Monday, August 27, 2012

Mixing Bulbs and Perennials

Pink tulips weeping cherry tree

Bulbs and perennials can be a lot like brothers and sisters.

You love them both but they don’t always play well together.

Spring bulbs always insist on going to the head of the line and can stifle the younger, impressionable plants. Perennials, on the other hand, are quick to throw a tantrum when they are stuck with the ugly, dying foliage that bulbs leave behind. What’s a gardener to do?
Hyacinths and daffodils in bloomThere's lots of information out there about combining either bulbs or perennials. Mixing the two together, however, not so much.

I’m especially interested in the topic because I need to revamp several of my garden beds this fall. That's partly due to the drought, but also because my tulips are close to the end of their useful lives.

With bulbs due in the stores any day now and catalogs already in my mailbox, I decided it was time to re-examine the way I use them with perennials.
In the past, I've had mixed results combining daffodils and daylilies. I've also occasionally planted bulbs near hostas and ferns. Both of these latter two plants, though, require shade which is a rare commodity in my young garden.
There must be a better way.
Much of the information I found was extremely general, suggesting that you plant bulbs behind perennials that will emerge later. That unfortunately doesn't always work. Often, the perennial partner is either too fast or too slow, too early or too late. The combination pictured at the top -- pink tulips with  Early Bird catmint (Nepeta 'Early Bird') in front and Little Grapette' daylily (Hemerocallis 'Little Grapette') at right -- is one that doesn't quite work in my garden for those reasons.

Purple tulipsThe National Gardening Association has a few suggestions. You're out of luck though if your bulb aspirations go beyond flowering onions (Allium), spider lily (Lycoris) or purple and lavender tulips.
The late, great British plantsman Christopher Lloyd, in his book Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure, had many suggestions in a chapter devoted to perennials and bulbs that share the same space.
"You need to consider the habit and vigour of both the protagonist and its partner(s)," he wrote."What you must never use in any part of a mixed border are broad-leaved daffodils, but I constantly see this mistake being made. They are far too aggressive...."

One of his combinations that lasts for several months: Narcissus‘Dove Wings,’ a Triandrus type of daffodil, plus Hemerocallis ‘Marion Vaughn’ and Phlox paniculata.

Alas, many of the plants he mentioned won't grow in my Zone 5 garden. He did, however, pair bulbs with plants that bloom later in the season. I especially think that his suggestion of Allium cristophii and Japanese anemones would work well.

Online, there are some other interesting combinations on an industry-sponsored Website,  (Just ignore the female stereotypes, which garnered a lot of criticism when the site went live last spring.)

About a third of its suggested pairings, though, can also be found on a more extensive site, That site includes a number of mixtures tested by the Cornell University's Department of Horticulture. It includes pictures of each combination in various stages of growth.

Hyacinths with red penstamon foliage
Hyacinth 'Jan Bos' with Penstemon 'Husker Red'
Photo used with permission of Cornell University Department of Horticulture

Suggested pairings cover tulips, narcissus, crocus and miscellaneous bulbs. I especially like the combination of Hyacinth ‘Jan Bos’ with Penstemon ‘Husker Red.” The red foliage of the Penstemon complements the flowers nicely.

Ballade tulips with Mayflower geraniums
Tulip Ballade with Geranium 'Mayflower'
Photo used with permission of Cornell University Department of Horticulture
Tulip Ballade with Geranium 'Mayflower' also may get a trial run next spring in my garden. I love geraniums in general, but hadn't thought about pairing them with tulips before.

In any event, I still have plenty of time to do some planning. The drought is still hanging on and the ground temperature has a long way to go until it falls to the 55-degree mark preferred for bulb planting.

My goal is a simple one: peace in the garden next spring, with everything working together like one big, happy -- and beautiful -- family.

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Second Wind

Grace smoketree
Grace smoke tree

Something strange is happening in my garden.

The Pixie Meadowbrite® coneflowers are blooming again, although at a much lower height than the seedheads.  Ditto for two daylilies, Happy Returns and Jedi Dot Pierce, whose flowers are almost lost in the foliage.

I'm also getting sporadic blooms from my Frosted Violet heuchera, Firewitch dianthus and anemone sylvestris. Three Purple Rain salvia transplanted at the height of the drought are actually throwing some flowers. And my Grace smoke tree is finally blooming, much later than ever before.

Cooler temperatures in the past two weeks have worked their magic. There also has been some rain -- only about an inch so far this month -- but it is moisture nonetheless. My area remains in severe drought, with extreme drought just 10 miles away.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at the reduced height of my flowers. A lot of the corn and soybean fields outside Chicago are much shorter than usual this year due to the drought. During a recent visit to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Joliet, Illinois, much of the restored prairie there was about half its normal height according to my tour guide.

Yes, I will take what I can get. It seems my plants are finally getting a second wind, doing a happy dance like Snoopy, giving me a sign that they're doing okay so far and will be ready to roll again next spring.

Now if I can only get all those pesky, heat-loving, water-stealing weeds out of my garden beds.....
By Karen Geisler

Jedi Dot Pierce daylily
Jedi Dot Pierce daylily

Pixie Meadowbrite coneflower
Pixie Meadowbrite® coneflower

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Dry Sense of Humor (and a Giveaway)

Chocolate Chip ajuga melting

It's official. Last month was the hottest July on record nationwide. It wasn't much better here in Chicago but at least we've recently gotten some rain and more moderate temperatures.

Of course the rain hasn't been enough to break the drought. And I'm still expecting those 90-degree days to return. After all, it is still August.

At this point, I could really use a good laugh.

