Fight the tyranny of spring!

Here in Michigan, spring is coming. Crocuses, snowdrops, and reticulata irises are in full bloom. Hepatica, forsythia, and daffodils will be coming on before long. Soon, garden centers and nurseries will be opening and gardeners driven mad by the long winter will rush out to buy every plant they can find with a flower on it. In the mad feed frenzy for flowers, we gardeners will sadly look over countless beautiful fall-flowering perennials and shrubs simply because they don’t happen to be doing their thing when we are shopping.

And that, my friend, is the tyranny of spring. We Northern gardeners all too often let our spring fever skew our gardens to all spring bloomers, totally ignoring and missing a vast array of gorgeous plants that give color and interest the rest of the year.

aesculus

So, don’t give in. Try, for example, planting a bottle brush buckeye (Aseculus parviflora) a shrub which will thrill and delight with elegant white sprays of flowers in August when all the spring bloomers are looking tired and sad.

hostaclausa

Or plant the lovely Hosta clausa which won’t impress with plain green leaves in the spring, but has a later summer flower display you won’t forget.

So this year, don’t give in to the siren song of spring. Add some late bloomers to the garden. You won’t regret it.

Joseph Tychonievich

 

Rogues gallery

You know the word “rogue” as a noun and adjective, and probably from when Sarah Palin “went rogue” during her time as vice presidental candidate.

But you may not know that it also a verb. That’s the way I use it most often. I rogue plants and I complain — often — about seed producers not doing enough roguing.

To rogue means to weed out inferior or off-type plants. It is a critical part of producing and maintaining seed selections of plants. Whenever you are growing fields of plants for seed production, be it tomatoes or zinnias or corn, you get off types. Chance mutations, seedlings produced from errant grains of pollen from another variety, or just change of the diversity within the population. So one has to rogue — walk through the fields and pull out flowers that are the wrong color, corn plants that aren’t yielding enough, all the unexpected variants to keep the variety true to type.

The annoying thing is that a lot of seed producers cut corners — particularly, it seems, for annual flower seed — and don’t bother. The results can be very frustrating.

The worst are flowers in mixed colors. Maintaining a good mix of multiple colors requires careful roguing to ensure one color — due to greater vigor or just chance — doesn’t come to dominate. Lots of companies just don’t seem to bother.

Last year I bought a packet of Zinnia ‘State Fair’, an old, and wonderful seed strain, which was supposed to come in the full mix of zinnia flower colors.

zinniarogue

I got pink. That’s all. Just pink. My whole row was pink. Not my favorite color of zinnia. Clearly the pink plants slowly came to dominate the fields of whoever is producing these seeds, and instead of roguing out some to bring the color mix back into balance, they just let them go rogue, and I got stuck with just one color.

The ‘State Fair’ zinnias were also supposed to be double, like this.

doublezinnia

They weren’t. Single flowered forms will almost always come to dominate seed strains unless rogued out because they’re easier for insects to pollinate and thus tend to produce more seed. Clearly no one bothered, because every plant I sowed out gave me just a single row of showy petals.

I’ve had similar experiences with countless other varieties of seed annuals. The picture looks great on the packet, but sow them out and mostly what I get are rogues, not the variety I was after. The lack of roguing is a plague… bad enough that a friend in the horticulture industry once mentioned casually to me that, of course, cosmos varieties are only worth growing when they are first introduced. A few years without good roguing, and their desirable characteristics are mostly lost.

So more roguing please. I love growing big blowsy annual flowers from seed. I’m tired of them all going rogue.

Creative Lighting for Seed Starting

As we get close to the time to start tomato, pepper, and other seedlings indoors, I thought I’d share this picture of my older sister’s seed starting setup from few years ago:

lamps et al

Two desk lamps with compact florescent bulbs. Not traditional, but worked great. Just a reminder that you can get creative when it comes to lighting for seedlings, using whatever fixtures and layout works for your space. The only rules are to use florescent or LED bulbs, not those old fashioned incandescent bulbs which have poor light for plants, and err on the side of more light rather than less to make sure you get compact, healthy plants that will transition to the sunny outside world without drama.
Joseph Tychonievich

 

Allium Fever

Ornamental onions are hot patooties.  From big, bold, purple globes to small pink half-moons, there is no end to ornamental onion-y goodness out there with 30+ species and cultivars in the trade.  There’s no substitute for ornamental onions in regards to architectural drama – the perfect geometric foil to wispy grasses, floral spikes, and umpteen daisy-thingies.  The seed heads from the sturdier species will persist and add interest to autumn and winter perennialscapes (not sure if that’s a word).

