Monday, November 29, 2010


            I imagine that most blogs, like a large percentage of small business start-ups, fail early on. While not qualifying for any world readership records, Gardening from the Ground Up has racked up a respectable number of pageviews since its launch, and induced two people other than Tim to become followers. Thanks to everyone who checked out the site, and my deepest appreciation to recidivists.

            Thought I’d use this final post of November 2010 to recap the month’s posts, add in stuff I forgot, clear up ambiguities, update on-going projects, and such like.

            I’ve gotten a few questions about the no-dig bulb planting method outlined on the 16th. Tim and I had occasion to plant 400 of the 2200 daffodils Brent and Becky sent us after the post ran. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I whipped out the trusty digital and documented the process. (Remember, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger, then hit the “back” arrow to return to the text.)
Photo # 1
   Photo #1: Pull back the mulch, and run a hard-rake over the cleared area to ruffle the surface. Toss the bulbs into the cleared space. Notice that there are several different cultivars here, a good way to extend bloom season. If you like the naturalized look, move ahead to Photo #3. (You don’t have to worry about the bulbs lying on their sides. One of nature’s many wonders is that they’ll pull themselves upright by the roots. This is particularly soothing knowledge if you’re planting corms: it’s hard to tell if those wrinkly little buttons are right-side-up or not.) If you have anal tendencies, as I do, check out Photo #2.

Photo # 2

 Photo #2: Arrange the bulbs so they’re not so messy and random-looking, and are, in fact, upright. For the best flowering display, keep them close together. I usually try for no more than three to four inches. In this picture you can see the raked-back pine straw, helping you gauge the size of this bed, which holds about 175 bulbs.

            Photo #3: Mix three-and-a half to four pounds of bulb food (NOT bonemeal) to a 50-pound bag of Black Kow (or whatever) and distribute over the bulbs, following up with soil conditioner (a finely ground pine-bark product). On average, it takes two 50-pound bags of Kow and four or five bags of conditioner to cover about 200 bulbs. (That’ll set you back $18 to $20, but what’s your time worth?) Replace the mulch and, Bob’s your uncle, you’re done without ever touching a trowel.

Make your own no-burn container fertilizer by combining six 16-ounce cupfuls of Espoma Holly-Tone or Plant-Tone with one 16-ounce cupful of kelp meal. Apply generous amounts at planting and again in January or February. (What’s “generous”?  I generally use one batch per each 32-quart bag of potting soil. How much you use to topdress in late winter depends on the size of the container.) Remember—the nutrients in the Osmocote beads can’t be released unless the soil temperature is 70°F or higher. Save the time-release stuff for summer.

I’ll add a link to Espoma’s website on the right. If you live in my area, their mostly natural products are available at Farmers Supply near the bottom of Oleander Drive in Wilmington. 

Late harvest

            The day before Thanksgiving, I moseyed out to my disappointing vegetable garden with the aim of yanking everything out of it, when what to my wondering eyes did appear but the first red tomato to come out of the miserable patch since early July. There were also a pair of bell peppers and a trio of ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrots from the crop I’d sown back in August.

            Gardening is like that. Just when you think you know everything, you learn you’re not even in the ball park. The tired, tattered vines held another 20 or so green tomatoes, so I left them alone. If frost continues holding off, we may actually get one or two more vine-ripened fruit. How about that?

Late lettuces
            The most recent lettuce transplants are hanging in as well in their EarthBoxes on the deck. Lettuce stands up to light frost, so I should be harvesting for a while yet—through most of the winter if I remember to cover it on the nippier nights.

            Anybody know a good way to ripen green tomatoes? My kitchen’s windowsill space is severely limited. I tried the cardboard-box-in-a-cool-dark-place last winter: didn’t work that well. I still had little green tomatoes in March. Maybe under the clothesbasket under the bed wasn’t dark or cool enough.


            Well, nothing’s died yet. The papayas immediately dropped all their mature leaves, but the new ones keep coming. We’re sweeping up a dustpan-full of variegated Solanum foliage every day too, but as is usual with many- and small-leaved specimens, the loss isn’t too noticeable. Yet.

            The cats chewed the Ledebouria and the Hemigraphis, so I swathed them in bird-netting. The Cordyline, a veteran of the kitchen, soldiers stoically on, as does the dracaena. The mango is sulking, but what else would you expect from a mango? The mystery plant seems unfazed, if thirsty… so far.

            The original nine have been joined by the dahlia off the front porch, and a gift from my friend, Christine (the source of the papayas)—the majorly cool-looking tapeworm fern. Its formal, patented name is ribbon plant, but how boring is that for a plant whose flattened stems actually resemble green tapeworms? The cats have expressed interest in chewing on the tapeworm, too, but I’m trying tough love, rustling the dreaded plastic bag whenever necessary.

