Spring Bulbs: Still Time To Plant Some Of These 10 Great Varieties

Spring bulbs in a formal garden setting

Yesterday I directed the planting of two thousand spring bulbs. We placed them individually in patterns and our very capable team dug them one-by-one into the ground. When they were finished, we dressed the bulbs with a thick layer of mulch and all stepped back to admire our handiwork. The garden felt as if it were bursting with energy with so much spring promise nestled snuggly underground.

In Maryland, it’s almost too late to plant bulbs; but according to Patrick Gravel, a local plant expert, as long as you can get the shovel in the ground, there’s still time. Of course, by now most of the on-line bulb suppliers are pretty much sold-out. But, a quick run to the local nursery could still yield some interesting results.

Gravel came up from Richmond last week to speak to my garden club on how to garden with bulbs. Below is a detailed breakdown of the great bulb varieties he profiled. If you’re up for the task, many of them are still out there just waiting to be planted.

TOP VARIETIES OF SPRING BULBS

For me, the challenge of planting spring bulbs (like now) is the colder weather. Just when I’m turning my attention indoors, the bulbs need to go in the ground. This sometimes requires the ability to dig lots of holes outdoors when the temperature is hovering around 40°F (like yesterday.) Still, if you can visualize what the spring will look like, the reward is directly proportional to the amount of energy you’re willing to expend.

Carpet of blue muscari and other spring bulbs (Keukenhof, Holland)

GRAVEL’S RECOMMENDATIONS

Allium – Also known as ornamental onions, these drought-tolerant and easy-to-grow late spring/early summer bloomers come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes and forms. Tall varieties include the giant purple-flowering GlobemasterGladiator, and Purple Sensation, the reddish-flowered, oval-shaped Drumstick, the light purple, spidery-flowered Shubertii (Persian Onion), and the rosy purple-flowered Millenium, which is the 2018 Perennial of the Year.

Giant purple allium

Anemone – small in stature with good primary coloring, anemones are great naturalizers. They bloom early to mid April, topping out at 4” at most. The low-growing, daisy-like Anemone blanda, or Grecian Windflower, makes an ideal companion for tulips and daffodils. “A nice early groundcover if you’re waiting for something else to emerge,” said Gravel.

Anemone blanda

Crocus – Gravel thinks of crocuses as ‘little surprises’. You need to plant them early, though, since they’re among the earliest spring bloomers. (Plant most varieties in mid October-mid November.) Look for Giant Dutch crocus, and the even earlier-blooming Snow crocus. Autumn Crocus, which is not a true crocus, but a colchicum, bears purple-pink or white flowers in September or October and must be planted in August.

Dutch crocus

Fritillaria – A member of the lily family, these spring-blooming bulbs have unusual, bell-shaped flowers. Crown Imperial grows to 3′ tall and has lily-like foliage (with a grassy head tuft), Snake’s Head grow to around 1′ tall and have checkered petals and the purple to black-flowered Black Persian grows to around 3′ tall.

Snake’s Head fritillaria

Hyacinth – Gravel advises wearing gloves when handling hyacinths, because the oil from the bulb is an irritant. Highly fragrant, they naturalize quickly and are easy to force inside (more on that below.) Problems are they tend to be floppy. Gravel recommends planting them deeper to give them more structure or planting them with low caging to keep the blooms upright. Click here for Holland Bulb Farms’ selection.

Hyacinths

Hyacinthoides – Not the same as hyacinths, these woodland flowers have nodding, bell-shaped flowers in bluish-lavender flowers. Commonly known as Spanish and English bluebells.

Spanish bluebells

Muscari – Commonly known as Grape Hyacinth, these high-fragrant, tiny spring bloomers form rivers of brilliant blue to purple color under taller spring flowers like daffodils and tulips.

Muscari, commonly known as Grape Hyacinth

Narcissus – Named for the Greek hunter who fell in love with his own beauty, narcissus come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and forms. Some of the most common are: the traditional, single-flowered Trumpet, the slightly smaller Large Cup, the flat-flowered Small Cup with distinctly colorful edges, the clustered/layered cupped Double, the diminutive Jonquil, Tazetta (also known as Paperwhites), and Poeticus with its small cup edged with red.

