Three Gifts Especially for Northern Gardeners

Tis the season for lists of gifts for gardeners. There are lots of tools and books that make great gifts, but for cold-climate gardeners, you have some special choices.

Here are three any northern gardener would love.

A Mosquito-Proof Jumpsuit

mosquito jumpsuit gift
Photo courtesy of Meshed. Jumpsuits fit intentionally lose.

I was the lucky winner of this mosquito-proof jumpsuit from Meshed at the Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, in May. The suit is made of a mesh material and is designed as a nontoxic way to keep mosquitoes, ticks and other nasties off your skin while gardening or in the outdoors. The suit fits loosely but snugs up against the wrist and ankles. The loose fit is intentional, and the suit can be used by pregnant women, as in the photo. Obviously, if you are going to be outside in the woods or garden in Minnesota, you want to add socks and shoes to your ensemble. Disclaimer: I did not get as much of a chance to test out the suit this summer as I had hoped. My new urban garden has fewer bugs than the one I had in rural Minnesota so I did not use the suit much. Still, this is a great idea, and if you are haunted by ticks or mosquitoes on your property, it would certainly be worth a try.

An Ice Scraper

The year my husband gave me a long-handled ice-scraper and chopper for Christmas, our daughters groaned. Really, can you get any less romantic? I had requested the scraper and I use it proudly still, though it’s now more than 20 years old. If you garden in the North, you likely have ice  and  hard-pack snow — on your sidewalk, your driveway, paths you want to keep open — and nothing is as good at removing snow and ice as a long-handled scraper/chopper. Using a scraper will keep your walks clear of ice and safer to walk on, as well as reducing the need for deicer, which can be harmful to gardens. Scraping up ice is also a great way to work out your aggressions about why winter is lasting so darn long!

apricot amaryllis in bloom gift
Amaryllis are easy to grow and bring a lot of joy to the cooped up gardener.

Something to Cheer Them Up

The holidays are wonderful, but those long dark days of December and January can be a real drag on gardeners. So give a gift that cheers them up. An amaryllis bulb in a decorative pot will grow and bloom for several weeks. A less-expected gift would be some new seed-starting equipment. I love the four-bulb shoplight I got last year — much better than a two-bulber for starting seeds. Or, how about this greenhouse ornament? That’s something a gardener could wish upon during December.

And, of course, you could always get them a book.

Happy Holidays!


Amaryllis in the Morning

'Exotica' amaryllis
‘Exotica’ amaryllis

I’ve been the recipient of several homeless houseplants over the past couple of years, so I’m hesitant to add too many more to my collection. But when the folks at Longfield Gardens offered me (and several other garden writers) a free amaryllis kit this fall, I was happy to give it a try, and am surprised by how truly stunning the amaryllis is turning out to be.

The kit came with a whopping big bulb, a cute tin container, some soil, mulch and instructions. Back in November, the kit arrived, and I potted it up on Nov. 17. Per the instructions, I gave it a pretty thorough watering, and that was probably the last time I watered it. In a few weeks, the bloom stalk appeared and it grew so fast that I started to measure it. One day it was 11 inches, then 12-1/2, then 17. It topped out at just over 20 inches without the blooms.

amaryllis plantI was hoping the bulb would bloom in time for Christmas, but it started blooming about a week later. The bulb was located in my kitchen sink window, which is the sunniest spot I have in December, but possibly not as warm as the bulb would have liked.

The blooms are a delicate cream color with streaks of yellow and apricot. I’ve been posting a few shots on Instagram and it’s fun to see how the Instagram filters change the look of the bulb. (The photo above is without any filtering.)

The blooms should last another week or so. There’s also a second stalk coming off the bulb which looks like it will bloom after this one fades. You can keep amaryllis bulbs for use the next winter. This involves removing the flower stalks and setting the bulb and its leaves in a sunny spot over the winter before moving it outside in the summer to build up the nutrition the bulb needs to bloom again.

For more information about forcing bulbs, check out the November/December 2014 issue of Northern Gardener. There is a fine article by Margaret Haapoja on which bulbs to force into bloom and how to do it.