            My friend Ted gave me a bottle of SuperThrive. I’ve seen its comic-book-like adverts in American Nurseryman for years, but was skeptical. It claims to be—and I quote—“#1 ACTIVATOR, #1 REVIVER, #1 TRANSPLANTER, #1 EXTRA GROWER, #1 PERFECTER.” Ted says it’s worth a try, so I shall. Hey, plants in my house need all the help they can get.

            Thanks for dropping by. Can you believe it’s almost December already?

Friday, November 26, 2010


            Thanksgiving was quiet, as usual. Unlike much of the rest of the country, the weather in southeastern North Carolina stayed mild and calm. Rain threatened but never materialized. I spent the afternoon working outside, excavating the flagstone path that periodically goes missing underneath my groundcover lab.  
The re-excavated flagstone path

A little background: I can’t count the number of times Tim and I have fielded requests for a plant that reduces or—better!—replaces mulching. It must be evergreen, fill in quickly with little or no effort on the part of the gardener, and not be too rambunctious or messy-looking; flowers and/or fragrance would be nice too. It must take full sun and/or dry shade, boggy and/or arid conditions and be impervious to deer, rabbits, insects and diseases. A single specimen that covers about a hundred square feet in six weeks without supplemental water or food would be ideal.

            Well, wouldn’t it ever just! If hybridization of such a paradigm was within our grasp, Tim and I would retire in the style to which we’d just love to become accustomed. Out here in the real world, though, we have to make do with what we’ve got.

            Say the word “groundcover” and most of us immediately envision a mass of low-growing evergreen perennials. We imagine it filling voids where grass won’t grow, covering slopes to prevent erosion, and repressing—or at least hiding—weeds. We think in terms of foliage; flowers are a bonus, but not necessary. In our minds, groundcovers embody the quintessence of low maintenance, something to plant and forget, unlike almost everything else in the usual suburban landscape. No wonder we fantasize about perfect ground-covering species.

            Me being me, fantasy turned to action. An inveterate experimenter, I plopped low-growing prospects in on the south side of our house, a place reputed to resemble one of the lower circles of plant hell. It gets too much shade, too much water, too much competition in the way of weeds (and other groundcovers) and ’way, ’way too much traffic. It’s where we warehouse plants slated for jobs we haven’t gotten around to yet, serves as nursery to trial plants and orphans I’ve collected over the years, and is the main route between front and back yards. It's like the New York City of song: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. 
            Here’s the list of survivors, roughly in order of their appearance.

Wintergreen euonymous
Euonymous fortunei
 1.      Wintercreeper euonymus (Euonymus fortunei) This one went in first, back in 1998. An evergreen, woody-stemmed vine (occasionally tripping me up as I shuffle through it) with dark green  leaves, the straight species has stood the test of time. It spread slowly but inexorably, and without any maintenance at all creeps by rooting stems under, over, up, through and into obstacles. My  specimen is leggy, but a little more sun and a little less water would probably render it denser. Trendy variegated cultivars, ‘Emerald Gaiety’ and ‘Aureomarginata,’ didn’t make the cut.

2.      Mint (Mentha x piperita) Evergreen, highly tolerant of traffic and deliciously scented as you yank out its runners by the mile, mint likes sunny, shady, wet and/or dry places. It produces little spikes of pinky-blue flowers in summer. Mine is plain ol’ peppermint, but spearmint and any other flavor of the square-stemmed genus Mentha behave the same way. My honest assessment? Use this stoloniferous thug only as a last resort. If you leave the front door open too long, it'll establish itself in your living room. Perhaps its best application is as soil-holder on slopes, but don’t say I didn’t warn you if it makes a move on your lawn. What if you crave a little patch for juleps? Plant it in a container, leaving a quarter of the pot above ground, to corral it.

Golden creeping jenny
Lysimachia nummularia  'Aurea'
3.      Golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ or ‘Goldilocks’) The greeny-gold half-inch-diameter roundish leaves of this little charmer really light up shady spaces: I acquired mine in its groundcover incarnation by accident. Usually found trailing from hanging baskets, ‘Aurea’ escaped its pot one year as it overwintered on the ever-useful south side of our house. Come spring, when I yanked the pot up to replant it, some creeping jenny stems had rooted in the ground, and it took off from there. It took three or four years to settle in before spreading enthusiastically. I think if you planted it (on purpose) in dappled shade with less daunting competition and provided a modicum of care, it would take off sooner.
English ivy
Hedera helix

      4.     English ivy (Hedera helix) Almost everyone has spent time digging this thug out from somewhere it’s no longer wanted, so plant it with that fact in mind. Ivy not only covers ground, it covers trees, whole houses and dogs that sleep too long out in the yard. About the only thing other than constant vigilance and a sharp shovel that slows ivy down is exposure to full sun. The myth that it’s a strangler of trees and a destroyer of masonry is not true. However, its dense growth does hold moisture against wooden supports, providing footholds for rot and disease. Consider ivy the final fall-back position of the terminally unimaginative, desperate, or unbalanced.

