Archives for posts with tag: bulbs

When a pirate buries his treasure, it is not for forever; he expects to come back for it. It may take some time before he can return—there are many ships to rob and his own vessel’s speed is limited by the winds—so it is important that he prepare for an almost inevitable occurrence: that he will forget where he buried for it.

How does he prevent that from happening? Well, the organized pirate makes a treasure map.

And not just any treasure map. If the pirate is also clever (and if he is alive, he most certainly is; most dumb pirates will quickly end up dead), he will incorporate some sort of code into his map. That way, if it falls into enemy hands (a competing raider’s, say), the location of the chest of gold (or what have you) will not be immediately revealed. In the time it takes to decipher it, the original pirate can track down the thief (who, most unfortunately, will probably end up walking the plank) and reclaim his map.

Even for non-pirates, making a secret map to protect one’s buried treasure is a pretty good idea. Except for certain buried treasures.

I’m talking, of course, about flowering bulbs.

When I bury a chestful of these little golden orbs, I want to forget where I left them. One of the greatest joys of planting bulbs is the exhilarating jolt of surprise when the blossoms are first sighted in late winter or early spring, usually pushing through a crust of snow. Having a map that gives their locations away would spoil half of the fun, for me anyway.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to leave my buried treasures susceptible to theft. If I thought it would help prevent the squirrels from stealing my precious stash, I would employ the most enigmatic map I could devise.

And if I still caught them plundering my treasure?

Arrgh! I would send those marauding squirrels to Davy Jones’ Locker!

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Today, we received a bulb catalog in the mail. We receive several such catalogs every year, probably because we have mail- or internet-ordered bulbs several times in the past, including earlier this year. Apparently, bulb suppliers believe that you cannot have too many.

But this bulb catalog was true junk mail and addressed, most impersonally, to the “Gardener At” my address.

One might think that this was a convenient way for the bulb producer to send out a load of catalogs without buying a mailing list or performing any research. They may be aware that a high proportion of their catalogs will be discarded unread but, hey, there’s probably a gardener of one sort or another at most addresses. Right?

Still, I wonder how much thought went into the mailing. When I opened the package and looked at the cover letter, the salutation read, “Dear Mr. At”.

Now that it is fully a month into spring, we made another visit to Stonecrop Gardens. We brought along Rachel’s mother who has never been here before. We were very excited to show her around.

During our previous trip (see March 22, 2014), the ground was still covered by snow and we were confined to the Conservatory, the Pit House and other enclosed spaces.

This time around, the snow is long gone (not counting Tuesday night’s dusting, which only disappeared on Wednesday; see April 16, 2014), the skies are clear and brilliantly blue and, remarkably, it is comfortably warm. Perfect for a stroll through the outdoor gardens.

It’s a good time to see daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs (although it is still too early for irises and tulips). Not many of the trees have blossomed yet but the weeping cherry tree, the view of which is perfectly framed by one of the moon windows of the Wisteria Pavilion, looked beautiful anyway. Its slender branches have been carefully pruned to cascade downwards in a spherical spray of tiny buds.

This is the earliest we’ve been in the enclosed flower and vegetable gardens and their appearance is strikingly different from how we’ve seen them before. Late last summer (see July 27, 2013) for instance, the beds were overflowing with a rich variety of flowers, groundcovers and vegetable plants. The pathways between them were difficult to navigate without brushing against outreached branches or getting in the way of busy bees and other pollinators.

Today, these gardens are practically bare. Anything annual is long gone—cleared away in the fall, no doubt—and everything perennial has been trimmed back, almost to the roots in some cases. It is hard to believe that it will ever return to its abundant summer state.

But there are promising signs that this will indeed be the case. The Stonecrop gardeners were busy planting peas, lettuce and root vegetables, all under the watchful eyes of the benevolent scarecrow Miss Gertrude Jekyll (who was herself receiving restorative attention after what must have been a tough winter outdoors).

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

The warm temperatures have continued long enough that some of our bulbs have started to sprout.  And because the deer are not the sort of critters to miss a feeding opportunity, the sprouts have already been nibbled.  It must be very confusing for the bulbs (assuming that they have feelings) when the weather freezes and thaws and then freezes and thaws again without an intervening flowering.

I know how they might feel.  The rise in temperature stimulates my desire for spring even though it is only early January.  With the post-Christmas snow now almost completely melted, daytime temperatures in the 50s, and the road deeply in mud, it feels as if it must be time to get back outside and start planting, among other things.  It is only my rational mind that tells me I have to settle for pleasant walks outdoors and a temporary respite from heavy coats and sweaters.

The question now, of course, is will there be a return to the much colder and snowier weather that is typical (climate change notwithstanding) for this time of year?  And will we be going through the freeze-thaw cycle once again?