March 19, 2020

Learning More About Growing Annual Poppies, and My New Book

Annual poppies are not easy to grow, at least not for most people. Oriental poppies? Much easier, as they are a long lived perenial.  notoriously fussy about root disturbance, and like many wildflowers, they will always grow best if direct seeded exactly where they are to grow, and then thinned to leave a good amount of distance between plants (a foot is best). If you can keep root disturbance to a minimum, that checks off the first box. Beyond that, temperature and light will need to be controlled. Clearly these are not easy plants to grow to perfection, but if you care and want gorgeous poppies in your garden (and who doesn't?) it might be worth it to try a few methods.

In this post I am only addressing cultural techniques for two species of poppies: The Shirley Poppy (Papaver rheas) and the Bread Seed Poppy (P. somniferum).  The genus Papaveraceae includes hundreds of species, many of which require special treatment which may add to the confusion out there, but for these two species which should be more commonly grown in our gardens, the methods often found on-line and in literature seems to be unnecessarily complex and incorrect.

You may be saying to yourself "What's all the fuss about? I just sprinkle seed on the snow in spring and have wonderful poppies every year.". To that specific statement, I respond with "great for you!" The truth is, that method just doesn't work for me many years, and, when it does, it often doesn't produce the best plants.  

Here is what I wanted to know. 

• Where did that 'sowing on snow' advice come from?

• Does poppy seed need light to germinate like everyone says?

• Does poppy seed need a cold period to 'stratify'?

•What is the ideal germination temperature for both Shirley Poppies and Breadseed/Opium Poppies?

• Can one start these poppy seeds indoors instead of direct seeding?

The answers I found were staggering in that it was the polar opposite of what I have found most everywhere on-line, in consumer-facing gardening books and on most blogs and social media posts. I'm not nailing anyone here - even I have gotten this wrong in the past, and even in my new book where I started to share some of my personal methods that are different, I get a few things wrong.

Many of use research on-line today, and hey - you can do it yourself too. Just Google "how to sow annual poppies" and see what you will find. Most sources advise that one first chill the seed for varying lengths of time, sometimes first mixing the seed with peat moss, damp sand or soil then chilling in the fridge, then sow direct (usually sprinkling on a late snow) and then thinning the seedlings.'

If you are in a hurry, here is what I discovered:

• Where did that 'sowing on snow' advice come from? It started in the late 1900's in England but the assumption is that wintered-over poppy seeds could fall on snow and still sow. It's not necessary for germination and doesn't offer any special treatment other than helping seed distribute.

• Does poppy seed need light to germinate like everyone says?

Not necessarily. Some species do, yet most prefer to germinate just under the surface of soil and this includes both P. rhoeas the Shirley Poppy and P. somniferum, which germinates better with a thin layer of soil or medium covering the seed. Many poppy species do require light, however.

• Does poppy seed need a cold period to 'stratify'?

No. Most studies indicate that especially with P. somniferum, both of these species germinate best using seed that was stored dry and germinated at 70° F.

•What is the ideal germination temperature for both Shirley Poppies and Breadseed/Opium Poppies? 70° F.

• Can one start these poppy seeds indoors instead of direct seeding? Yes,  if one can provide the high light intensity and if they use individual pots with one plant in each (thinning to one plant). Transplant with great care not to disturb roots while plant is still small.

Here are the details....
These P. somniferum poppies in my garden last year were transplanted from plants started early in a cool greenhouse.

I referenced my 'go-to' seed starting source, an out of print book titled 'Seed Germination Theory and Practice' one often shared amongst plant geeks as a photocopied document that was first published in the 1990s (and sold often at North American Rock Garden Society auctions and book sales). I think since the book is rather heavy on data points and science, with no photos that it seemed unmarketable to the masses (as in: no one in the public cares about the stratification requirements of an Anemonopsis species). Still - it is a useful book. IF YOU WANT IT, it can often be found on Amazon as in here.) And maybe on Ebay? The author Norman C. Deno tested many challenging genera and species, and what he discovered about Papaver somniferum is nearly exact to what I found in a couple of journal articles outlining studies in germination. 

All conclude that P. somniferum germinates highest at 70°F That's right, 70°.

No snow.
No cold.
No surface sowing.
No 'Light needed to germinate'

What remains the same is that both poppies resent being transplanted and that both prefer poor soil (so no fertilizer).