Fragaria spp.
5.      Strawberry (Fragaria spp.) No, really, I mean it. Any plant that allows me to graze as I garden rates high in my book. I have patches of evergreen ever-bearers in both sunny and shady locations, and they’re all doing fine. In fact, the ones I put at one of the “clematis poles” (a story for another day) have crept quite a ways along under the dwarf yaupon hedge in two directions and are poised to out-compete the centipedegrass in their immediate vicinity. Some non-berrying ornamental cultivars have been bred, notably 'Pink Panda' by Blooms of Bressingham. But what’s the point of fruitless strawberries?
Ajuga reptans 'Caitlin's Giant'

      6.      Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans cvv.) I once lumped the ajugas somewhere beneath butterfly bush in the ranks of second-rate plants. Then one year, desperate for anything except the same old tired pansies to add color to winter containers, I impulsively bought a flat of ‘Caitlin’s Giant.’ They didn’t work so well in pots—too flat—so eight orphans languished on our south side. During one of my periodic garden extreme makeovers, I plunked the leftovers in a west-facing bed and hoped they’d die. Well, not only did they not die, they rooted in and flourished. To my utter amazement, the two-to-three-inch-wide chocolatey-green leaves stayed glossy and healthy-looking all summer—even producing spikes of blue flowers that first September. The plucky evergreen foliage sailed through winter and blooms appeared again, on schedule, in late March into May. The second season it spread with a vengeance. Give these guys regular water and some shade (morning or afternoon, they aren’t picky), and they’ll cover ground for you. There are at least 16 cultivars of A. reptans and two additional species. As for me, I’m sticking with Caitlin. I have seen the Ajuga light and am now a true believer.

These six genera are proven performers at our house, despite south-side conditions, sandy soil, salt spray and near-total neglect. There’s another whole article in the list of my groundcover failures, and yet another in ground-covering shrubs. But as I’m trying to keep posts under 1500 words, perhaps we'll go there later, if readers express any interest.

            This is probably a good place to remind everyone that gardening is not the best hobby for instant-gratification addicts. Any groundcover, even if it likes where you put it, is going to take time to establish, and it’s going to have to establish before it can spread. Obviously, using the largest number of the biggest plants you can afford will help hurry things along. Still, patience—and the right plant for the site—conquers all.

            Thanks for dropping by. Next time: the month-end round-up.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


            As we prepare for our annual stuff-yourself-until-you-spew holiday, let’s take a minute to be grateful for the other creatures that are part and parcel of the improbable miracle of life on this insignificant rock that spins around a mediocre star in the indifferent infinitude of space.

            How about that for putting things in perspective? Whether we admit it or not, humans are not the ultimate rulers of the universe. (Personally, I’m extremely grateful for that.) Clever and adaptable, we nonetheless exhibit a hard-wired self-destructive streak that I fear will render us the merest blip on the radar of the cosmos. Meanwhile, the crocodiles and the cockroaches soldier on, too busy surviving even to laugh at the pretensions of Homo sapiens.

           Sorry—did I say all that out loud?
Clear-cut Fitzgerald backyard, 1998
What I mean to address is ameliorating the loss of wildlife habitat that is one of the most serious negative by-products of unbridled development, right up there with water-table depletion and degradation. In Brunswick County, NC, back in the day of real-estate hubris and liar loans, housing tracts and golf-course communities sprang up like toadstools. The “developers” clear-cut woods, filled swamps and concreted over ever-increasing percentages of maritime, estuarine and wetlands environments. I truly understand the primal urge of humans to live near water—after all, I’m part of the problem, having moved here myself from somewhere higher and drier. But there is such a thing as taking responsibility for what our arrival destroys.
Take the idea of garden-as-habitat. It is not a new one. Perennial marketers have pushed whole groups of plants as butterfly and hummingbird attractors for years. Lots of us maintain birdfeeders and hang houses for our feathered friends. Four-footed natives show up too: just putting out birdseed is enough to make squirrels and raccoons appear.
 Alas, along with the cute critters we encourage come the ones we don’t. Bambi and Thumper help themselves to our roses, vegetables and anything else that takes their fancy. Snakes slither in on rodent, amphibian and insect patrol. Foxes, feral cats and dogs, possums, the occasional bobcat and other omnivores cruise their habitual territories even though our houses and yards now occupy the land. Tim and I have seen trees rubbed barkless by itchy, parasite-plagued bears. There’s even a black panther rumored to prowl the neighborhood of Midway Road.
As ex-urbanites realize they are not alone on their out-of-town properties, it helps to remember two things: 1) the wild creatures were here first, thus rating some accommodation; and 2) most are nocturnal, so frightening-for-all face-to-face confrontations are rare.
            So, you ask, what can I do to further peaceful coexistence? Replace a bit of the habitat your decision to relocate eradicated, I reply. Okay, you say. How?
Dense plantings provide shelter

