Sunday, October 19, 2014


     While my crew was planting shrubs in a client's back yard, a crew of interlopers showed up to install their own landscape  plan in the front. Imagine my dismay!

     Using a unique business plan, these landscape pirates did not charge for installing their plan. Instead, they demanded a "donation" to remove their work, and you get to pick the next victim.

     The rapscallions responsible turned out  to be kids from the Beverly Unitarian Church on a fund drive. My attorney cautioned me against a lawsuit. He told  me this meant issues of church and state and I would  probably be in litigation for 10 years or more. He advised me to do nothing -- and to avoid mentioning my address.

     I wish them luck -- in yards other than my own.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Early Crocus

     Now is the time to buy and plant spring-flowering bulbs. There are thousands of bulbs blooming at all times of the year. I am referring to the ones we know best -- those  hardy bulbs that need a dormant period in cold weather to prepare for flowering.

     Bulbs can provide some of the earliest signs of  spring. After an endless and dreary February, there is nothing more heartening than the the first appearance of a snowdrop or crocus -- even when it is popping out of the snow.

     For  many, "bulb" conjures up an image of tulips. Tulips have been called  "the king of flowers," and they are  spectacular. But they are not necessarily the best pick for home gardeners. For one thing, squirrels love tulip bulbs. Many a tulip bed  I have known was lovingly planted only to disappear overnight. Some of us over-lay the beds with staked-down mesh and then take it up in the spring. This can be effective but can also be a lot of extra work.

Gorgeous, but a lot of work.

     Tulips demand regular fertilization and even then tend to become  less productive over time until they stop flowering altogether. Many large institutions that plant tulip beds have given up on maintaining them and simply treat  them as annuals, planting anew  every fall.

     I prefer the bulb that requires as little of my labor as possible. Most of my favorites "naturalize," meaning they survive and reproduce naturally without any effort on my part. Plant them once and you are done.


     The first bulbs to appear around here are Galanthus, or Snowdrops. Every spring these stubborn little  plants pop up early, get  buried in snow,  and then pop  up again. A real morale booster.

     They are  followed  by Crocus and Scilla in April. Like Galanthus, they "naturalize" and the small size of the leaves allows  them to be planted directly in the lawn. Their flowers are done by the time you need to get  out your mower. And if you mow  as high  as you should anyway, there will be enough leaf left  to restore the bulb.

Crocus sieberiTricolor

That haunting blue color up and down Longwood
 in spring comes  from naturalized Scilla. 

     Also blooming in April are naturalizers Muscari (or Grape Hyacinth) and Narcissus. These grow too tall for the lawn but do wonders in beds or other un-cut areas of the yard.  Narcissus come in a variety of names, including "Daffodils" and "Jonquils," and many different sizes and shapes. They give you a thousand varieties of white and yellow blossoms.

Muscari aucheri

    Bulbs are best purchased from mail order companies that specialize in bulbs. The time to order is about now. You will  still  get your bulbs in time to plant them. Don't be bashful. Indoors, a single flower  can make a statement on your dining table. Outdoors the same flower is utterly lost and beneath notice. Don't even think about buying less than 100 bulbs.

     Follow the instructions that come with your order as to depth and spacing. The soil temperature should be below 55 degrees but above 32 -- refrigerator temperature. Bulbs like well drained soil with a neutral PH. If you need to, you can do a little soil preparation while your bulbs are in the tender clutches of UPS.

Narcissus mix

     When you plant do not add fertilizer, but do water thoroughly.  After the ground surface freezes you can add a layer  of mulch.

     Finally, keep in mind that after the flowers are spent next spring, larger bulbs will leave a tangle of unsightly foliage. Resist the temptation to cut this down. The leaves collect the sun's energy to restock the bulb for next year's bloom. It is best to plan your bulb patch  to be just behind some perennials. The perennials will be barely visible when the bulbs are in their glory, but will grow to screen the scraggly foliage once the flowers are gone.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

October Planting

     The first leaves began to fall last week and we had about a week to enjoy them before our first rain. Heavily wooded Beverly is a lovely Chicago neighborhood in fall, and I try to find time to walk about in it watching the leaves change one species at a time. This is a time when delayed gratification does not work. If you wait, it will  rain again, so enjoy today's leaves before you worry about disposing of yesterday's.

     While everyone knows about clean-up in autumn, surprisingly few take advantage of the season to plant. Fall is actually a better time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials than is spring. The soil is warmer in the first part of autumn than it is in April, and as the top of the plant begins to go dormant, its energy can focus on its roots. Seasonal rains and lower temperatures also assure the new plant of a decent water supply. Spring plantings, in contrast, try to put on shoot and leaf growth before roots have had a chance to get going. The plant can easily confront hot temperatures  and dry weather before its roots are established.

     The only real disadvantage of autumn is that nurseries let their stock dwindle away. They don't want to have to over-winter their excess stock. So choices tend to  be more  limited while prices tend to drop.

     My rule of thumb is that you can plant perennials as long as you can recognize what is in the pot, and you can plant trees and shrubs as long as you can get your shovel in the ground. In this case, delayed gratification is definitely the right course to take.

     If Autumn is a good time to plant shrubs and perennials, it is the essential time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. They have to go through a dormant period before they can flower. That means they have to be planted just before winter arrives. And that means you should order and plant 2015's bulbs in the next month. More on this next time.

Crocus bulbs