It’s Never Too Late Until It’s Too Late

Last fall a friend mentioned wanting a few colchicums.  Normally I forget these things in the flurry of summer, but during a moment of sitting around laziness I asked if they still wanted to give them a try.  ‘Yes’ was the response, so with my word on the line I put down the drink and picked up the garden fork.

colchicum bulb

Colchicum corms.  These Colchicum byzantinum are some of the biggest I’ve seen, but word is they do that.  

Now is when you want to think about things like colchicums.  They’ll be flowering in another month and by the time you run them down and get them to your doorstep you’ll be cutting it close if you don’t get moving now.  More punctual gardeners have already done this last month, but I’m here to say you can still get it done.  I might have just gotten it done.  Maybe last week I ordered more even though I should have enough, I guess the next budget confession will tell…

colchicum bornmuelleri

Colchicum bornmuelleri flowering last September

I’ve posted on colchicums before and you’re more than welcome to look back on last September or do a search, but if you’re really serious give Cold Climate Gardening a visit.  Kathy Purdy is practically the Queen of Colchicums and her blog is an excellent resource for getting to know more about them.

In the meantime though, I suggest you think about snowdrops for a minute.  Last Wednesday Edgewood Gardens of Exton Pa sent out their bulb list, and since I of course already secured my order by Wednesday night, I thought now might be the time to generously offer others the chance as well.  To do so email Dr. John Lonsdale at info@edgewoodgardens.net for the list.  Even if you don’t buy, it’s still fun to see drops which have recently gone well over $1,500 a piece on Ebay offered for their first US sale… for a much lower price thank goodness.

garden snowdrops

I saw ‘Bill Bishop’ offered.  Here it is at center showing off its big fat flowers.

Just for the record, even though snowdrop purchases are exempt from budget reporting I did not try to order any of the $300 snowdrops.  I had a moment of fantasy while thinking about it, and they likely sold out during that moment, but until the kids stop requiring billions of dollars for back to school items I don’t think I’ll take that leap.

Have a great weekend regardless of where your budget takes you 🙂

Thursday’s Feature: Colchicums!

As one considers the winding down of summer and the general decay of the growing season… as I suppose one should on this first day of autumn… there do seem to be a few positive notes which make the changing of the seasons more bearable.  While other things die or flee in response to cooler temperatures and weakened sunshine, a few plants spring to life, and if you count yourself among the optimists you could almost consider this to be the start of a new growing season with flushes of new foliage for the cooler weather, healthy root growth and spring buds forming below ground, and the first of the autumn flowers.  “Good for you” I say since I am not a lover of fall and its frosty death, but even I will admit colchicums make it easier to cope, and the fresh blooms at this time of year make it all seem a little less final.

With those cheery thoughts in mind I’m again joining Kimberley at Cosmos and Cleome for her Thursday Feature, and the flowers of the autumn crocus or naked ladies (Colchicums) are what stand out in my garden this week.

colchicum nancy lindsay

A reliable Colchicum with smaller flowers and colored flower stems, Colchicum ‘Nancy Lindsay’ would be on the short list of favorites.

As a good blogger I should take this opportunity to discuss the various details of researched growing conditions and also cover the finer points of colchicum cultivation but as you may have already guessed from previous posts I bore easily and tend to laziness, so to be honest I’d recommend getting that book learnin’ elsewhere.  I’m more of a stick it in the ground and see if it grows kind of guy, so if you don’t mind, click on >this link< and you’ll find a few of Kathy’s posts over at Cold Climate Gardening which should do very nicely to fill the void I leave.  She’s like a crazy cat lady of colchicums, and in addition to growing, showing, sharing, and speaking on colchicums, she also does an excellent job of putting that information online.  She’s also a wonderful person, so I hope she finds neither ‘crazy’ nor ‘cat lady’ offensive since I would hate to offend her good nature.

colchicum innocence

Colchicum run a range of pink shades from dark to light, but the odd white form really lights up an autumn bed.  Here’s Colchicum ‘Innocence’.  Decent sized blooms, slight pink tint when you look for it, and a good grower.