Well, creating wildlife-friendly environments boils down to the presence of two things: shelter and sustenance. Shelter includes nesting or denning sites and materials, and protective cover. For example, Tim and I have the great good fortune to live adjacent to a heavily wooded vacant double lot. (I shall be heartbroken when the owners or their heirs finally build.) Our own densely planted back yard enhances both privacy for us and habitat for critters. At the far back of our property we planted an ill-considered and difficult-to-control eleagnus hedge flanked by flourishing Leyland cypress. Moving toward the house, another, formally clipped hedge of dwarf yaupon hollies broken by an arbor overgrown with Confederate jasmine encloses the flower garden. When we first moved in, we hung birdhouses in our oaks and on the decorative post-and-rail fence. In the ensuing 12 years, vegetation subsumed them all. So chez Fitzgerald, shelter needs are met.
Resident mockingbird
defending his turf

I have to smile when I see “houses” for toads, bats, butterflies, carpenter bees and ladybugs for sale. Our toads live under the outdoor shower, or beneath the floorboards of our screened porch, along with gorgeous Miss Scarlett, the scarlet snake. The carpenter bees fashion their own nests in the back of an untreated wooden bench on the deck. The bats, ladybugs and butterflies take care of themselves. The desire to control where creatures domicile reminds me of the bluebird experts’ canon: boxes of certain dimensions with apertures exactly one-and-one-eighth-inch round set five feet off the ground and facing southwest are critical for bluebird survival. Oh, yeah?  How did they manage all those millennia before the bluebird experts evolved?

          Sustenance means food and water, including treats you provide and replenish. I spend a part of every Saturday stocking caches of birdseed, suet, peanuts, hulled corn and catfood—that last for Petey and Pauline Possum, Rocky and Rhoda Raccoon and their families. But we also maintain plants with edible fruits, nuts and seeds. We have a weeping yaupon holly that the resident mockingbirds defend against all comers, including entire flocks of cedar waxwings come January and the north-bound robins every February and March. After perfuming the whole neighborhood for all of November, the aforementioned eleagnus’ berries ripen in early spring, just in time to sustain migratory birds and to the delight of our regiment of squirrels. (I’m out there too, foraging away: the fruits are delicious as long as they are very red and soft when you pop them in your mouth. Otherwise, prepare to pucker.)  
Red buckeye,
Aesculus pavia,
in spring

The rodents love the nuts from our buckeye (Aesculus pavia). In April, there’s a three-way race—rodents, avians and me—for the serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora) when they ripen, and again in May and June for the strawberries I planted as groundcover. I bow out of the contest for the fruits from the two crabapples (Japanese Malus x sargentii and Southern native Malus angustifolia). They’re just too darn tart for those of us with taste buds.

And then there’s the annual skirmish for whatever appears in the vegetable garden.
Fitzs' flowers in June 2003
              Our flower garden has something blooming as much of the time as possible for the nectar dependents: bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. An annual sowing of sacrificial host plants for the larvae, a.k.a. caterpillars, of many butterflies and moths—like fennel, parsley and dill for yellow swallowtails, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for Gulf fritillaries, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa and A. incarnata) for monarchs, and tomatoes for Carolina sphinx moths—ensures the presence of the beautiful adults. 
Leave seedheads standing
for winter sustenance
(shown: Liatris spicata)

Even when nothing is in flower, I let the seedheads of gayfeather (Liatris spicata), coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed susans (perennial Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii and annual R. hirta) and crape myrtles stand for the finches, juncos and nuthatches. (A dumb joke: Whaddya get when you cross a nuthatch with a blue-footed booby? A boobyhatch, natch.) Sure, it looks like I’m just lazy about fall cleanup, but there’s a reason for that. If the litter in your garden isn’t slimy (like frost-blasted canna lilies and impatiens) or diseased (black-spotted rose leaves, for example), leaving it in place for the winter provides food and shelter for small birds and little animals as well as a soil-enriching mulch.

A source of water is appreciated at all seasons. Tim ran a quarter-inch dripline with a two-gallon-an-hour emitter on the end of it into our birdbath, so it fills every time the drip zone comes on. Another often-overlooked yet crucial aspect of sustenance is to refrain from pesticide use, particularly broad-spectrum formulations that kill everything they contact.
Auto-fill birdbath

The print materials and website of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program of the National Wildlife Federation offer lots of helpful suggestions as well as a protocol to have your property certified as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat (see links list at right).
Keep in mind that every ecosystem is more than the mere sum of its parts. Precisely because Homo sapiens occupies the top of the food-chain ladder means we have the greatest need of all the other rungs. Let us embrace our dependence and be thankful for them.

Thanks for dropping by. Y’all have yourselves a pleasant and peaceful Thanksgiving.

