Fall Blooming Pansies, Practical Gardening

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In the Midwest, we’re all pretty familiar with fall mums, Russian sage, and flowering kale as the main staples of the late-season garden. These plants are tolerant of cold nights and less sunlight. But why not add pansies to your selection?

Until recently the general public was unaware that the pansy is not heat tolerant, dying out in the summer. It flowers best when night temperatures are in the 40s and day temps in the 60s. Many areas of the Pacific coast are blessed to grow them all year round! The pansy grows well in Zones 3-7. In the northern zones if you plant the little lovelies in late September it will bloom until covered in snow.

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Things are a bit different for species violas (Johny Jump-up or Heartease). It is the small flowered parent of the bold faced pansy, and will winter over–usually for only two years–and bloom in the spring, being a tender perennial that reseeds. The pansy, a hybrid viola, is a biennial grown as an annual.

Agrilife Resources gives a bit of history of the pansy’s evolution from the wild viola:

Viola is a large genus containing 500 species…. and were familiar to people living in Greece in the 4th century B.C. The center of origin for the plant was continental Europe. The hardy but delicate viola was cultivated by the Greeks for herbal medicinal use and much later inspired William Shakespeare to write of romance.

Some time after the 4th century B.C. in Europe, an acute observer noticed a plant similar to a viola but growing in open areas with more sunlight. This plant thrived in alpine meadows and on rocky ledges. Someone named this plant a wild pansy. Possibly, it was a person living in France who noticed this plant because the word pansy is traced back to the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance….

In the last 50 years much of the innovative pansy breeding has been in Germany, the United States and Japan. New pansy colors such as shades of pink, rose or orange and unusual bicolor designs have expanded the variety of pansies available to gardeners in North America

Compact and low growing, pansies are not fussy plants, growing best in a loose, rich soil. They prefer full sun. If you want instant color in their garden, you will find packs and flats of pansies at local nurseries or garden centers. Select the flower colors that suit your garden design. Choose plants that are stocky with dark green leaves, with a few blooms showing but lots of buds.

With the short growing season, plant them closer together than what the tag instructs for a burst of color. They are lovely planted at the base of fall mums, replacing spent flowers in containers, or in a grouping filling in where more tender annuals were removed.


Transplanting Perennials and Hardwoods, Practical Gardening

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October is a lovely time of year for dividing and transplanting in your gardens. The urgency of spring gives way to a slower pace of planning.

There are many reasons to divide perennials: to keep them healthy and free of diseases, to have more plants, keep them contained to an area, to open up space.

  • Many perennials grow quickly and develop clumps. If the clumps are not divided every 3-4 years, the centers can die out. (Note: with many ornamental grasses this donut effect is due to high pruning—ornamental grasses should be trimmed to ground level.)
  • When perennials become overcrowded, flower production declines or ceases. The perennial may appear stunted if they are in desperate need of dividing—in which case, you’ve waited too long and will need to remember to divide sooner next time.
  • Some perennials are aggressive, nearly weedy in their growth habit—oh the sins of Lily of the Valley! Those with a vigorous growth habit should be divided (often every other year) to keep them in balance and not overrun the garden.
  • Dividing your perennials allows you to use more of the same variety (especially those that are hybrids without viable seeds) throughout your gardens, and to share with friends.

Transplanting herbaceous plants is usually best done in the spring or fall Follow this link to a Garden Gate Tip’s Sheet on what to move when.

In autumn cut plants back before digging them for division. I prefer to divide in the fall because the plants have more time to set new roots before growing into summer’s heat. Fall bloomers are divided and transplanted in the spring.

Fine Gardening offers this advice on technique:

To lift a perennial with minimal root damage, begin digging at its drip line. The roots will generally extend that far, so digging there lets you lift the plant with most of its roots intact.

Dig a trench around the clump, cleanly severing any roots, then cut at an angle down and under the clump from various points around the outer edge until you can lever the plant out of the hole. For large, heavy plants, you may have to first dig the trench, and then slice straight down through the center of the plant as if it was a pie, halving or quartering the clump before under­cutting and lifting it.

If you find that you will be moving perennials when it’s hot and sunny, anticipate the potential for excessive transplant shock and protect your plants from too much sunlight, heat and wind until they are established.

Trees and shrubs grow roots beyond what can be realistically moved. To prepare hardwoods for transplanting, and develop new roots in a smaller area, they need to be root pruned. Established trees and shrubs—I’m talking bigger than the potted ones from big box stores—to be moved in the autumn should be root pruned in March. If you know which mature hardwood you want to move, tag it now to be pruned early spring and moved next October. Clemson University has an excellent article on transplanting established trees and shrubs.