Plant Crocus for Early Bees

It was so exciting to see a trio of bees really working over the crocus in my front yard this afternoon. Other bees were gathering pollen from my neighbor’s patch of crocus. If you blow up the more horizontal picture below, you can see the bee’s back covered in pollen.

Crocus are one of the best bulbs to plant in the North because they bloom early and provide food for bees when very little else is around.

Way Ahead of Schedule

yellow and orange tulips
Tulips bloomed early in 2010.

The tulips in front of my house are in full bloom today — about three weeks to a month earlier than previous years. In 2009, I wrote about these on May 13, and commented that they had lingered longer than usual due to cool wet weather. On the same date in 2008, the blog noted that the purple tulips at the back of this photo were opening up.

blue and white scilla
Scilla or squill is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom in Minnesota.

Here it is April 15, and the full regalia of tulips are blooming. The squill (Scilla) that are among the earliest blooms in my yard have bloomed and faded. (The picture at right was taken almost a week ago.) Friends have commented that their crocus are done already and my next door neighbor’s azaleas are opening up. Magnolias all around town are in bloom. In back, the fritillaria look dainty and lovely. In 2009, these were in bloom around May 5.

Our “perfect” winter ended abruptly in mid-March, but it seems dicey to go ahead with spring planting because we are still a month from the last frost date for this area. I have planted some cool weather crops, of course, but am wondering: Has anyone taken the plunge and planted the rest of their garden in anticipation of no more frosts or cold weather? Who is a garden gambler? And, what have you done?

Allium is a Bee Magnet

allium with bee
This allium is one of many that attract bees and other pollinators.

I like to plant flowers that attract wildlife to the yard: bees, birds, butterflies. Seeing butterflies dance on top of a coneflower or watching a bird as it works diligently to remove a seed from a dried sunflower increases my appreciation for nature and — not to sound too sappy — life itself. So, discovering a plant that attracts wildlife far beyond expectations is a great pleasure. That’s been my reaction to this ornamental onion (Allium spaerocephalon) that I planted last fall. I’ve got clumps of it in three areas of the front yard, and not only is it a particularly handsome plant, but it’s a positive bee magnet.

This bulb comes up in early to midsumer, long after tulips and daffodils are done. The tight flowerheads are shaped like an elongated sphere. They start out a bright green, but as the flowers open and spread, the color goes purple. Once it’s fully open, watch out — here come the bees! Yesterday, I found no fewer than a dozen bees buzzing around, gathering nectar from one of the clumps. Chives, another member of the allium family, is often suggested for attracting pollinators, but this allium seems to pull in many more bees than the chives I have. (Besides, chives are pretty invasive.) Allium spaerocephalon is recommended for rock gardens, borders, woodlands and the area between trees and shrubs. It makes a pretty cut flower, too, but why deprive the bees?

Another Bulb in Bloom

Iris reticulata in bloom
Iris reticulata is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom in northern gardens.

These sweet little Iris reticulata are the second bulb to bloom in my yard this year. They surprised me a couple of days ago because — as has happened before — I forgot I planted them. Like the squill that are also blooming, the plants are small (the iris flowers are disproportionately large) and you have to be standing close to them to notice them at all. For the photo, I was crouched way down on the sidewalk. The crocus I planted last fall have foliage but no blooms yet, though my neighbor who has an impressive bulb display every year has both crocus and diminutive daffodils in bloom. Whatever their size, the blooms are most welcome this time of year. Now, if we could just get some rain…..

Thank You for Blooming

img_4627I’m feeling grateful toward this pot of forced tulip bulbs that has started to bloom despite being terribly mistreated this winter.

Forcing bulbs or branches is a fun way to bring spring color into your home while it’s still cold outside. I wasn’t planning to force bulbs this year, but while planting bulbs this fall, I put a bag of them on the shelf in the garage and promptly forgot about them. Round about January, I discovered the bag. Not wanting to pitch them, I decided to try forcing. So, I planted them in some soil and put the pot in a box back in the garage where I once again forgot about it. I remembered that there were bulbs in that box about three weeks ago and brought them into the house, first in the cool part of the basement, and then the sunny ledge in the kitchen, watered them a bit, and am being rewarded (most undeservedly) with pretty yellow blooms.