Yet, they can be transplanted if one is able to slide a root ball out of a pot and set it into the ground without breaking it. I should add that seedlings like these are best raised in a greenhouse, or outdoors like on a deck or on a porch in the brightest of light - so not everyone is going to be able to grow individual plants from seed in pots. A light unit indoors most likely wont produce light bright enough.

Yet, if you have a sunny porch, or want to try starting a few trays of individual pots outdoors in April or May if you live in the North, it's worth a try.

Some flower farmers have discovered this already as they often sow P. somniferum in plug trays along with P. rhoeas and carefully transplant plugs into growing beds with a minimum of root damage. It's kind of a secret few home growers know about. Of course, this does require a greenhouse and some heating mats, but the idea - the idea can be hacked to work on a glassed in porch, or in a garage with some artificial lights. Natural bright sunlight is best as poppies will stretch out, but it does mean that you could grow wonderful poppy plants by sowing individual seeds in =plug trays, keeping them at 70 and then moving them outdoors as soon as possible.

What about sowing outdoors on snow or direct on soil in March or April?

This method works to, in fact, it still may be the ideal method, but it does have a few problems. Sowing on snow works where you want a more natural look, but it won't work if you use mulch and it is challenging to do in areas where you are growing other plants - such as in a perennial border. It works much better if you have a place dedicated to just poppies, which makes it easier to see the tiny seedlings that you will need to thin so that plants are about 8 inches apart from each other, and so you can weed effectively. I still grow poppies this was in a few places, and direct sowing works well when I sow a row or band in the vegetable garden as it's easy to see the seedlings.

As early 20th century seed catalog like this Sutton's one from 1910 often featured Shirley Poppies. Few flowers are as old-fashioned as these poppies are. Methods such as 'sowing on snow' began appearing around 1900 in garden texts, and quickly caught on as an approved method mostly in northern Europe, but also in North America - the truth is, there is little to no scientific data to back-up this method. Does it work? Sure, for some, but sowing a bit later in soil will work just as well.

Do know though that there is no benefit that comes from the cold, or from the snow. Seeds sown direct outdoors still won't germinate until day time temps tip near 70 degrees (although seedlings are cold-tolerant can handle very light frosts) my point here is that the seeds don't need a cold period. The texts all state that in particular P. somniferum, 70° is the ideal germination temperature when using seed that was in dry storage at room temperature. 

The Shirley Poppy is more variable but seed still germinated in much the same way but the length of time is slightly longer. Even in my home greenhouse, the seed germinated - covered or not covered at 15 days without bottom heat with night temps at 45° F but seed on heat mats (70° F) both covered (1/8") or not germinated at 4 days nearly at 90%. Light doesn't affect germination.

 In areas where hot, summer temperatures arrive in late June along with high humidity, direct sowing early is still the best way to grow poppies, it's often not practical to wait until a 70° Day to sow, the seeds sown early are just fine waiting.

Papaver somniferum in my garden that was started from seed in individual pots then set out once the weather became mild in late May.  These were still three feet tall and covered with bees.

Some books have it right, and I started with the classics like Christopher Grey-Wilson's book 'Poppies - The Poppy Family in the Wild and in Cultivation' (1993, Timber Press), now out of print, but you can find it at online booksellers. A useful book even though some species may have been reclassified.  Grey-Wilson's book is nearly a monograph with excellent details about the natural history and botany of most plants in Papaveraceae, but shorter bits about specific poppies, particularly only a few pages on P. rhoeas. Readers should factor in that this book was written in the United Kingdom so the cultural bit lean more towards what works in a mild-winter climate (sow in late summer or autumn) a method that won't work where the ground freezes deep and solid such as in a Zone 5 garden, or where spring freezes are variable. 

I cant live without Shirley Poppies, but every year is different. I've found that direct-sowing seed works best with these smaller poppies, but I keep trying new methods of started early under glass, now trying plug trays. 

General advice seems to be similar everywhere  (just Google it, and see for yourself). That 'sprinkle seeds on the snow' advice, or 'sprinkle seeds in late winter or early spring and thin-out seedlings.'. Not bad advice, as it works - but not always (just in case you have tried these methods and have failed). You are not alone.

Sowing in a greenhouse or under bright lights is possible if one sows seed individually into plug trays or single pots.

While there are some unconventional methods that you might want to try - sowing annual poppies in cells under glass, using individual seeds in a 4-inch pot, or setting out pots of thinly sown seed on a porch or deck, or under lights and then setting the entire rootball early out into the garden - these methods also work, but again, only if you are careful with light, watering and with thinning out all but one plant per pot (never transplanting the thinnings as they will fail). All are tricky to master, but if one can master a pre-start method, the results are extraordinary.