I check the weather report for the week following an anticipated transplanting date, and look for a day of rainy, at least cloudy, weather. I will transplant late afternoon the day before a rain. The rains will take the place of hand watering and the high humidity will reduce the stress on the plant, and allows roots to set well in damp soil.

Plan ahead for moving plants, prepare and be attentive after the uprooting. After the wilt, new buds will emerge!

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Forcing Bulbs for Preseason Color, Practical Gardening

file0002136272075When I plant containers of bulbs in the fall, I am thinking about the color they will bring indoors during late winter days or as outdoor focal points early next spring.

To force a bulb means that you are manipulating its environment so that it will bloom out of season. Before spring flowering bulbs can be forced to flower in a container, they require a cold period of 12-15 weeks at temperatures between 38°-48°. This allows production of a good root system. A spare refrigerator is excellent for chilling the potted bulbs.  I have even used my basement window wells and covered the pots with a heavy layer of straw…much to the delight of the field mice!

Paperwhite Narcissus and Amaryllis do not need to be cooled when you buy them. They have already been prepped for forcing by the supplier. Plant them as directed, set them in a sunny location, and let nature take its course. Paperwhites can also be grown in water, much like hyacinths.

Hyacinth bulbs are first chilled in a doubled paper bag for 13 weeks and then set in a special water vase to grow; the basal plate of the bulb must touch the water for the roots to start developing. To prevent diseases, Hyacinth bulbs are treated with an agent that will irritate skin. Be sure to wear thin plastic gloves and wash after handling.

Forcing spring bulbs in a container is simple. Select a container from 6-24” wide with good drainage. Fill 2/3rd full with a good potting mix; do not use garden soil or fertilizer. Plant the bulbs so they almost touch each other and cover with more potting mix, leaving about a half an inch from the top. Tag your pot with start date and cultivar. Water the container and place it in a cold (38°-48°) dark location for the duration. Check it periodically to be sure the mix has remained damp, but not wet. Too wet and the bulbs will rot.

If you have a beautiful container or basket you want to use when your bulbs start blooming, find a plastic pot that will fit inside it. Plant and chill the bulbs in this plastic pot. When the time is right, place the pot with a saucer inside the container and set in a sunny location

The number of bulbs for a 6” pot: narcissus, 3 large bulbs and up to 6 if smaller bulbs are being used; paperwhites or tulips, 5-6; hyacinths, 3; minor bulbs like muscari or crocus, 12-15.

For a 24” pot and using a single kind of bulb you will need up to 50 tulips or smaller narcissus, or 30 of the larger flowering narcissus, and possibly 80-100 of the minor bulbs.

When using one kind of bulb per container, create several containers with staggered blooming periods. You can also plant an assortment of bulbs in one larger container but be sure they have the same bloom period. When using an assortment of bulbs, plan on layering them in the container. Plant the larger bulbs deeper and first, add potting mix and then place the next layer of bulbs on top and add more mix. End with the minor bulbs planted closer to the edges, keeping mix a half inch from top.

As time draws near for removing your containers from the cold treatment, you may see pale whitish tips emerging. This is the start of your bulbs, and once placed in the light, they will soon begin photosynthesis and turn green. It won’t be much longer and your blooms will emerge for the long awaited color!


Big Difference in Naturalizing and Perennializing Bulbs, Practical Gardening


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Well, autumn is upon us and it’s nearly time for planting spring bulbs.

Let’s start this column with definitions that will help you get a handle on nomenclature: True bulbs contain their leaves and flowering parts inside. These include tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Corms carry their leaf parts on the outside to support interior bud development and include crocuses and gladiolas. Rhizomes like Canna lilies and iris form leaves and buds from a growing end or tip. Tubers, like potatoes, have “eyes” that develop roots, leaves, and flowers and include dahlias, anemones and ranunculus.

For the purpose of brevity, I will group all of these together and call them bulbs. From last week’s column, you learned about tender bulbs that are not winter hardy in our Zone 5. This second column on bulbs (with a third one next week) discusses hardy bulbs that spread.

There is a difference between naturalizing bulbs and perennializing bulbs—especially when talking about tulips. A naturalizing bulb will return year after year and multiplies, spreading out into the garden. A perennializing bulb grows and blooms for a few years with the bulb possibly increasing in size but not spreading.

Most hybrid tulips are perennializers—note that, perennializers. They look amazing for maybe two of years and then you are left with only leaves.