Generally, forced bulbs are planted in fall and put in a place cool (recommended temperatures are 35 to 50 F) for 10 to 14 weeks, then brought into a warmer place to bloom.  Well, my garage was a whole lot colder than 35 F during much of this long, harsh winter and those bulbs sat out there with and without soil about five months, so it’s a testament to the hardiness of bulbs that they bloomed at all. I can hardly wait until the outside bulbs start blooming!

A Quick Way to Plant Bulbs

It’s not too late to plant bulbs for spring blooming. With some help from my 16-year-old, I put more than 100 in last Saturday, and we plan to plant a few more over the MEA Weekend. One reason we planted so many is that the tulips I planted about 8 years ago have pooped out. Unlike daffodils and some of the minor bulbs that naturalize, tulips lose their flower power after awhile. Some gardeners even view them as annuals and replace them every year. I’m not willing to do that, since bulbs can be pricey, especially the bigger (and in bulbs, bigger is better) bulbs.

We needed to plant bulbs in the front yard garden I put in this year, which is another reason for the large number to be planted. Bulbs give an early blast of color, which is so welcome after a long winter.

grape hyacinth in bloom
Plant lots of bulbs for lots of bloom. These are grape hyacinth.

To create impact, we planted the bulbs in groups of 20 in four spots in the front bed. This was relatively easy to do. Using a spade, I pushed the mulch aside and dug a wide hole the appropriate depth in each area. I put the dirt in a bucket so it was easy to add back. Then, my daughter moved in and placed the bulbs in a random group with appropriate spacing, added the dirt back, and pushed the mulch back in place. While she was placing and planting, I was digging the next hole. In about 45 minutes, we planted 40 Allium caeruleum, a 16-inch, blue allium that will complement the large alliums I planted in the front door bed, which bloom about the same time. We also planted 20 crocus Grand Maitre for early spring bloom, and 30 grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum), which bloom in mid spring.

In the bed near the front door, we’re planting about 50 tulips as well as 60 Allium sphaerocephalon, which has the wonderful common name of drumstick allium. It’s also a later blooming bulb. I have one problem with the tulips, however. I purchased them from the bins at Farmer’s Seed and Nursery in Faribault, and oops, I forgot to write on the bags which is which. I have 25 yellow ones (Daydream) and 25 purple ones, and it’ll be spring by the time I figure out which are planted where. Ah well, spring is a good time for surprises.

‘Mona Lisa’ Smells

Not the bad kind. The good kind–the kind you smell walking on the lakeshore on breezy day, putting your nose close to a baby’s head after a bath, the kind from flowers you love.

Pink lilies in container
Lilies can grow in containers. Mona Lisa is a tough, pretty and fragrant cultivar.

Lilies are new to my garden this year, and I am awfully glad I picked up these Mona Lisa lilies (Lillium ‘Mona Lisa’) at the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show in February. Per instructions from the MSHS experts selling the bulbs, I stored them in the vegetable bin of my refrigerator until spring. I planted these, perhaps a bit early, in May. Three of the bulbs are in a pot, two in the ground. Today all of them are blooming. While I caught a little scent outside, they are reputed to have a lovely fragrance, so I picked one fresh bloom and put it in a vase in the house. The fragrance is noticeable, but not overpowering, very floral and rich.

Lilies are not tough to grow. The bulbs can stay in the ground outside through the winter. I’ll move the ones from the pot to the ground after they finish blooming, although this Oriental hybrid does well in a pot. (The potted lilies are taller than the ones in the ground.) Lilies should last many years in the garden and spread a bit as they get established. I’m looking forward to many years of ‘Mona Lisa’ smells.

Allium and Plant Architecture

purple flower about to bloom
About to open

The ‘Purple Sensation’ allium has such interesting architecture. Each little blossom in the bulb seems to be held on a stick, radiating from the flower’s center. Each blossom is a tiny daisy, and watching them emerge in mid-spring is a joy. They start out as tight little balls.

allium about to bloom
Getting closer

Then as the bloom opens more fully you can see the tiny flowers.

purple sensation allium
A fully open ‘Purple Sensation’ allium

Then, voila, the plant is fully open, a round ball of purple standing tall in the garden.

The intricacy of plants continues to leave me in awe.