     P.S. -- For the blog-lore-challenged (such as myself): Tim tells me if you click on the pictures, they get bigger, the better to see the details. To get back to the text, click on the "back" arrow. On my Google toolbar, it's at the top left of the page. I tried it. It worked.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


      The Wilmington paper ran an article in today's features section about bulbs. It was an okay piece, I guess, although I disagreed with many of its points, starting with the author’s mail-ordering her stock from Brecks of Indiana instead of somewhere in the southeast. (See my November 16th posting for the importance of provenance when it comes to bulbs.) Also took issue with several of the expert’s recommendations. But then, I’m a querulous sort and absolutely not a fan of 10-10-10 fertilizer, a topic for another day. 
Species tulip
Tulipa turkestanica

      My biggest gripe, though, was with same old tired genera suggested. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a huge fan of daffodils, all 13 of their divisions. For your information, the fragrant jonquils, tazettas and cyclamineus types perform best in mild-winter areas. I also love the miniatures: there’s just something about a perfect dainty daff that’s only four or five inches high. The split corona hybrids are, if you’ll pardon the pun, growing on me. Be that as it may, what really gets me bulbously excited are the lesser-known varieties.

      Remember those ten crates I mentioned last time? They contained about 3000 individual bulbs. And yes, most—about 2200—were daffs. But the other 800 are the ones that really tickle my fancy.

Species tulip
Tulipa clusiana var. chysantha
       Everybody knows hybrid tulips, those crayon-colored icons of high spring. In mild-winter areas, however, the lack of long bouts of below-freezing temperatures provides insufficient chilling for them to perform well except as annuals. What everybody doesn’t know is that there are several straight species, smaller-flowered than the blowsy hybrids, that do better hereabouts. Last fall, I planted 50 each of white-and-yellow T. turkestanica, red-and-yellow T. clusiana var. chysantha, red-and-black T. linifolia and crimson T. humilis ‘Lilliput’ in my own yard. The ‘Lilliput’ were a no-show, but the others bloomed in succession for almost two months. This year, I ordered a gross of yellow-blooming Tulipa sylvestris and T. clusiana var. chysantha from Brent and Becky for clients, to test deer-resistance. Fingers crossed.

      Among spring’s earliest harbingers are the crocuses. I’ve not had much luck with the traditional Crocus chysanthus and C. vernus, even though the neighborhood squirrels enjoyed watching me fume when I realized they’d dug up the little bulbs and eaten them. If any flirty-tailed bastards patrol your yard, you may want to seek out cultivars of C. tommasinianus, because they seem less palatable to our rodent friends. 

An unusual grape hyacinth
Muscari comosum 'Plumosum'
      Everybody also knows the familiar grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum. Yeah, they’re cute and all, but you should check out their ’way cooler cousins. M. aucheri, with high heat tolerance, comes in bicolor (‘Blue Magic,’ dark blue bottoms with sky-blue tops) and tricolor (‘Mount Hood,’ like 'Blue Magic’ only snow-capped) forms. I first saw this one at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, NC—definitely love at first sight. Then there’s M. macrocarpum ‘Golden Fragrance,’ with banana-yellow lower florets giving way to red-violet upper ones. In 2006, it exploded into my consciousness off American Nurseryman’s October 15 cover. My all-time favorite, though, is M. comosum ‘Plumosum,’ which doesn’t look grape hyacinth-y at all. Its 1612 introduction to European gardens earns it heirloom status; but when the bottle-brush-like flowers burst out all pinky-purple, you won’t care.
Star flower
Ipheion uniflorum 'Jessie'

      Another underused little charmer is Chionodoxa (kye-oh-no-DOCKS-ah) forbesii. Its common name, glory-of-the-snow, gives a clue to its early bloom time. Low-to-the-ground inch-wide starry flowers come in blue, pink and white. I’ve found it takes a season or two to settle in, but when it gets going, watch out.

      If you like blue flowers, try Ipheion uniflorum. The many cultivars of this naturalized mid-spring darling of Colonial Williamsburg range from china blue ‘Wisley Blue’ through blue-violet ‘Rolf Fiedler’ to the gorgeous Prussian blue ‘Jessie.’ Star flower also blooms in white (‘White Star’) and pink (‘Charlotte Bishop,’ a Fitzgerald favorite).

Summer snowflake
Leucojum aestivum,
with daffodils

      What else? How about the native red-white-and-green California firecracker, Dichelostemma (die-kel-oh-STEM-mah) ida-maia, and its rosy pink cousin, D. congestum? Or the elegant white bells of the heirloom Leucojum aestivum, with a dot of green on each petal? This one’s common name is summer snowflake, a total misnomer as it flowers in April and doesn’t even remotely resemble a snowflake. Go figure. You might want to try the dark pink spring-blooming species gladiola, Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus. Smaller, earlier and hardier than the better-known summertime spikes, these cuties never need staking or lifting, and were first introduced to the Western garden world in 1700. Making its European debut in the same year, ephemeral Grecian windflower, Anemone blanda, puts out its petite blue, white or pink little daisies in early spring.
Peruvian squill
Scilla peruviana