I initially had trouble coming up with any garden-related jokes.  I finally remembered these from when I was a kid:

Why did the tomato turn red? Because it saw the salad dressing.

What runs but never tires? Water.

I recalled the last one when watering my garden one morning for what seems like the umpteenth time this summer. I also stumbled across a couple of new ones when doing some (ahem) research for this article.

What do you call it when worms take over the world?  Global worming.

New gardeners learn by trowel and error.

What gets bigger the more you take away? A hole.

The only new one I've managed to come up with is at the top. All kidding aside, there must be some drought-related garden jokes out there. You know, gallows humor -- garden style.

So to help spark some gardening wit, I'm giving away a DeWit crown trowel and a dibbler. As you can see, the trowel looks a lot like a tulip. Both of these babies are top of the line and carry lifetime warranties. They should be great for planting bulbs this fall or at least dreaming about a new beginning next spring.

I'm also throwing in a copy of the Timber Press Pocket Guide to Bulbs by John Bryan.

You only need to comment below for a chance to win, but garden-related jokes, rhymes, riddles, etc. are appreciated.  No dirty jokes, although jokes about dirt/soil are allowed.

The deadline is midnight August 19, 2012, with the winner chosen at random. One entry per person please. Employees of Chalet Nursery and their immediate families are not eligible to win.  Void where prohibited by law.

I’d especially like someone to complete this joke: “Two slugs walk into a bar…..”

By Karen Geisler

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Blades of Grass

Helictotrichon sempervirens

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars."
-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Whitman probably wasn't referring to ornamental grasses when he wrote those words, but I'd like to think he's approve of them if he were around today. After all, most of the prairies of his time have disappeared.

I’ve come to appreciate grasses – at least the ornamental ones -- more and more. That’s especially true with this year’s drought. They’ve needed next to no water and no special care. Of course, that’s not true for my sorry excuse of a lawn, but then that has been shrinking steadily over the years as my garden has grown.
I’m not sure why but gardeners seem to be divided into three camps when it comes to ornamental grasses.
1)      Love ‘em.  Give me more!
2)      Hate ‘em. Too messy looking, too big or need more sun than I have.
3)      Tentative. I’d like to try them but aren’t they invasive?
I started out in category #3 but switched to #1 as I learned more about ornamental grasses. I’ve generally stuck with the clumping varieties, which are much more well behaved than the running ones. I’ve used some natives as well as some non-native ones, with most of them under 3'-4’ tall.
What I like best about ornamental grasses is the texture they provide, a nice contrast to that of many perennials and shrubs. They also provide movement, with their seed heads swaying in the wind. The foliage can be left up in the fall to provide some winter interest. And, last but not least, they are sustainable, needing little care in even the most challenging of summers.
Here are a few of my current favorites.
Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)(shown above) is a cool season grass. It comes up early and “blooms” in late spring to early summer. The blue-colored blades keep their color throughout the season. These echo the color in a Globe Blue Spruce I have nearby in my front yard.
Calamagrostis x acutiflor 'Overdam'
The seed heads of Overdam Feather Reed Grass

Overdam Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’) is similar to the Karl Foerster grass that has finally been popping up in public places, like fast-food restaurants, strip malls and gas stations. It’s different in that it is more compact and its leaves are variegated. It’s sterile. I also have a similar grass called Avalanche, which has slightly more green than white in its leaves.

These two grasses and all of the ones  listed below are warm season grasses. They really need warm weather before they kick into high gear.

Morning Light Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) is breathtaking when it is back lit, so be sure to put it in an appropriate location. It has very fine variegated foliage and good winter interest. It can get to be about 4’-6’ but it’s so light and airy that you won’t mind.
Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'
Northwind Switch grass contrasts nicely with the Mohican viburnum behind it.

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is native to the tallgrass prairie, which once covered most of Illinois. I’m particular to the Northwind cultivar but I’m also dying to try Shenandoah, which has more red in it. Switch grass provides great winter interest and is also very good in dried fall arrangements.

Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose'
Karley Rose Fountain Grass seed heads sway in the wind
Karley Rose Fountain Grass (Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’) and Red Head Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head) have been interesting. I thought Karley Rose as only hardy to zone 6 so I planted it near a maple tree in my Zone 5 garden as an annual. It has been coming back ever since.  It has spread somewhat but not obnoxiously so. I love the swaying of the seed heads, which start out pink and turn a light beige.

Red Head, on the other hand, has red bottlebrush-type plumes.  It's nice but has seeded itself in the garden so it’s currently on probation. I'm hoping that that the spread is due to last year's extraordinarily long, warm fall.
Sporobolus heterolepsis 'Tara'
The seed heads of Tara Prairie Dropseed
Sporobolus heterolepsis 'Tara' in the garden
Prairie dropseed in the garden

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) adds an incredibly fine texture to the garden. I especially like Tara, which is a bit more upright than the species. It also has a smell this time of year that reminds me of popcorn. My husband can’t smell it, though. I’ve heard this anomaly from more than one person, although I’m not sure why that’s the case.
Of course, there are lots more ornamental grasses available, including several that will take shade or even dry shade. I've recently added Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a butterfly host plant and tallgrass prairie native, so I will have to see how it does.
The deer that occasionally visit my garden never touch the ornamental grasses – another plus. Care is pretty simple. You just need to chop them down to about 4-6” high before the growing season starts.  They do need to be divided every so often and the roots go deep so be sure to sharpen your shovel beforehand.
If you’ve never tried ornamental grasses in your garden, I hope you’ll give them a try. Who know? Maybe you’ll move into category #1 as well.

By Karen Geisler