Species or botanical tulips, including Tulipa bakeri (aka saxatillis), T. batalinii, T. clusiana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii, T. humilis (adorabvle!), T. kaufmanniana are excellent candidates for naturalizing as are Darwin Hybrids. Some cultivars have mottled or variegated leaves, others have bi-colored blooms, and range in height from a demure 12” greigii to the sturdy 24” Darwins. I’m partial to the spreading T. greigii because of their adorable leaves and their ability to hold their petals longer on wide flowering faces.

Nearly all cultivars of Narcissus are naturalizers. Dwarf and species daffodils are excellent for rock garden because they are often more petite; Tete-a-Tete looks like its larger yellow cousins, and Minnow, my favorite of the dwarfs, is a dainty multi-blossom white with a yellow corolla.

Another good bulb for use in rock gardens is the species crocus. It and the Dutch crocus will both naturalize easily. Other smaller bulbs that will spread, and sometimes quickly, are: Glory-of-the-snow, Chinodoxa; Snowdrops, Galanthus; Summer Snowflake, Leaucojum; Grape Hyacinth, Muscari, and Wood Hyacinth, Scillia; and the precious Star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum.

I love the looks of a grassy area dappled in these smaller spring bulbs. My grandmother’s front lawn was planted this way. If you have a lawn that you do not treat with weed-and-feed, try growing these harbingers of spring. Mow your lawn really short late in the autumn, and then plant groups of bulbs according to directions. After they have flowered in the spring, wait as long as possible to mow again, or do as grandpa use to—mow around the small clumps for a while so the leaves have a chance to nourish the bulbs.

Van Bloem Gardens, a Dutch supplier, recommends that naturalized plantings should blend in with the existing landscape and mimic nature. To achieve this, lay out your planting areas so they follow the contours of your land and be generous with the size of the areas to be planted. The impact of your planting will be much greater if you have several large areas of naturalized bulbs than if you have lots of small areas. Naturalized plantings look best when they are planted densely in the center then feather out to fewer bulbs at the edges of the planting. And finally, swaths of one solid color generally have greater visual appeal than drifts of mixed colors.


Storing Tender Bulbs, Practical Gardening

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Each year I would plant a few tender bulbs for their summer blooms or dramatic leaves. They are a wonderful addition to the home garden.

The term tender bulb refers to bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes that will be winter killed by our Zone 5 winters. These tender bulbs need to be removed from the ground before winter sets in. A few of the more commonly grown tender bulbs are Canna, Tuberous Begonia, Gladiolus, Caladium, Belladonna Lilies, Elephant Ears, and Crocosmia.

Most tender bulbs are dug after the first frost has killed the tops and temperatures have not dropped enough to freeze the ground. Others such as Belladonna Lilies, Caladiums, Elephant Ears (Alocasia and Colocasia), and Callas, are removed before air temperatures regularly drop below 45 degrees.

Start by gathering containers to hold your bulbs as you dig them. I tag each container with the name of the bulbs and color, reusing this tag for final storage. The thin plastic slats of an old venetian blind work perfectly and are easily cut to size. Use a permanent marker for writing.

Lift bulbs carefully using a spading fork. Loosen the soil by working around all sides of the bulb, giving it a wide berth to avoid damage to the root structure. When you remove the bulb from the ground, gently loosen or shake off excess soil. Cut off the tops to within an inch of the bulb, and place it in the container with its tag.

Cleaning comes next. An easy method that keeps things relatively clean and saves my back is to lay a large piece of hardware cloth over the top of an empty garbage can. Put the bulbs on top and gently hose them off; the water and soil fall into the can. This set-up is located beside the compost pile—periodically tip the garbage can with its soil and water into the heap. With Gladiolus, break off and retain new fleshy corms from the older corm, and discard the older into the compost as well.

To cure the bulbs and allow them to dry, spread them out in a single layer in a shady location where there is good air movement. A mesh top patio table is perfect because air can circulate underneath the bulbs. Let them cure for a day or two. Protect them from frost during this time.

Before storing, inspect bulbs for damage. It is good practice to dust the bulbs with an insecticidal fungicide before storing. Read the package label to be sure it will work for your bulbs.

Storing Gladiolus and similar corms is little different. They will need to dry for about three weeks. Afterwards, store them in a paper bag in a cool dry environment.

Most other tender bulbs are stored in open containers, covered in vermiculite (my favorite) or sphagnum peat and stored in the dark at around 45-50 degrees. The area must also be low in humidity and free of ethylene gas produced by apples and other fruits.

Because tender bulbs in storage are still living things, you will need to inspect them periodically during the hibernation period. If bulbs look like they are shriveling, mist lightly. Remove those that look diseased and cut away soft rotting sections from fleshy tubers.

For more information on specific bulbs and storage requirements, see the extension bulletin Storing Tender Bulbs and Bulb Like Structures” printed by University of Minnesota Extension.