Double daffodils

Snowdrops – “A very simple bulb, you can’t go wrong with these February-March bloomers and they naturalize easily,” said Gravel. Choose from Galanthus elsewii, Galanthus nivalis, and the taller Giant snowdrops, Leucojum aestivum.

“There are many, many different varieties of snowdrops out there with tiny, tiny differences, said Gravel. “It’s a really nerdy plant.”

Snowdrops

Tulips – According to Gardenia.net, there are over 3,000 registered varieties of this popular spring bloomer. Some of the most common are Darwin, Triumph, Double, Fringed, Parrot, Fosteriana and Greigii. The diminutive species tulips like Bakeri are long-lived and great for the front of the border. Gravel recommends using chicken wire to protect the bulbs from digging animals.

Fringed tulips

FORCING BULBS INDOORS

This is much easier than you think. Gravel says the easiest bulbs to force are amaryllis and paperwhites. ‘All they really need is water,” he said. The rest of the spring-blooming bulbs require a 6- to 8-week cooling period that mimics their outdoor period of dormancy.

Plant the bulbs in well drained potting soil and keep in your refrigerator at a temperature ranging around 45 degrees F for 6 to 8 weeks. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. After the cooling period, bring the bulbs out, place in a sunny location and enjoy.

Amaryllis bulb just beginning to sprout indoors

Patrick Gravel works at Sneed’s Nursery in Richmond, Virginia and lectures frequently on plants and plant life. He can be reached at pgravel87@gmail.com.

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil.

“We are all guilty of fouling up the soil,” he said. “But, it’s far easier to preserve soils than to remediate after they’re damaged.”

Before reaching for the fertilizer, Fite advises digging a little deeper into the source of the problem. Following are five common reasons that trees fail and what to do about them.

Soil Compaction

When it comes to tree health, nothing hurts a tree more than compacted soil. Often brought on by construction, soil compaction impacts trees at their roots, depriving them of essential water, oxygen and nutrients. It also makes it harder for a tree to anchor itself in the soil.

Compacted soil makes tree anchorage difficult 

Soil compaction occurs when soil particles are compressed by external factors like mechanical or human traffic, resulting in reduced pore volume (meaning there is less space for air and water.) Heavily compacted soils have a reduced rate of water infiltration and drainage and are often hydrophobic (meaning the water runs off). For a tree, this leads to poor growth, higher water needs and increased susceptibility to pests and disease.

Fertile, aerated soil

Compacted clay soil

Think of soil like a sponge, with large and small particles.

“What happens when we squeeze a sponge?” Fite asked. “We are increasing the amount of solid matter.”

It makes sense. Tree roots are extensive and with the exception of the taproot, located for the most part just 8 to 10 inches below the soil. They need space to grow. With compaction, however, many trees will never develop a taproot, instead establishing a network of weakened lateral roots that are unable to keep the tree vertical. And at the soil surface, the fine feeder roots (which under ideal conditions can extend 4 to 7 times the drip line of the tree) are compromised, too. This reduces a tree’s ability to absorb water, oxygen and nutrients and ultimately leads to its decline.

SOLUTION: Build away from a tree’s drip line and keep mowers and other machinery off the soil. For existing trees under stress, add a mulch circle. (More on that below.)

Raking up leaves deprives trees of important nutrients

This is a tough one. I’m not sure I’m ready to shred leaves and leave them all over my lawn. But think of it, we spend time and money to rake up one of our plants’ most important sources of nutrients, push them to the curb, then go to the store and buy them back again as mulch or soil additives.

“It’s not a great business model,” said Fite.

According to Fite, we are removing one pound of nitrogen per 1000 feet just by removing the leaves from our properties. This is a big loss for trees as well as other plants. And this doesn’t even take in to account the fossil fuels burned to operate leaf vacuums.

Our soils are low in organic matter because we are not allowing leaves to decompose like they do in the forest. When left alone, leaves return nitrogen and other organic matter to the soil. They also protect the soil surface, adding to its water holding capacity. And as they break down, they provide porosity and aeration, allowing more water to infiltrate the soil.