Better sources of information aside, I guess I should mention some of the barest essentials of Colchicums.  They bloom bare, without foliage, hence the common name of naked ladies.  Their bloom shape resembles that of crocus, hence the name autumn crocus -although they share no family relation whatsoever.  Of course being unrelated to crocus is not the worst thing since wildlife love the crocus around here yet completely avoid the poisonous parts of colchicums.

In the early spring, colchicums quickly grow leafy, hosta-like foliage but then yellow and disappear once the weather heats up.  Decent, well drained soil, sun or part shade (the more sun in spring the better), and hope for the best.

colchicum foliage

Spring species tulips and the springtime foliage of colchicums growing in the lawn.

With their fall blooms, colchicum are a bit of an oddity when compared to the regular spring and summer flowers of most bulb catalogs.  Maybe this is why they seem expensive when compared to the mass produced spring bulbs, but don’t let it fool you.  They might require some special handling and storing, but overall  it’s an easy group to grow.  If I have one bit of advice which may be helpful it’s to plant shallowly in heavy soils.  The flowers seem to struggle when sprouting up out of hard-packed soil, and if they can’t make it up chances are the spring foliage won’t make it either, and your special new bulb will die.  Cover loosely I say, and if the bulbs (actually corms btw) are already flowering, do not cover the flowers with dirt and expect them to rise up out of the soil.  The flowers, and foliage as well, seem to take advantage of the old, dried floral tubes and follow these paths up out of the soil.  When newly planted, the tunnels from last year no longer exist, so to get around this plant shallowly and cover with some mulch once flowering is finished and you should be in good shape.

colchicum lilac wonder

Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’ planted in grass.  If planting in lawns, be prepared to hold back on mowing until the foliage has yellowed off.  I like a field of gone-to-seed grass swaying in the breeze in June.  You may not.

Over the last two years I’ve been adding colchicums to the meadow garden, and so far have been pleased enough to want to add more this fall.  I’m hoping they do well enough amongst the root completion of the grass and so far so good on that.  Another plus is I prefer the flowers when set off by the green grass, even though in most years this area usually has more of a brown grass look to it.

colchicum lilac wonder

More Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’ planted in the meadow garden. This is my favorite colchicum right now, it really does well here.

colchicum in meadow grass

A more sparse planting of an unknown colchicum.  This one will sulk if the spring is too short or dry, or isn’t exactly to its liking.  I’d blame the lawn, but the same lack of blooming happens in my flower beds as well.

I’m going to wrap it up here since although I can stare at and talk colchicums for hours in the garden, I am way past the limits of my attention span here at the computer.  But before ending I have to show Colchicum x aggripinum and the remarkable pattern of its blooms.  Many colchicums show tessellation in their flowers and of the ones I grow this one shows it best.

colchicum x aggripinum

The smaller, shorter foliage and flowers of colchicum x aggripinum still show up very well in the garden.  This clump liked being divided last summer, but didn’t like the late freeze and short spring we had, so I hope it fills in better next year.

colchicum x aggripinum

Tessellation on a flower of colchicum x aggripinum.  I love this patterning.

If you’ve made it this far I might as well apologize while I still have your attention.  There are still a few weeks left in the colchicum season and it’s very likely you’ll see more of them at some point or another as I try to work my way through this otherwise miserable new season.  In the meantime though, please consider giving Kimberley a visit to see what she and others are posting about this Thursday.  Perhaps they have a higher opinion of autumn.

Colchicum Clear-up

My late colchicum shipment from Daffodils and More was well into bloom by the time I finished dragging my feet and placed an order.  I guess I didn’t elaborate enough on how these little guys work…. I thought everyone was obsessed with colchicums at this time of year!