      Among my most cherished bulbs are the ones sporting other-worldly (Tim says “weird”) flowers. I love the huge, spidery, pinky-purple blooms of Schubert’s flowering onion, Allium schubertii, even though I have to plant new ones every year. Alas, the ornamental alliums need more winter chill than southeastern North Carolina offers. More reliable is the drop-dead-gorgeous violet-blue Peruvian squill, Scilla peruviana, although it is neither a squill nor from Peru. Still, when it blooms you won’t care about the derivation of its botanical name. Quietly holding down one end of the color spectrum, the muted tones of Bulgarian lily, Nectaroscordum sicculum subsp. bulgaricum (now that’s a botanical name!) invites a closer look. Stopping traffic at the other end is Scadoxis multiflorus, or the aptly named blood lily.

Blood lily
Scadoxis multifloris

      See? There’s an awful lot more to be pulled out of the bulb box than just daffodils, tulips and crocuses. 

                           *   *   *
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           Thanks for dropping by. Y’all come again, okay?


Tuesday, November 16, 2010


      Our UPS driver hates us. We’re always ordering awkward, bulky, weighty things that are unavailable locally. The all-time worst hernia-inducing delivery was the time we got 500 feet of heavy-gauge aluminum paver-edging. That particular guy may have changed jobs soon after. I suspect one of the women drivers assigned our route begged for a transfer: we haven’t seen her for a while.
      Nonetheless, a professional gardener does what she has to do. So every year, once in the spring and once in the fall, our current UPS employee heaves a sigh and straps on his back-brace. Why? Because the bulbs have arrived. Crates and crates and crates of bulbs.
      Ten of them waited for us on the front porch when we got home last Wednesday.
      Every garden needs bulbs. Ranking right up there with lespedeza at the top of the easy-care plant pantheon, bulbs offer more bang for the buck than any other ornamental I can think of. Nothing else gives so much for so long with so little effort on your part. Put them in the ground, feed them after they flower and don’t think about them again until those first leaf tips poke through the soil, letting you know that this year’s blooms are on the way.

Daffodils and summer snowflake
(Narcissus 'Sweetness' and
Leucojum aestivum)
       Bulbs are magic, like my sons. What I mean is, I came to parenthood late, on purpose, and while living in comfortable circumstances, allowing me the luxury to be fully conscious of all the small quotidian miracles that comprise gestation and birth. I mention this now because, to me, planting bulbs feels akin to that wonder-full experience. The leaps of faith and imagination required for putting such inert-seeming things as bulbs into the ground with the full expectation of vegetative life-forms emerging to bloom are nothing short of Zen revelation.
      Airy-fairy stuff aside, the former schoolteacher in me insists on definitions. Bulbs, an omnibus reference to that group of perennial plants with some underground structure for the storage of water and nutrients, include: true bulbs, like daffodils, which are actually modified buds; corms, like crocus and Anemone blanda, are annual bulbous stems that produce new corms from buds on the old ones; and tubers, like dahlias, caladiums and bearded iris, are really swollen stems, branches or roots. Together, they’re known as geophytes.
      To better your chances of bulbine success, here are some tips-gleaned-from-past-screw-ups for making your experience a positive one.
1.      Buy as locally grown as you can. John Scheepers, van Bourgondien and the rest of the Michigan-based growers send out beautiful catalogs, but their climate is a little different from mine(!). A favorite source for Southeastern-bred stock is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, out of Gloucester, VA. Another good Southern source is Marlboro Bulb Company, from Greenwood, SC. (Links provided at right.) Keep in mind that big box stores order their plant materials regionally, even though growing conditions within a region can vary significantly. You may think I’m splitting hairs, but provenance really makes a difference.

Star flower
(Ipheion uniflorum 'Jessie')
 2.      Don’t stint on quantity. When you buy daffodils or crocus, think in terms of hundreds rather than tens. Nothing’s more pathetic-looking than five lonely specimens in a (relatively) vast landscape. A grouping of five or ten lilies always makes more of a statement than one or two. The only time I countenance buying one of anything is when it’s an experiment and pricey—say ten dollars or more per   bulb, like oxblood lily.
3.      Don’t stint on quality, either. Buy the biggest, firmest bulbs you can find. If you mail-order, choose the largest size offered and always deal with companies that have been recommended by someone you trust. Like me. Remember—you get what you pay for. Don’t expect high performance from a “bargain” bulb.
4.      Take planting-depth instructions with a grain of salt. In places where the ground never freezes, there is no frost line to get below. When Tim and I relocated to Oak Island, one of the first things I did was plant about 150 daffodils to the recommended depth (for Schenectady) of eight inches. Well, along about the end of May, the foliage finally clawed its way to the surface, where it promptly burned up. I have since learned that we only have to dig holes twice the height of the bulb: if your daff bulb is two-and-a-half inches high, put it in a five-inch-deep hole. With many crocus and other small bulbs, you can get away with an inch-and-a-half or so. In my soft, sandy soil, I can poke them down with my fingertip. Don’t make more work for yourself, especially when it’s counterproductive. (Hybrid lilies are the exception to the rule. They need to go down eight to ten inches to encourage sturdy stems.)