Shredded leaf mulch

SOLUTION: Shred your leaves with a mower and make leaf compost or leaf mold mulch (not the same thing.) For some great info on how to do both, click here for thespruce.com’s excellent article Rake leaves and make compost, mulch. 

Modified soils have higher pH which is bad for trees

In a perfect soil world, soils have a slightly acidic to neutral pH (a pH of 5.5 to 6.5). Urban and suburban soils, however, often contain debris left behind from construction. This generally results in a higher soil pH due to leeching from masonry walls and foundations.

Leeching from masonry leads to soils with higher pH

Trees growing in these locations may show signs of nutrient deficiency (like yellowing of leaves) and may be slower to establish. And irrigation water typically has higher pH, too. This means it gradually increases the pH of adjacent soils over time. This can result in a dramatic difference between the nutrient ability of your native soil and that affected by construction materials.

SOLUTION:  Do a soil test to determine the pH and get the turf out from under your trees. Lawn thrives on alkaline soil (that’s why we add lime.) But trees like a lower pH. All developed soils tend to have a higher pH and modified temperature, putting more heat stress on plants.

A soil test report from University of Delaware (my go-to destination for soil reports)

Lack of mulch

Mulch improves soil structure while providing protection to a tree’s roots. It supplies organic matter to the soil that reduces compaction. And it moderates soil temperatures, conserves moisture and eliminates competition from grass. Yet, many landscape trees are planted out in the lawn with no protection.

Fite recommends mulching out to the drip line of a tree if you can. It will help prevent ‘mower blight (or your mower banging into the trees) and also protect against stripping from string trimmers. Mowers, by the way, also contribute to soil compaction, especially when they’re operated in wet conditions.

Mowers contribute to soil compaction and can damage a tree

SOLUTION: Create a mulch circle around your trees. It will help protect them from mower damage and as the mulch decomposes, it will aerate the soil and provide nutrients.

Fertilizing when it won’t make any difference

According to Fite, fertilizer doesn’t fix everything. Pull a soil sample from around your tree first to determine whether or not to fertilize. Most soil labs will run diagnostics on your sample and send you back a prescription for what to add to your soil to improve its composition.

Before fertilizing, ask yourself what is the objective? If construction has occurred and interrupted a tree’s root zone, no amount of fertilizer is going to fix the problem.

And remember, although native soil usually contains lots of organic matter, during construction this layer is often buried under layers of sand or debris. Or sometimes, it’s stripped off entirely. No amount of fertilizer is going to bring life back to this kind of soil.

SOLUTION: Do a soil test to find out what your soil is made of before reaching for the fertilizer. Fix the soil first, then use fertilizer to adjust accordingly.

OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP YOUR TREES

Fite offered a couple additional suggestions for how to get your trees back in shape (assuming you haven’t destroyed most of the root system by building too close):

Invigorate the roots

Many times the best thing you can do for your trees is to invigorate their roots. Bartlett uses an air spade, a tool that uses an air compressor to generate a high velocity jet of air to dislodge the soil. The rush of air breaks up and ‘tills’ the soil without removing it to a depth of about 8’ (the depth of the feeder roots). This method of improving the soil leaves root systems intact.

Air spade in use at Western Illinois University

The air spade was originally developed by the military to clear land mines. Nowadays, it is used by landscapers and arborists to invigorate roots. After the soil is excavated, add soil, compost and mulch to settle the soil back down. Then water the tree.

Look into Biochar

Mulch breaks down because the microbes eat it for carbon, resulting in it having to be replaced every year. Charcoal, on the other hand, is stable, meaning it lasts for centuries. Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that is added to soil to help it retain water and nutrients. It acts like a dry sponge, but on its own contains no nutrients, so blend with compost for best results.

Biochar acts as a dry sponge, but contains no nutrients

“Put the two together and magic happens,” said Fite.

Buyer beware, though, biochar is not regulated, so buy from a reputable source and read the label carefully.

Kelby Fite, Ph.D. is a VP and Director at Bartlett Tree Research Lab.

Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Partial Shade Gardens

“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’

I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child, especially if they beckoned from around a corner. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where these memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a partial shade garden. Continue reading

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

Most of us who grow flowers in containers in summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems become long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading

For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Cascading forsythia hedge

My sister Cindy was born in late March and every spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. I can still remember my mother’s voice: these are for-Cynthia she would say. My little sister would puff up with pride and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that later on she naturally gravitated towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary yellow bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s. Continue reading

What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter during a warm spell. With all the erratic weather patterns we’ve been experiencing lately, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.

 

The underground world of bulbs

To understand why spring bulbs can withstand a little early growth, it helps to take a peek underground.

Just like a seed, a single bulb contains the entire life cycle of a plant, including roots, food storage “leaves” and a flowering shoot. As soon as you plant them in the fall, spring bulbs start growing.

The action begins in the bottom part of the bulb known as the basal stem. During the winter months, roots begin emerging from the underside of this base. As they penetrate the surrounding soil, they absorb water and other nutrients, which they store in the fleshy leaves of the bulb called scales.

In some flower species (think allium), a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the bulb’s scales from damage and drying out.

Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out

The scales provide food and protection to the flowering shoot, which contains the above-ground parts of the plant, including stems, leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot grows slowly upwards within the bulb. Once warmer temperatures hit, the leaves break first through the soil where they begin converting sunlight into energy. Weeks later, the flowering stems begin to emerge.

The key thing to remember is: Leaf development occurs independently of flower development. The leaves might jump the gun, but flowering shoots need an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before they begin sending their stems up out of the bulb and towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.

Strategies for protecting early growth

If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause its leaves to yellow and die back, but your bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.

There are a few strategies, though, you can undertake now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flower shoot.

1. Cover your plant

Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

 

2. Water

Bulbs will rot with too much water, but if there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, providing them with a little extra water during the day helps the bulb expand and grow. Make sure your soil has good drainage, though.

 

3. What to do if flowers start to appear 

If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually doesn’t affect flowering in the coming months.

 

4. Plant bulbs late in the fall

The later you plant in the fall, the longer the bulb will take to sprout in the spring. Wait until the temperature is cool enough (40s or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. I plant mine in early December.

And make sure to plant bulbs at three times their height in depth with base down and bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can cause premature growth.

 

 

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

cover

You could say that evergreens are the stars of cold weather, instantly infusing drab winter landscapes with color and texture. When well sited, watered and fed, most can stand up to the harshest of conditions. Still, some evergreens are less equipped than others to battle icy winds and harsh winter sun. These are the plants that can benefit from a little extra TLC to prepare them for colder temperatures.

Without proper preparations, cold weather can spell disaster for evergreens. Here are steps you can take now to fortify your most vulnerable plants for winter. HINT: The most important step is to water.

 

WATER YOUR PLANTS

The most important thing you can do to prepare your evergreen shrubs and trees for winter is to water them. And that means making sure they’re well hydrated beginning in early fall, a time when many people stop watering.

Rainfall can help with the job, but if you experience a dry spell it’s important to water your evergreens and continue to do so regularly until the soil freezes. Plants will hold on to the water and use it throughout the winter.

watering-an

The most important thing you can do for your evergreens is to water them

Watering is crucial because all evergreens, and especially broadleaf varieties like rhododendrons and hollies, lose moisture from their foliage in a process called transpiration. Once the ground has frozen, it deprives plants of water, making it impossible for them to replace what is evaporating. This can lead to a common type of winter injury called desiccation, also known as ‘winter burn.’

evergreen.frozen yew

Signs of desiccation can begin appearing as early as mid winter, when leaves of a plant may turn brown at the tips or several branches start to dry out or die. (This kind of damage typically shows up on the side of the plant that faces into the wind or has a southwestern exposure.) Other plants will hold on to their green color until spring or early summer when they begin to push new growth. Then their leaves will suddenly turn brown, start to curl and fall off.

TO DO:   “Winterize” your evergreens by deep watering, which promotes deep rooting of plants and shrubs. Water them every other week, making sure the soil is moist to a depth of between 12 to 18 inches. Do this until the ground freezes.

