Natalie Goldberg, author of the groundbreaking writing book Writing Down the Bones, says writers need to see and describe negative spaces–what is not obviously present in a scene, the spaces in between what is there. Often, she says, that is where the meaning is. I thought about Goldberg’s negative space idea after my gardening flurry on Saturday. In addition to planting bulbs, I moved some hostas from my shady bed to a spot underneath the stairs that lead from our deck to the yard. This spot is hard to mow and shady, the perfect spot for some low-maintenance hostas. In another bed, I removed the diseased aster I wrote about in an earlier post.
Sunday morning, I was looking out at the back yard when I noticed how much better both of those beds looked. Removing the plants made the beds look neater, more pulled together, more like they had actually been designed as opposed to just planted. The spaces where the plants had been gave the eye a spot to rest. Removing the aster also created a space through which we can view a statue of St. Francis that we put in the garden last year. In many cases, less really is more.
That was the headline for an article on minor bulbs from the September/October 2006 issue of Northern Gardener. In the article, Mary Henry and Margaret Purcell recommend that gardeners get beyond the daffodil and tulip and plant some of the lesser-known, spring-blooming bulbs. I took their advice this weekend and planted 80 squill (Scilla siberica) along with two different types of allium for a total of 157 bulbs. Mary and Margaret have only three rules for bulb planting: plant lots of them, plant them in drifts or large groups, and limit the colors to no more than two.
Squill is an early bulb, which will bloom about the same time as hyacinths. It grows 6 to 10 inches tall and its blooms generally are a bluish purple. I bought some of the purple, but mixed them with a white variety called ‘Alba’. Squill are supposed to be excellent bulbs for naturalizing in a lawn. We have a few patches of lawn with brown spots so that seemed a good place to naturalize the bulbs. I used the “toss and plant” method, in which you throw the bulbs on the area you want to cover and then plant them where they land. Other than having to convince my dog, Lily, that bulbs were not toys or dog treats, it was a fun way to plant and much easier than trying to place the bulbs just-so.
I bought a bulb planter to make the process easier, but as I was working, my neighbor offered the use of his portable auger. What a slick deal! The auger has a power pack like a portable drill and a 3-foot-long, drill-like attachment. You just squeeze the trigger and it bores into the ground.
After planting the squill, I placed 32 Purple Sensation allium (Allium aflatuense ‘Purple Sensation’) in the flower bed near the front entry. (The photo is from the White Flower Farm web site.) I planted them in two drifts about 8 feet apart. These grow to 3 or 4 feet in height with blooms about 5-inches across. These bloom later in the spring, around the same time as late daffodils and tulips. Finally, I put about 45 small allium (A. moly) in one of the back beds. These are short allium, less than a foot in height, with smaller flower balls. They are in the same bed as several lilac bushes and will be a nice touch of color under the bushes, which should bloom about the same time. Minor bulbs are not available at every big-box or garden center. I found mine at Farmer Seed and Nursery in Faribault. Squire House Gardens in Afton is also known for a great selection of unusual bulbs.
It has often been said that planting bulbs in the fall is an act of hope. That’s true enough, but it’s also an act of desperation. I planted those bulbs yesterday in beautiful weather. Today, it’s cold, wet, and dark. Planting bulbs is a way to resist winter with a very spring-like act–planting.
I cannot remember a more wonderful day for gardening than today. Temperatures were in the 60s most of the afternoon, sun shining, just a slight breeze–perfection!
The favorable weather led to much activity, too. My teenage daughter mowed the lawn. My husband trimmed some trees. I planted 157 bulbs, moved a couple of perennials to better spots, and did some fall garden maintenance. Gardeners in the north know they cannot waste wonderful days like today. I hope you enjoyed it, too!
I have just dodged a garden bullet. Earlier this week, I wandered into a nursery having a big plant sale. I was specifically looking for a plant with variegated foliage to brighten up one of my backyard beds. This has been a difficult bed to make attractive. It has too many shrubs in it, the light is a mixed–deep shade in the morning, then full sun in the afternoon, then more shade. It has also been the scene of many battles between me and a particularly wily gopher. Too many smoke bombs have been set off beneath this bed’s soil, and it shows. A small digression: In battling gophers, forget about smoke bombs and poisons; instead, find yourself a neighbor who can shoot a BB gun or set traps, or learn to do it yourself.
Two years ago, I planted Lamium ‘White Nancy’, a pretty green and white groundcover in this bed. It has slowly spread, and it really lights up an otherwise drab area. I wanted something like that. In the nursery, I spotted a large selection of a pale green and white plant. It looked particularly healthy for so late in the season, with a mass of 6-inch tall stems with leaves on top as well as a few poking out of the holes of the pot. I liked the name, Snow on the Mountain, and picked up three pots. When checking out, I asked the clerk if the plant could handle significant sun. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said, “This plant can handle just about anything.” Do you think she was trying to tell me something?