The wild version of P. rhoeas is all red with black spots, but selections that first appeared in the 1880's changed how one viewed this common weed of European wheat and cornfields. Selections like this one named 'Mother of Pearl' have mostly pastel shades, and while many are advised to cull-out the red ones to keep the strain pure, how could one not want this?

In a search to find out more, I began trying all methods last year, and some of my results are surprising me. I will add here that I still sow direct, but always sow a few in individual pots and cells just in case one method doesn't work. No method is easy, and I think it's safe to say that one isn't any easier than the other unless you are having luck with direct sowing early (if you live in the north, or in autumn if you live in a mild climate).

Use a precisions seeder like this (it will take some practice to master! But it makes all the difference in the world with truly small seeds that you often cannot sprinkle especially in pots or plug trays.You can. find one here at Gardener's Supply, or Google for other sources.

My Tests

As a test, for two years now I've been sowing seed outdoors. For the past 6 years, I usually sow both on snow and with direct-sowing methods on raked, drained and workable soil outside in March.

To back things up I also so seeds in deep cells under glass (individually sown seeds). These I've tried pre-treating a number of ways, chilling the seed packets, mixing seed with damp sand and then chilling for 2-4 weeks in the fridge, and then sowing dry seed straight from the seed packet in the greenhouse.  To keep this short, all of these methods have proven to be unreliable. Some flats I kept in a cold frame to expose them to freezing temperatures, others I just kept under glass.

These tiny poppy seedlngs (P. somniferum) emerged in just 4 days last week. They were set on a heat mat set to 70° F with a thermostat, and the seed was covered with 1/8" soil. Surface sown seeds in another tray germinated four days later. Do notice that even in a glass greenhouse these seedlings are slightly stretched out compared to seedlings that emerge outdoors. I try to move these outdoors most every day once the weather begins to warm above freezing to keep them from etiolating.

This year, I began using heating mats set to 70° using both chilled seed, and seed straight from the packet as it came in the mail - and to my shock, I'd say 85% germination in about 4 days for the seed that was covered with a 1/8 inch of soil, and 6 days for seed surface sown. This has proven itself over and over with both P. somniferum and P. rhoeas with 8 flats of plug trays and four flats of 4-inch pots.

I thin the seedlings out to single plants just as they are forming their first true leaves, and will relocate them to a cold frame or set pots outdoors if daytime temperatures are over 40° to keep plants stocky and strong as my daytime temperatures in the greenhouse can get too hot with the spring sun - I like to keep air temps below 80° to slow down growth, as plants will need to be set outdoors in early May and plants need to be stocky enough with withstand wind and should still be in their rosette stage (not forming a stem and certainly not a flower bud).

Papaver somniferum 'Lauren's Grape' still in rosette form were individually sown and germinated warm, on heat mats, but grown cool near 55° are ready to be set out into the garden.

Last year my Greenhouse plug trays were split into two groups, one group that I kept under glass at 40° F and three other flats that I first kept outdoors in a cold frame. The Greenhouse flats germinated after a month, but irregularly, and about 1/3 survived. The flats in the cold frame never germinated, I suspect that the temperature differential was too much (hot days, freezing nights). Direct sown seeds grew well, but a few self-sown seeds from previous years were virtually gigantic. I did have one tray of seedlings that were individually sown into 4 inch pots that I acquired from my favorite source of hard-to-find annuals Bunker Farm Plants in Vermont, and her rosettes were nearly 5 inches across, grown from early sown seed in an unheated hoop house with seeds germinated on a heat mat.

Single, Breadseed poppies are beloved by many bees for their pollen, but not for nectar as they do not produce any.

Sowing in a greenhouse is possible, but a more mindful approach to sowing outdoors works even better. Dry sand will help you dilute your seed, and some chicken wire may help deter curious critters - like dogs (necessary in our garden!).

I had heard of some local flower farms raising poppies the same way, so I purchased a heating mat or a germination chamber mat from Johnny's Seeds and found that even seed sown in March germinated. While there are a few plants that require low, then warm temperatures, most common flowers and vegetables will germinate best at 70°. Some, (even those often listed as being 'cold-weather crops like cabbage, broccoli, and other brassicas) will germinate even better at higher temperatures, but much slower rates at lower temps. Then there are the real freaks like Gomphrenia which scientists have found will germinate best if exposed first to hot temps near 100° for a couple of days although 90° will often get good results.