Colchicums are one of the “naked lady” bulbs that bloom in fall, they come up out of the dry autumn soil and surprise you with bare flowers minus the greenery.colchicum bed

They grow their hosta-like leaves in the spring, just like other hardy bulbs, but the blooms wait till late summer before even thinking about showing up.  Colchicums are on their own schedule and if you’re a little late in getting them in the ground they’ll ignore your tardiness and go ahead and bloom anyway, soil or no soil.  No problem, since the fall rooting will just wait until the bulb returns to the damp earth before it kicks in.  This is how the bulbs looked coming out of their paper shipping bags.colchicum blooming without soil

The bulbs I received were perfect, they had all been stored upright so that the floral tube came straight up and the separate blooms sprouted normally from within the tube.  If the bulbs are stored willy-nilly the blooms come out all over the place and are a pain to plant properly.  If grown normally a bulb forms a ‘heel’ where the roots sprout from, and a tube which brings the flowers to the surface.

This bulb was planted last week and you can just start to see tiny roots growing… Sorry Annette, I just had to dig one up again to take a look and a photo!colchicum bulb heel

When you plant these already-in-growth bulbs, take care to keep the tip of the floral tube just above the soil surface.  When the leaves sprout in the spring they also come up the inside of this floral tube and use it as a path to the surface.  If planted too deeply or not facing up, the leaves cannot grow up, and as a result die underground.  This is a costly lesson to learn since colchicum bulbs aren’t all that cheap, and if a whole batch of late planted bulbs die you will feel guilty for at least three years, especially if you lose another batch the following year…. (ask me how I know this)

planting flowering colchicums

Once planted nothing much seems to bother colchicums.  The run of the mill garden types thrive in average soil and full sun to part shade and pests usually don’t bother them outside of slug attacks on the blooms.  Colchicums are in fact poisonous enough to cause a nasty end to gardener or gopher and the same compound that protects them from chewing rodents and grazing rabbits is also the original source of colchicine,  which is used to treat gout.  In the gardening world, colchicine is also the chemical treatment that will cause seeds to go into polyploidy (doubled and tripled sets of chromosomes) when the cells begin to divide.  Tetraploid daylilies are the best example I can think of, but a quick online search shows many others.  Maybe my colchicum obsession isn’t as much selfish plant lust as it is just plain old gratefulness to a bulb that keeps giving!

With the exception of a single recently dug bulb, my new colchicums are already settled into the colchicum bed.  One of their neighbors is colchicum speciosum, a vigorous, long blooming bulb.colchicum speciosum

The large speciosum (renamed as “Lilac Wonder” – Thanks Cathy!) dwarfs it’s tiny neighbor, the slightly off-white colchicum autumnale ‘Album’.   Both are very popular with the late season honeybees.  I’m going to hope the honey doesn’t take on any of the poisons!  (I’m sure it doesn’t)colchicum autumnale 'Album'

I’m thinking of giving the colchicum bed an overhaul.  The bulbs could use more elbow room and the display could use some background plantings a little more colorful than the drab mulch I threw on there this summer.  Susie over at pbmgarden got me thinking this summer about groundcovers and I think I have the perfect plan for at least a clump or two of the light pink colchicums.  I want to divide up the blue leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and spot a few colchicums into that.  Here’s where I have it right now in the front yard.  It makes a halfway decent groundcover with a long season of gentian-blue flowers and green foliage.  The leaves take on red tints with the cooler weather and the fact that it sprouts kind of late in the spring makes it an even better companion!  Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

So that’s the plan.

Just one more thing before I’m completely done with colchicums.  The word is ‘tesselation’ and it describes the geometric patterning some colchicums show.  Colchicum x agrippinum has plenty of this checkering and it’s one of my favorites.colchicum x agrippinum

Did I do that?

This box showed up on my doorstep Friday and it’s bursting at the seams with colchicum flowers!  The wise gardener orders these bulbs well in advance of autumn so that this scene takes place in the well prepared garden bed, but the procrastinating gardener takes the risk and begs via email for a late order and shipment.colchicums blooming before planting

I may have gone through this kind of poor planning before, so the bare-bulb blooms are no big surprise or worry, but the show would have been ten times better had the bulbs already been planted.  But this order was the result of panic.  A couple weeks ago I realized I didn’t have anywhere near as many colchicums as a self respecting colchicum lover should have, so I immediately went to Daffodils and More, David Burdick’s bulb website.  He dabbles in the colchicums, has an excellent selection, and after a couple emails back and forth I was able to convince him to part with a few, even though they were already headed into blooming stage (as you can see, they don’t need soil or planting in order to bloom!).  They arrived at my doorstep even before my check was cashed and I have to say they’re the best cared for colchicums I have ever received.  Instead of looking worse for their journey they’re already planted in the ground and settling in.  newly planted colchicums

I was halfway tempted to keep them in the box and have them close enough to examine day or night while blooming, but better judgment won out and they were planted the next day.  I just need some groundcover ideas.  Some nice companion plantings would surely make this bed look even better as the bulbs clump up.