Spider lily
(Lycoris radiata)

5.      As for amending the soil when planting bulbs, what Tim and I do is to mix about three pounds of bulb food with a 50-pound bag of composted manure (Black Kow is what’s most readily available to us). We throw in enough to cover the bottom of each hole, then broadcast the remaining mixture over the newly planted bed. If you choose to use bulb food alone, it’s better not to put it in the bottom of the hole; the fertilizer may burn the bulb’s new roots. Distribute appropriate amounts on top of the soil, according to package directions. What does Kathy use? I like Bulb Booster and Bulb-Tone. I counsel against bonemeal, as dogs, raccoons, possums and other omnivores will smell it and dig up your bulbs to get at it. A client of ours awoke one morning to find raccoons had dug up and tossed each of the hundred daffs she’d planted the day before (poisonous in all their parts, daffodils aren’t on anybody’s favorite foods list) in order to snack on bonemeal. Aggravating, to say the least.
6.      If you have swamp-mucky, clay or caliche soil (and even if you don’t), try this no-dig planting method for daffodils espoused by Brent Heath, whose family has been in the bulb business for generations. Rake back whatever mulch covers the area you’d like to plant; toss and/or arrange the bulbs on the surface; cover to an appropriate depth (depending on the height of the bulbs) with the Kow mixture referenced above, soil conditioner, and/or organic mulch; broadcast bulb food on top; go attend to other things until spring. Tim and I tried this method for the first time in a woodland setting—’way easier than digging 450 five-inch-deep holes in a root mat! It worked like a charm. We utilized the no-dig method again for a mass planting in a very wet area—350 daff bulbs “planted” in 45 minutes. The spring display was spectacular.
7.      Daffodils make great bouquets. But pull the flowers, don’t cut them. Slide your fingers all the way down the stem and pull the daff up from the bottom, revealing the white base below the hollow part of the stem. Hollow stems are unable to take up water. Pulled flowers last longer in the vase because their drinking apparatus is less impaired.
8.      Feed your bulbs right after they’ve finished blooming by topdressing with our Kow-and-bulb-food mixture. Why then? Because you know for sure where they are at that time. It’s a popular myth around these sandy parts that bulbs—especially daffodils—stop flowering because their roots have pulled the bulb too deep into the soil; ergo, they must be dug up and raised. Balderdash. Bulbs stop flowering because they are hungry. So feed them, already. Is that too much to ask?
9.      All bulbs manufacture food for the next year’s bloom through their foliage, so please let the leaves to die back naturally before removing them, no matter how unsightly. Although dying foliage looks better when tied into knots or bunched into rubber bands, these are not helpful practices. They make it harder for the plant’s vascular system to do its nutrient manufacturing and distribution work. To minimize the unattractiveness of the late stages, interplant your bulbs with perennials like irises, ornamental grasses, lantana and daylilies, or plop annuals on top of them. That way, the ugly foliage acts as mulch for the later-emerging plants instead of being an eyesore.

Tulipa turkestanica
        I hope I have piqued enough interest to make you run out to add some bulbs to your garden. (If the ground's not frozen, it's not too late.) As  plants go, bulbs lead the pack for ease of care and (usually) good manners. They come in an astounding number of sizes, bloom colors, bloom shapes and bloom times, which shall be the topic of my next post. They are relatively inexpensive. And best of all, planting them enriches your spiritual life.
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Saturday, November 13, 2010


            It’s that time of year again, when people start noticing what their neighbors and the common-area keepers are doing to crape myrtles. As Tim and I work at fall maintenance for our beloved regulars around St. James, the question of the hour is, “Is it time to prune my crapes?”
            The short answer is “No.” That’s because you don’t ever have lay a finger on these easy-to-love standards of southern landscapes, Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei. In its January 1997 issue, Southern Living magazine published an article by Linda C. Askey entitled “Crepe Murder” about the unnecessary butchery that takes place every fall.
         Before you gleefully point to a rare spelling error, let me explain. I’ve combed every reference book I own for the correct spelling and form of crape myrtle. The eminent Michael Dirr and nurseryman David Byers (author of Crapemyrtle: A Grower’s Thoughts), agree it's “crapemyrtle,” one word; The Hillier Manual claims crape-myrtle, hyphenated, is correct; Gordon Halfacre votes for crape myrtle, two words. As illustrated above, Southern Living bucks the tide and insists on crepe myrtle, with crape creepily spelt. To me, a “crepe” can be a French pancake, a crinkly paper sold in rolls, or a type of shoe sole. I’m sticking with two words and the “a”. You can do what you want.