Art-of-Gardening-COVER-3D-1
Not one but TWO cultivars of Allium on the cover of the fabulous new Chanticleer book…

All are members of the Allium genus, just like those onions sprouting in your kitchen counter veg basket – hence the deer- and small mammal- resistance factor.  However…there are some issues.

  • Can be short-lived.  I have first-hand experience with this – plant, enjoy for a year or two, then…where did they go?
  • Bloom time is rather vaguely defined.  Most catalogs list “early summer” or “late spring” for most cultivars.  But if you want continuous purple orbs, what’s the order of bloom?
  • Can be expensive. Bulbs for some of the mammoth “softball” sizes will set you back $5-$7 each (the bulbs themselves are huge).  This is of particular concern due to the first item.
  • Foliage failure.  For some of the largest species and cultivars, the foliage starts to die back around (or even before) bloom time.  Not a lot of time to put the necessary energy back into that big honkin’ bulb.

We already have a multi-year lily perennialization trial going in conjunction with Cornell and some other institutions.  I thought I might try the same thing with Allium.

Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.
Student worker Lauren, after a long day of taking data on a gazillion lilies.

Unfortunately, I had this bright idea in November – well into the bulb-ordering season.  I tried to compile as complete an inventory as I could, ordering from several vendors.  Ended up with 28 species and cultivars – as much as the space prepared (check out that nice soil!)  could hold, at our urban horticulture center near campus (Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, USDA Zone 6, about 2000′).  We put five or seven bulbs (depending on size) in each plot, and replicated the whole thing three times.

Ready to plant!
Ready to plant!

We’ll take data over the next three years on time of emergence, bloom time and duration, foliage duration (have a nifty chlorophyll meter that can help quantify that), some growth measurements, and perennial tendencies (or not).  My hope is to end up with a really specific chronology of bloom times plus life expectancy.  Yes, this was just a patented Holly wild hair; luckily I had some general funds to cover it. But I do think our little onion project will be of interest to more than a few folks, whether professional landscape designers or home gardeners.  I know I’m excited to see the results ($30 for five bulbs – yeek)!

 

 

Blast from my petunia past

A few days ago I recorded a podcast with Margaret Roach were we talked about all our favorite seed sources. One of the many things we mentioned were the great species petunias available from Select Seeds. Which caused me to flash back to my time in graduate school doing research on petunias, and dig up these old images.

Petunia integrifolia (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)
Petunia integrifolia (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)

At the top are Petunia integrifolia (purple) and Petunia axillaris (white) and below are an assortment of flowers from a population of F2 hybrids between the two. This cross is interesting because it is a recreation of the original hybrid that created modern hybrid petunia.

Petunia exserta (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)
Petunia exserta (top left) Petunia axillaris (top right) and their F2 hybrids (everything else)

But more fun is a similar cross with the one hummingbird pollinated petunia, P. exserta! It is fun to see the ways the colors and flower forms recombine in new ways in the seedlings.
I don’t have anything profound to say about these pictures… just, hey, isn’t genetics cool?
Joseph Tychonievich

An idea worth stealing: Mesh pots for bulb collections

Last year I was in England, and a snowdrop obsessive there (aka, a Galanthophile) showed me this cool trick, using mesh pots to keep her vast collection of different varieties organized.

meshpot

She puts her bulbs in these pots (designed for use in hydroponic systems, I believe), and then sinks the entire pot down in the ground, so that the pot is invisible. The pot keeps the bulbs contained and easy to find so you can dig them up to divide or share even when dormant, and keeps different varieties growing next to each other from getting mixed up. But unlike a regular solid-sided pot, the open mesh allows roots and water to move freely so the bulbs grow just as easily and with as little care as if they were planted directly in the ground.

Corydalis turtschaninovii
Corydalis turtschaninovii

I’m not a snowdrop lover, they frankly bore me, but I have been getting more and more obsessed with bulbous corydalis, selections of C. solida and the amazing true blue Corydalis turtschaninovii. The tiny bulbs are impossible to find once they get dormant, and my collection is already beginning to get mixed up as the different varieties begin dividing and encroaching on each other… I’m going to start planting new editions in mesh pots to keep everything organized.

Joseph Tychonievich

The Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)