Saturday, October 25, 2008


With this past week's hard freeze, the back quarter acre has officially crossed into fall. Wilted dahlias were pulled up and tulip bulbs rotated in. Why is it that there are both too many bulbs to squeeze in during fall planting and not enough when spring flowering comes around?

These mums are happily sited, along with Pennisetum setaceum "Rubrum" (red fountain grass) and Helenium "Dakota Gold," in a planter on my front step. Yes, those colors again. But don't they look happy together?

Friday, October 17, 2008

In the bag: amaryllises

With frost forecast for the next night or so, it's time to bring in my amaryllises. They spent the summer lolling about in a sheltered spot, catching some rays, regularly sipping a liquid fertilizer, and generally enjoying the plant spa treatment. Their bulbs needed to recharge after putting out blooms last winter. Now that they've worked so hard to build up their strength, they need to rest, really rest.

There are a number of ways to put amaryllises through dormancy. Some folks just store the potted bulbs in a cool location. But my house doesn't have a garage or basement that maintains that stable low, but not too low, temperature. So I stash the unpotted bulbs in my refrigerator for 8-10 weeks before starting them on the next bloom cycle. At least, that's what I did last year, and it worked.

First, I cut off the leaves and remove the bulbs from their pots. Amaryllises like to be pot-bound. These were. Seriously.

Then, I tease out the roots. Anyone who has combed the snarled hair of a toddler has the skills necessary for this task: patience and a gentle hand.

On the side of a no-name pink striped cultivar, a little bulblet had sprouted leaves and roots.

With a gentle nudge, it separated from the mother bulb. This little fellow will look so cute planted in a 2 inch pot come spring!

Each bulb goes into its own bag. One of my refrigerator crisper drawers is crammed full with forcing bulbs: hyacinths, narcissi, and now amaryllises. Before I put them away, I wash the pots with a dilute bleach solution in order to maintain good garden hygiene.

I'm hoping in three or four months, this is what I'll see budded up on my window sill.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Falling along the home stretch

By mid-October, the back quarter acre is looking just plain tired. I've started to cut back shaggy perennials like peonies, phlox, daisies, and hostas and to pull out slug-nibbled annuals. Unperturbed by their surroundings of death and decay, however, the dahlias continue to bloom heavily. This deep purple cultivar, "Downham Royal," has just hit its stride and is madly tossing off flowers as it races towards the frosty finish line. Despite its strong performance, however, I'll be putting this dahlia out to pasture: its bluish cast is a poor companion for my garden's palette. Doesn't mean that I can't console myself with a big bouquet of blooms in the meantime.

As a novice dahlia grower, I am struck by inaccuracies in the catalogue descriptions of several varieties. Of course, working in a museum, I value the art of precise cataloguing: of a flower, photograph, uhikana, whatever. Both "Downham Royal" and "Shadow Cat" were described as 36" high--but grew to over twice that height. How can the basic facts be so far off? Nature or nuture?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lighting up the dark

Along three sides of my yard run dark hedges and stone walls, tacked back by a line of looming evergreens. This background acts like a black hole. In some places, even the shadows have shadows.

So I am always looking for plants with bright-colored foliage or flowers to light up these dark areas. This fall's dreamy companion is Anemone blanda "Honorine Jobert." But the lovefest didn't start out so well.

Our initial meeting was marred by opposing expectations: I was looking for a late-flowering plant to put in a sunny spot; it wanted shade. After enduring a few progressively less happy weeks being blasted with heat and sun, these anemones needed desperately to find refuge in a sheltered spot. That concession occurred a year ago and, to celebrate our anniversary this fall, they have sent out a flush of blooms. The secret to this happy relationship? Yes, it's location, location, location . . . and acceptance of our differences.