Before planting, I decided to get some information on my lovely new plant so I could share it in this blog. Good thing, too, because I had just purchased a plant that is considered invasive in Wisconsin and a little dangerous everywhere else. Snow on the Mountain (Aegopodium Podagraria ‘variegata’ ) is also called Bishop’s weed or goutweed and is a useful for covering big areas that won’t support much else, such as under trees. It’s also good in contained planters, such as these shown on the U of M’s web site. But for most gardeners it’s just too hardy and getting rid of it is darn near impossible.
For now, the potential invaders are sitting in their pots outside my garage–where new sprouts are popping out of the pot holes everyday. Next time, I’ll do my research before going to the nursery.
It is so cold and windy today that I couldn’t get an in-focus picture of the pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) in my front bed. Here it is Oct. 9, and this plant is finally starting to bloom. Pineapple sage is a fall bloomer, but this one took a very long time to show any color. I’m not sure why, except that the start I planted last May or early June came from a supplier whose plants all took a long time to get going in the garden. (A tomato from the same company never did ripen fruit on the vine, though I have a few tomatoes ripening on the kitchen counter now.) Searching the internet for the name on the plant label, it comes up with nothing. Clearly, the label is just that–a label for plants grown by a mystery company. Several garden center owners have told me that many plants travel long distances in the spring, so it may be that my pineapple sage grew up down south and just couldn’t take it when it got to Minnesota. It’s a good reason to buy from local sources so you know where the plants were started.
Pineapple sage is a lovely plant. It’s a zone 8 perennial, but many people grow it as an annual in northern climates. The leaves have a rich, pineapple aroma, and some people make a tea with them. The bright red, trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, though not on a day like today. It is said to take-root easily from a cutting, so I may try to overwinter some in my house and try again next year.
I stole this fall decorating idea from an item I saw in the most recent Gardener’s Supply catalog. The catalog was selling a ceramic, pumpkin-shaped pot to display fall-blooming plants. Very cute, but why not use a real pumpkin? The pots start at $19.95 (not bad, considering how expensive pots are) but my three pumpkins each cost $3 at the Bridgewater Produce stand outside of Northfield. I’ve been wanting to add some grasses to the area near my wildflowers, so I bought this nice grass at Knechts. I picked up an inexpensive mum at the farmer’s market and dug up a pretty purple petunia from my front bed.
I cut the tops off the pumpkins and slashed a couple of cuts in the bottom for drainage, cleaned out the seeds, added a little potting soil, and pushed the plants into their new home. I’ll find a place for the grass and mum in my gardens in a few weeks, and the petunias will go in the compost pile. My only concern for the planters is that the pumpkins will rot and cause some damage to the roots of the plants. We’ll see. For even better fall decorating suggestions, consider taking a class at MSHS. There’s one tomorrow on Winning Combinations with Ornamental Grasses, taught by the U’s grass guru, Mary Meyer, and one this Saturday on Gourd Crafts for Kids, taught by Marty Bergland of Heirloom House MN. The grass class is at the Bachman’s store on Lyndale Avenue and the gourd class is at Nathes 101 Market in Otsego.
Recently, I’ve read several garden writers rant against morning glories. These annual vines are easy to grow–and grow and grow. They reseed spectacularly, especially the popular old-fashioned variety called Grandpa Otts. It’s the purple one in the first picture. This variety essentially started Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa supplier of heirloom seeds. I planted Grandpa Otts once about six years ago, and I admit, he has become something of a weed in my front garden bed. About halfway through this past August, Grandpa had a stranglehold on my phlox, a pineapple sage, and an old-fashioned rose, and it took some tugging to get him off.
But this is a defense of morning glories. Despite their tendency to spread and reseed, I love morning glories. First, they are climbers, so they help bring height to the garden, as long as you give them something to climb. They’re pretty, too. They come in lots of colors and they bloom from about mid-July through the first killer frost. On cloudy days, like today, the flowers bloom all day rather than just in the morning. I even like the big, heart-shaped leaves that can cover a wall or climbing apparatus. The tubular shaped flower attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators as well. Just yesterday, I saw an amazing creature buzzing in and out of the morning glories, its wings a blur. At first, I thought it was a hummingbird, but it seemed like one brave bird to be gathering nectar with me and my dog, Lily, only a few feet away. A little research showed that it probably is a hummingbird moth. Still a fascinating sight.
This year, I planted Heavenly Blue morning glory (right) near a tall wrought iron ornament in the front bed. The moonflower I planted with it for night effect died but the morning glory now covers the ornament, which is five feet tall. In the morning, when I get the paper, it’s covered with light blue flowers–with a few dark purple Grandpa Otts in there, too. It sounds hokey, but it’s a cheerful plant, the kind I’m happy to have in my garden.