The heartbreak of stubbing
         Back to the subject at hand. Everyone’s seen stubbed crapes; you know, the ones that look like a maniac with a chain-saw having a temper fit did the work. Stubbing means cutting a branch far beyond the point of your basic shape-up pruning, with the end result of a sad collection of thick, ugly stubs (hence the name). Stubbing is a technique used by folks who don’t know any better:  it just seems a fast and easy way to polish off a pruning chore. Keep it up season after season, however, and you’ll end up eliminating your crape. A stubbed tree puts out lots of new wood in its bid for survival during the season immediately following the initial maiming. These are called adventitious branches, and they are weak by nature. The weight of their flowers can break them right off the tree. Because crapes flower on new wood, the resultant bumper crop of blooms the following summer encourages the ignorant buffoon—who obviously does not follow this blog—to repeat his performance in the fall. He then creates a stub (ugly) surrounded by a bunch of little stubs (uglier) that resemble nothing so much as the beseeching fingers of a deformed hand. As the heinous stubbing behavior continues, the tree loses more and more strength until it just dies. This scenario is what Ms. Askey dubbed “crape murder.”
         Often people defend stubbing as a way to keep a tree from getting too tall. Guess what? Crape myrtles cultivars range in height from 24 inches to 24 feet. Do a little research, and then go get one that will naturally stay within your parameters. If you already have a "too-tall" model in place, do it a favor and either move it somewhere it can attain its preordained stature, or kill it outright instead of torturing it by stubbing year after year. 
         Have I made it clear that stubbing is not a good technique for shaping up crapes?
         All right, then, you say, just how should a crape myrtle be pruned?
         Let’s address why first. The answer to why is: 1) you want to encourage prolific flowering; 2) you want to create a nice-looking tree; or 3) you don’t have a clue and would prefer not to be involved. Now we’ll talk how.
Take off seedballs, as at left,
or leave 'em on, as at right
·         To encourage flowering: I’ll let you in on a little secret here. Major branch removal does nothing-nada-zip-zero-zilch-nil-naught for bloom. Crapes flower because they are happy with their lives—enough sunlight, enough water, enough available nutrients. Now, if it’s the bloom period you’d like prolonged, well, there is something you can do to manipulate that. You can cut off the seedball clusters as they form. How can I be sure I’m removing seedballs and not flower buds? you cry. Easy! I reply. The hard green balls that appear after a flower has faded are the seeds: the buds are smaller, readily squished and usually show a bit of the flower color. Removing seedballs causes the plant to form lateral buds: thus, for every seedball you snip, two new shoots grow out that each produce another, albeit smaller, flower, right up until frost brings the whole process to a screeching halt.
·         If it’s a nice-looking tree you’re after, what we call shape-up pruning is the ticket. This is where you remove all those tiny twigs (the littlest ones break off nicely when you run your gloved hand along the branch toward the trunk), the last of the seedballs, any branches growing into the interior of the tree (because they won’t get enough light to flower anyway), and any dead, crossing, damaged, head-bonking-when-you-mow or otherwise unsightly or inconvenient branches. You can also determine how many trunks your mature crape will ultimately have by removing excess stems at the ground. Tim and I like single-trunked specimens best, but they’re hard come by. If we can’t get a single, we look for a three-stemmer. If we can’t find a three-stemmer, we take the best-looking one we have access to and make it a three-stemmer. For more compact cultivars, or if you prefer the shrubby look, just remove the seedballs and any dead stuff and leave the trunks alone. A good rule of thumb is to never cut off anything larger than the diameter of your little finger, unless you want it gone for good.
·         If you’d rather sit on the verandah sipping your mint julep than prune your crape myrtles, well, the good news is that you are perfectly within your rights to do so. Listen: this is really important. The plant itself just doesn’t care, one way or the other. Even with every seedball still on it, your crape will bloom year after year. The old seedballs are on old wood, see?
·         One major bonus of not bothering to remove the seedballs: in winter, crapes laden with seeds may attract flocks of hungry migratory finches and juncos. I’ve only witnessed the birds snacking on ripened crape seedballs out in the mountains, in the yard of the cabin where Tim and I used to hide out for Christmas before the economy went south. Tim says I’ve just not paid sufficient attention at home. He’s probably right. As usual.
         Now I suppose you want to know just when this pruning activity is to take place. Well, the seedballs need to go as they form during the bloom season, obviously, but again, only if you want to invest the effort. Shape-up pruning is done once the plant has gone dormant (lost its leaves). There’s what I consider a hilarious pronouncement on this subject in Henry Rehder, Jr.’s Growing a Beautiful Garden: A Landscape Guide for the Coastal Carolinas. On page 117, he suggests the week of November 27 is optimum. Believe me, the very last thing on my mind at Thanksgiving with only four weeks to go before Christmas is pruning the damn crape myrtles.  January is good; so is February. Some years December is okay too. If the end of March rolls around before you get to it, however, you should probably just forget it for that year.
         Besides, they’ll bloom next summer anyway.
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