Asian in origin, which run roughshod over our landscapes; strangling trees and smothering woods, meadows and streams.  These monsters are changing our native countryside into monocultures hospitable for neither man nor beast. So as you go about putting the garden to bed in the next few weeks, be on the lookout for pernicious plants. Search and destroy.

The problem with invasive species is that they all too often take over areas where native plants once flourished. This diminishes variety and renders barren the meal plan for woodland beings such as bees, butterflies, amphibians and mammals. Our indigenous forest creatures evolved with the plants we know and love, such as aster, spicebush and oak. Once these native plants are crowded out by invasives, little remains  to sustain for our woodland creatures.   Once those are crowded out by multiflora rose, bittersweet and Japanese knotweed, there remains nothing for creatures to eat, be protected by or in which to raise their young. Their numbers decline. And unfortunately, most of these foreign plants are not consumed by deer, which seem to relish everything else.

Gardeners are the vanguard of horticultural species protection. If you have the following in your landscape, rogue them out. If you do, more desirable plants will come back, and you’ll have given Mother Nature a chance to replenish herself.


Native bittersweet used to be a mainstay in holiday arrangements. The invasive Asian type has now overrun that gentle woodland denizen. Pretty as the berries might be, no bittersweet is considered safe for either ornamental or garden use. The leaves on the nasty vine turn bright yellow about a week after most trees drop their leaves. Cut the strangler down and paint the severed surface with strong herbicide. Revisit the site next spring to check for re-growth. Additional cutting may be needed.

Multiflora rose produces arching, prickly stems that climb over other plants and make dense thickets.  A single plant can grow fifteen feet tall and over six feet wide while it produces prodigious fruit. The best control is to dig or pull the entire plant and paint the stump with herbicide.

Our forests are increasingly full of wild barberry, descended from all those pretty barberry shrubs such as “Rosy Glow” that we gardeners planted when we didn’t know better. The cultivars revert to the species. This compact, spiny shrub grows three to six feet tall and its prolific spreading shades out other more desirable natives. Pull small plants. Cut larger ones.

Japanese knotweed is a large, rapidly-growing, bamboo-looking plant which is taking over our roadsides and stream banks. The best control is to cut it down to two inches and then immediately apply a strong herbicide such as Roundup.  For best results, do this twice per year, in late spring and mid-autumn.

The basil rosette of garlic mustard remains green well into cold weather and greens up early in spring. It’s easy to pull and discard in a garbage bag. If this is not done, the plant sets millions of seeds in May and soon the area is carpeted with only garlic mustard. Nothing else will grow in its vicinity.


NB:  You’ll notice I recommend using strong herbicide on several of these invaders. A dedicated organic gardener, this is one of the few times I make such a recommendation, but the need for control is dire. Also check out gadgets that assist in removing shrubs such as the Shrub Buster.


Bittersweet berries


Divide and Conquer

By Colleen

October 13th 2013


Astilbe and hosta both benefit from division



Is your garden, like mine, drowning in an excess of plants? It’s been a good year in the ornamental garden with plenty of sun and rain, and fewer deer. Many beds and borders are overflowing with happy plants. But they won’t be happy long if they’re crowded. Autumn is an excellent time to divide and thereby multiply the goodies.

With the cooler days and moist earth, division of many plants is a cakewalk. Outside temperatures are dropping but the soil is still warm. That’s where plants are putting their efforts these days, into making roots. All the better for the bonanza next spring.

As a general rule, fall division is appropriate for perennials that have bloomed earlier, such as hosta, daylily, tiarella, phlox, brunnera and astilbe. Most plants do not relish being hacked apart while in full bloom. So stick to the easy ones. And it is indeed easy to make more plants. Here’s how:

Prepare a place for the new division. If it’s to go into the garden instead of a pot, dig a hole in the chosen setting and incorporate compost. Water the area if the soil is dry.

I tend not to be persnickety about dividing. If at all possible I simply grab a sharp spade and cut sections off the plant while it’s still in the ground. Unless the mother plant is huge and heavy, it’s also fine to hoist the entire thing up onto the lawn and chop it into parts. Don’t be intimidated by “experts.”  For instance, separating hosta is entirely possible at any point in the growing season, but pundits will opine that the very best time is mid-August. Various authorities will tell you to moisten the soil with purified water prior to division, tenderly lift the precious plant with a gold-plated spade, and then set it immediately into a fancy new hole. My method is more sensible and straightforward.  I simply stick a shovel into the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the root ball, and lift. Up comes a mass of hosta.  I lay it on a hard surface, and take either a serrated knife or a spade, and ka-thunk! I have hosta pieces. I make sure there’s a growth tip with roots on each section; that’s the number of new plants.


Get the division out of the ground in whatever manner works for you but don’t leave it gasping like a fish out of water. It wants to be put right back into Mother Earth. So plunk it into the prepared hole at the same level in which it was formerly growing. Place good dirt around the edges and gently firm the area, leaving no air pockets. Build a small earthen dam around the newbie and water well. Do not fertilize. And be prepared to water once per week until frost unless the heavens provide.

Despite the care taken with dividing, plants separated this late in the season will appear tattered and bedraggled. The plant doesn’t mind. It’s busy putting down new roots and couldn’t care less what it looks like topside. Come spring, it’ll sport new growth and the no one will ever know it’s been slashed and shoved into a new home.

Alternatively, if the plant is to be potted up instead of placed in the ground, prepare the pot with good soil. (I like a half and half combination of compost and potting soil.) Water gently and allow the mixture to settle.  Spread the roots out and place the plant in the container at the same level it was formerly growing.

There you have it, how to create many plants from one.  Get yourself outside on one of these fine fall days and go to it!




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