 

PROTECT WITH SPRAY

Evergreens that are prone to desiccation, especially the broad-leaved varieties, often benefit from a little help in the form of spray. Anti-transpirant (or anti-desiccant) sprays, readily available at nursery and hardware stores, can protect tender leaves and stems by reducing water loss during times of plant stress.

www.wilt-pruf.com

www.wilt-pruf.com

Sprays provide a protective, film-forming coating that slows down moisture loss and protects plants from drying out. The transparent layers wear off gradually without interfering with plant growth or respiration.

In the winter, most sprays can remain effective for up to four months. Proper timing is key: it’s best to spray your plants in the morning when temperatures are above 50 degrees so the product has time to dry. You’ll need to reapply the spray once or twice during the winter.

(By the way, the sprays work great on indoor holiday greenery, too.)

TO DO: Spray plants once in December and again in February to prevent water loss and protect their leaves.

 

BUILD A SCREEN OR SHELTER

Shelters and screens are great for smaller shrubs that you’d like to protect from excessive wind, falling snow and road salt damage. Although you can buy ready-made frames at the store, burlap, some lumber and a few stakes are really all you need to make one on your own. Steer away from plastic, though. You could cook your plants.

How to at hgtvgardens

How to at hgtvgardens.com

To make a screen, drive the stakes into the ground on the windward side of the plant or on its southern exposure, where it is at greater risk of exposure to swings in temperature. Staple the burlap to the stakes.

To make a shelter, place stakes all around the plant to form an A-frame. Stretch the burlap across the structure. Or, you can attach plywood panels to the stakes to create an even sturdier frame.

TO DO: Take an inventory of your landscape and pinpoint any plants that may be vulnerable to winter stress. Evergreens that face the wind or have a southern exposure may need screens to guard against winter burn. Pay particular attention to plants that are located under the roof line, where falling snow could be a hazard. A-frame shelters are great at shedding heavy snow and ice. For a great tutorial on how to build screens and shelters, go to thisoldhouse.com.

 

TIE THEM UP

How to at gardeners.com

How to at gardeners.com

Evergreens can be damaged by heavy snows or ice storms that snap their branches. Foundation plantings can be particularly vulnerable, since they are often exposed to snow falling from the roof. A good way to protect your plants is to tie them up to give them a little extra support.

Using heavy twine or string (I use green-colored twine so it doesn’t show), begin by attaching the twine to the base of the plant and wind the plant up, drawing in clumps of branches as you go. Once you end up with a tight spiral, you can leave it alone or cover the shrub with burlap.

TO DO: Tie up foundation plantings like boxwood and azaleas to prevent against breakage and dust snow off of fragile bushes with a broom or by shaking to make sure it doesn’t accumulate.

 

MULCH

mulchMulching in the fall is a great way to protect your evergreens from fluctuations in soil temperature and damaging moisture loss. Mulches are proven water conservers; able to reduce moisture loss anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. Adding a protective layer of mulch insulates your plant and prevents water from from escaping from the subsoil.

TO DO:  Depending on how big the root zone is, make a 3- to 6- foot diameter circle around the shrub or tree and apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, making sure to mix in some organic materials to add nutrients to the soil.

A word of caution: don’t pile the mulch up around the plant crown or tree trunk. This could cause the plant to rot and die. A distance of six inches or more is a good rule of thumb to follow.

 

Last word

Even if your evergreen looks bad, try to refrain from pruning brown foliage or branches until after the winter. Wait until the spring or you risk further damaging the plant.

 

The ‘Roomba’ of Gardening: Tertill Is A Robot That Weeds

Franklin Robotics ‘Tertill’ promises to weed your garden for you

Last year was a particularly big one for weeds, with many of us struggling in vain to control them in our gardens. But thankfully, just in time for next summer, there’s an invention that just might alleviate this tiresome chore. It’s called Tertill and it proposes to do the weeding for you. Continue reading

How To Deadhead Flowers And Maximize Blooms

shutterstock_76771531

So the name doesn’t sound that appealing, but regular deadheading is an essential practice in the life of a garden. Not only does it keep flowers looking neat and attractive, it ensures a maximum amount of blooms over an extended period of time. I’ve come to appreciate the added work for the all the extra flowers it produces. There’s nothing like getting a plant to re-bloom that looks like it’s called it quits for the season. Continue reading