This info might be a little too late, but I noticed Brent and Becky’s bulbs just put their colchicums on sale for 50% off. It’s a great deal (and the source of many of my own bulbs) but most have already sold out…. but there are a couple left, and it’s not that I want to encourage any late season colchicum incidents in your own garden, but colchicum byzantinum and colchicum ‘giant’ are two of my favorites……

Fall is in the air

The last couple days have been cooler, less humid and just plain pleasant to be outside in.  I’m not saying it’s fall weather, but it’s pretty close, and based on the dry, sad state of many plants in my garden I might say they’re ready for this summer to be over.  The front border has been on an IV drip of water and this life support intervention has kept it looking decent.  Having done a mid summer bed expansion here, and having added many annuals and tropicals, it kind of needs it in order to not become a dusty wasteland…. what a lovely contrast to the lawn which has not benefitted from any watering.late summer perennial border

sedum spectabileThe pink in front is a sedum which has been doing very well the last few years.  I always hated this color growing up, but this might be an improved version of regular sedum spectabile.  It was given to me without a name, but after surviving a transplant and division during 90 degree heat I guess I owe it a place.  Next year I’m hoping for an even fuller plant.

From the other direction more of the elephant ear, coleus, and cannas are visible.  The ‘hot biscuits’ amaranthus is blooming now and I like the brown seedheads…. it kind of gives a grainy farmland look here in suburbia.tropicals in a mixed flower border

selfsown sunflowersMy birdseed sunflowers are all doing well in spite of the lack of water and lack of attention.  The only drawback is their lack of pollen, and you can see the centers of the flowers are black, not pollen-yellow.  Pollen free is great for cut flowers but the bees are not thrilled.  A few come by for nectar, which I guess is enough to get them pollinated, but they’re not the busy centers of activity that the rest of the flowers are.

I’m just glad they’re hanging in there.  Sunflowers must be quite drought tolerant for an annual since this is how the rest of the bed looks….  I’ve given up on keeping it watered.drought in the garden

In the backyard, the dahlias are still getting water and even with me cutting nearly every bloom, they’re still giving a nice spot of color in front of the dead lawn.mixed dahlias for cutting

While it was still hot and humid I got around to mowing down the meadow.  I traded in my electric chopper for the day and borrowed my brother in law’s heftier gas powered lawnmower.  It made quick work of the crispy dried grass and wildflowers.  Typically I try to cut back the meadow earlier in the year, but with the hot, dry weather I really didn’t feel like doing anything at all, so it was only now that I found the motivation.  Because of my lack of enthusiasm everything got cut, there was no mowing around butterfly weed or native grasses, it all got the same treatment.  It was a good thing I finally got it done, because for some reason the colchicums have heard the call of autumn and begun to sprout.  How they come up through the dry, hard-packed, rock-like soil is anyone’s guess, and what triggers them to wake up is beyond me, but there they are.  Fresh blooms in a sea of dry crispiness.meadow colchicum

I wish there was some similar promise in this end of the yard.  The Annabelle hydrangeas were fantastic in the spring but now are just dying sticks.  They’ll recover if rain comes soon, but for now everything just skips over our little spot, or never even reaches the ground.drought in the garden

It could easily be worse, there are still a few green weeds in there, but Pennsylvania usually doesn’t go this long without rain.  On top of that it doesn’t help that most everywhere else on the east coast is at above average rainfall… but I have faith.  Right now Thursday is showing 100% chance of rain, and maybe this cooler weather is signaling a change in the weather.