February 19, 2015


 Even just 5 bulbs of Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' makes a scene. Bred in the 1960's it's a cross between two rarer small iris, I. winogradowii and I. histriodes, both delightful choices to force if one dares to risk ruining their bulbs ( I prefer them in the garden) but 'Katherine Hodgkin' is easy, and relatively available - it just sells out early in the catalogs.

The snow here in the Boston area is insanely deep, the icicles are nearly 15 feet long, and connect the roof gutters to the ground, and although I am tempted a bit to snowboard off of our roof into a snow drift, now that we are back from New York, I am focused on the bulbs I have been forcing for a mid-winter flower show, being held this weekend at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden (you MUST come visit it, as nothing will lift your spirits more!).  I've talked them into regenerating the classic winter bulb show, very much like the way most spring flowershows began in Boston, Philadelphia and New York in the mid 1800's - it's in their DNA to to sponsor such an event, and I have so much hope that this event will inspire others to grow and enter plants during the winter months.

Even though I knew that I wanted to force many plants for this first of what I hope will be an annual show, I just didn't realize,  back in October when I started potting up bulbs, that this last week of February would require me to be traveling (New York Toy Fair and Westminster Dog Show). This is a critical time when one is forcing different types of bulbs, as timing can become tricky - snowdrops rush ahead as tulips need care, when coaxing them into bloom, small iris can burst into flower within a couple of warm, sunny days while the rarer muscari slug along hoping for a sunny week of 70º weather in the greenhouse. Needless to say, it's been a challenge to time everything to bloom on a single Friday.

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A pot of Iris danfordiae, an easy to force bulbous small iris which one can find in any fall bulb catalog, can come into bloom in just a matter of days once brought into the warmth. I just love their bright, yellow flowers, so although I plant many outdoors in the garden, I always save a few in my pocket to shove into a pot just for some winter color.

I'm please to say, that I think that I've done pretty well - aside from a few disasters (such as me slipping down the deck stairs onto my back in deep snow last week - just like Charlie Brown and Lucy - with a full flat of muscari, which flew up into the air and all landed upside down in the snow) (Oh, and then there was this little thing called 102 inches of snow in three weeks here in Worcester, MA), (and then of course, some rascally terriers who decided to dig up all of my flats of forced lily of the valley just moments ago - my fault - I left them on the dining room floor), in the end, I think if I can get everything to the hall tomorrow morning (in 0º temperatures, of course), then I will count my blessings. Almost there.

Any of the small Iris reticulata varieties can also be forced easily, and if kept cool on a windowsill, can last for over a week once in bloom - these bloomed early last weekend, but I was able to keep them fresh by placing them in the cold greenhouse for a week.
The best thing is, even though every pot and pan is currently employed catching drips from the cieling due to ice dams (reminder to self - call the insurance company after doing my taxes this weekend), the entire house smells like spring - the intense scent of hyacinths and narcissus, as the come into bloom on the larger windowsills, and under lights upstairs, so that they can develop their bright colors. At least it smells like spring.

My Muscari pots were kept under the cold benches in the greenhouse for 16 weeks, and then brought into the bright light to force. I brought them into the house for a time, to speed them up under lights, and then back outdoors.
 In October, I decided to try to recreate a display that I saw at the Chelsea Flower show a few years ago - simple clay pots set on black, each one full of a different commercial variety of Muscari. I fussed around looking for as many named selections as I could (and I resisted ordering the rare species, for now, wanting to see how this experiment would net out). I planted two pots each of about 16 varieties, and set them to sleep much of the winter away under a dark bench.

These plastic pots will disapear, as I will repot each of these pairs of pots into one, clay bulb pan. Aesthetics are important with me, as they are with many of you. I will reuse these pots for tomatoes and seed starting soon.
If you've never forced muscari, I encourage you to try some (I have to say that the variety known as 'Blue Magic' has the nicest flowers indoors) - they have a nice fragrance, less intoxicating than hyacinths, yet 100% fresh, like May 5th indoors.

Oh, snow. Here in the Boston area, this winter has been a record breaker - it has caused some problems in the greenhouse, mostly affecting the temperature inside, as nighttime lows have dipped near -10º F. I think choosing muscari was a good choice for forcing this winter, as in past winters, they may have bloomed much earlier.