Mix seed packet of either P rhoeas (Shirley Poppies) or P. somniferum (like 'Lauren's Grape) in a bowl, and mix well. This just helps disperse the seed so that you wont have as much waste. One of the biggest errors one can make is to not thin young plants (I get it - it's hard to pull and toss a precious poppy) but know that if you leave 8 inches between each seedling your results will be much better.

Dig, till or pitchfork your soil to loosen it up and then rake to make it evener. Leaving some furrows will help the seed fall into nooks and crannies, which is OK as some coverage of the seed helps.

Sift the sand/seed mixture over the prepared area. Now, the 'prepared area' could be in the border where there is a bare spot, or in the veg garden - as where I often grow mine, which makes weeding and thinning easier. Never mulch, and remove old mulch as seed will need contact with the soil. Also, poppies enjoy low soil fertility so no fertilizer is needed.

This isnt neccessaryl but since we have 'diggy'Irish terriers, I pin down a protective wire covering over the bed. It also helps remind me where I sowed the seed as a month or so may pass until the weather warms up enough for the seedlings to emerge, and often weeds will germinate first.

Last year it took 2 months for seedlings to emerge, but it was a very cold spring.

Look carefully after a few weeks for poppy seedlings (and keep watered if a dry spell arrives). This seedling will be very tiny so get your glasses on. Each cotyledon is about 1/8 inch long. These are too thickly sown, but I will wait to remove all but one plant every 8 inches to a foot apart later.

Both species will seem to grow slow at first, but will suddenly take off once the weather become warmer. This is a bed that I should have thinned but I didn't. Shirley poppies can grow well closer together, but P. somniferum really does better with lost of room between plants. I'vd read in many old books to pinch plants back at this stage, but I have never done it myself, have you? I've read that some P. somniferum can become very bushy and tall if pinched back - I'll try it this year.

My direct-sown Shirley Poppies always like the walk to my greenhouse where I plant them in some raised bed in the veg garden. They bloom in my Massachusetts garden between mid-June and the Fourth of July or just until the weather turns hot and humid. After that, they are pulled and vegetables are planted.

A double lavender-grey Shirley poppy from my garden a few years ago. 

Coral and White picotee forms are very pretty.

An all white strain called 'The Bride'  seems less pretty in the garden.

These P. somniferum  'Lauren's Grape' were buzzing with bees in my garden last July. All were started early in individual pots and set out in mid-May.

P. somniferum like this white peony form can self-seed if you allow the seed to dry in the capsule. I've found that in my garden if I cut the seed to dry indoors and sprinkle in the garden in late fall or early spring, I get a better germination rate as a naturally dried seed that falls in late July or early August often germinates in late summer, and small poppy plants cannot survive out winters.

If you want to learn more, order my brand
 new book just published here on Amazon and where most books are sold!

Here are a few spreads to share with you! If you do order it, I would appreciate any revew you could write (or just rank it) on Amazon. It's important data for us authors as it tells publishers that it's worth offering another book deal.


January 21, 2020

Two Outstanding Gardening Books for those Long, Winter Nights

Two rock stars of the gardening world have recently release significant works worthy of any gardeners bookshelf.
Ken Druse's 'The Scentual Garden' and Amy Goldman's The 'Melon' will inspire, inform and entertain you this winter as you plan your summer garden. I promise.

I just realized that these two books (The Melon by Amy Goldman and the Scentual Garden by Ken Druse) essentially deal with, well, sensuality. While one can certainly draw lines to why flowers are fragrant or why melons are luscious and desirable, the many metaphors aside, there should be no doubt that these books might be a good excuse to give a book as a gift for Valentine's Day to your secret (or not so secret) admirer? Certainly, I approve if you just buy them for yourself to get lost in on these cold, winter nights.

I have high standards for the gardening books I invest in. They might be beautifully designed, well crafted and printed on quality paper or the subject matter may be unique, but above all, they must be useful. Usefulness can be defined in a few ways as I'm not necessarily looking for a textbook or an encyclopedia but 'usefulness' can certainly be all about learning something new, referenceable (accuracy, factual and not simple second-hand information gathered from Google searches) and even inspirational - as a book with just lovely photos of gardens can be a journey that leads to new ideas.
Here are three books that have recently come across my desk and seem to deliver all of this.