A detail shot of what will be making it to the show bench tomorrow. Later this weekend, I wills share with you how they look installed, as well as what my tulip display looks like.

I knock out the rooted Muscari, and repot them into old clay pots. Topped off with coir, the appearance suddenly improves. Now, all they need are labels.

Here is a sneak peak, on my sand bench, of what some of the collection will look like this weekend at the Tower Hill Botanic garden. Come and visit if you are in New England! Yes, I know that it is going to snow Saturday, but with over 100 inches this winter, what is 4-6 inches more?

The tulips are looking fine, and coming into full bloom under lights in a spare bedroom. They appreciate the additional warmth indoors, as the greenhouse is just too cold. I selected a color palette of purple, lavender and pink.

I think that these tulips could last an entire week indoors.

The greenhouse this morning, frosty and nearly encased with snow - it is -2º F outside at 8:00 am.

The muscari are potted up now, and waiting in the studio to be moved to Joes truck as soon as it warms up. I am concerned about moving them in this cold weather, as even 30 seconds in sub-zero weather can freeze them.

What won't be going to the Botanic Garden this weekend is this tray of Lily of the Valley, it's just not ready yet.

Lydia (left, who is pregnant and due in a week and a half), and ol' Fergus (who you all know has cancer, but who is still 'hanging in there') are happy to have us home. Weasley is home now too (which they are not happy about), but all that really does is crank up the volume on cookie begging. This is how they do it.

The amaryllis are still blooming, most on their second bud stalks, with the third buds just emerging. 

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  1. What an amazing array of bulbs you've achieved. Forcing so many to a specific date is so tricky, but you've managed it expertly.
    I'm afraid to say that it looks as though your I. 'Katherine Hodgkin' are virused. Unfortunately, most commercial (certainly Dutch) stock do seem to carry virus. The tell-tale signs are the darker blue streaks in the petals. I've found that roguing out bulbs showing such signs can over time leave you with a healthy population apparently free from virus.
    Best of luck at the show!

    1. Maxwell T - Thanks for reminding me about this. I now need to go find out more about this virus, as I remember either reading a long thread about it on the Pacific Bulb Society threads, or in an article. For some reason, I felt that the virus was impossible to get rid of - and few home gardeners are such purists to care even, as the flowers are so gorgeous - but does the virus affect the vigor of the bulb? Or spread to other varieties? Please share more info if you can with us. This sounds like a good topic for me to post about once I do some research also. Thank you once again. - Matt

  2. Hi Matt, I'm not sure I know as much about this virus as I should :os

    What I can say is that many plants appear to cope fine with viruses, you may get odd colours or crazy patterns (think tulips) but the vigour of the plant might not appear to be affected, in the short term at least. However, with Crocus ligusticus (syn. C.medius) you find that most forms grown in Europe and/or available in the trade are virused. When seed was collected from wild plants a few years ago, the resulting plants have much larger flowers than those in cultivation, so the virus must have retarded them.

    Tulips are another good example, with the Dutch 'Tulipomania' for the broken patterns and colours in 1600's going from boom to bust. It's thought that the viruses responsible for the colour breaks eventually weakened the plants so they died out.

    Roguing out any plants showing signs of virus is good practice. However, I suspect that with a plant like I. 'Katherine Hodgkin', the virus is quite likely to be latent in all the plants not showing any obvious symptoms but may rear it's head at some point. I'm not sure where one could obtain virus-free stock - perhaps small nursery-men/growers with plants that have had not contact with those bulked up by the Dutch?

    I do know that viruses CAN be transferred between different varieties of the same genus/species, and in some cases between different genera. This is why I'm always so careful to 1. rogue out virused plants as soon as I can and 2. keep on top of the aphid population, which can transfer viruses between plants by their sap-sucking. I have a collection of miniature/species Narcissus, Crocus, some Frits, Galanthus etc. When I think about how much Ive paid for all these bulbs and the time invested in raising many of them from seed, I'd rather lose a few bulbs by consigning them to the trash can than risk the many.

    Love your pics of the show. You hard work has paid off. Showing season is just starting up here too, but I live on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, so it's hard for me to get to them sometimes. Seeing online reports, such as the excellent SRGC Forum and blogs like your, is my means of vicariously 'attending'.

    Best wishes, from Matt (me too, Maxwell is just a pseudonym)


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