Amy Goldman's newest book reads like a monography on the melon, but it is so much more. Artistic, scientific, botanically interesting and a cultural handbook. It's so beautiful that you won't want to put it on your bookshelf, and I promise that you'll be making room for melons this year (or at least following the many recipes in the last chapter in your kitchen!).

THE MELON - by Amy Goldman (City Point Press, 2019)

I've been waiting for this for years, as I knew that Amy was working on a revision of her first book on Melons entitled: Melons for the Passionate Grower (2002, Artisan) - still a useful book, but this new one is at least twice as large physically and has nearly three times the page count, most every one featuring stunning photography by Victor Schrager (from those early Martha Stewart Living magazines that we all hoard secretly in our closets).

Many melon groups and varieties are broken out into detailed sections with historical facts and many corrections to legends and lore that often comes with heirloom varieties of vegetables.

I could go on and on about each of Amy's books and about how useful and beautiful they are, but really - experience them for yourself.  Few, if any gardening books, in my opinion, offer such a wealth of accurate and well-researched information as do Amy's. A long-time philanthropist with hands in many initiatives ranging from global issues concerning agriculture, food supplies, and nature, Amy is well known amongst most scientists involved in agricultural crop research (particularly Cucurbitaceae and tomatoes) and not surprising - to gardening geeks.

Amy's experience, support, and involvement in other passion projects connect her to a wealth of information and resources few have access to. The best part is that this book is also written and illustrated in such a way that it's like a documentary because it entertains, inspires and delights us. It's easy to get the big picture regardless of how experienced you are. It's organized by the key groups of melons which helps one understand their fundamental differences.  There are precise descriptions about each melon variety, with history and facts, information on how to get seed and how to grow them to perfection. 

In a nutshell, here is what makes Amy's books so valuable. She is one of the very few authors who approaches her topics with expertise garnered not just from years of research but from first-hand from experience. I know this because Joe and I have been fortunate to visit her farm in upstate New York, we've toured through the fields of squashes, heirloom, and new ones, through acres of tomatoes, fields, and fields of peppers, and we've seen (and yes, tasted) many of here hundred of heirloom and new melons. I mean, even seed catalogs rarely grow everything that they sell.  her approach is old-school, 19th-century farm-style. Her fields are her laboratory and serve a bit like a museum of human agriculture.  One goes to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to see the floor with the skeletons of all the giant land sloths in one room, and one goes to Amy Goldman's farm in September to see almost every variety of melon known to humankind all in one barn.

Melons on Amy Goldman's farm are trialed often for years (some up to seven, others even longer) before she writes about them. Each is subjected to tests for sugar content, taste and in the kitchen.  Amy makes notes year after year in trials before writing about a melon, noting cultural quirks and performance in the field as well as noting failures and successes.  The information in this book in invaluable, but somehow, so readable, I can't even think of a book that does all of this. Her farm is life the 'America's Test Kitchen' for gardeners.

I won't wax on, but know that beyond the research, artistic photography and beautiful book design thanks to Doyle and Partners, the written word is by far even more useful. Like any of Amy's previous books there are fascinating stories behind every heirloom variety, clear descriptions about the merits of each variety, be they luscious, sweet-as-candy or 'not-worth pig fodder'. I find the lists of synonyms most useful as many of us know, over centuries, varieties often get muddled.

Few, if any books can create spreads like those seen in this book. Photographer Victor Schrager actually creates a studio inside Amy Goldman's barn as she hauls in melon after melon from her fields all summer long. Freshly picked, identified, labeled and photographed is only part of the story here. 

Oh, and this. As my friend Jess said one day over the Holiday when I was talking about this book: "who the Hell would buy a gardening book that is just all about melons?"
OK, well, I would, and I rarely grow melons, but I know that I can (I know this because every few years I do, and I never regret it because melons are one of the few fruits that you can rarely buy ripe and locally-grown. This means the few of us have ever truly experienced what made melons so popular centuries ago. I'm not kidding, melons are worth growing in much the same way that tomatoes are.

I appreciate any book that has step-by-step photos in it, especially when it if for something like how to pollinate or crossbreed cucurbits like melons or cucumbers. 

Amy's book THE MELON has details about how to grow them well, how to sow them and start them early, and how to navigate around any problems. Even if you don't plan on growing melons, this book is a great read, informative on many levels and useful if you are a home chef, professional chef or just an amateur foodie.  I should mention that Amy's is a rather good cook herself, and has included many recipes in the back of the book with stunning photos so even armchair gardeners might find this book useful as a cookbook!

Ken Druse's newest work THE SCENTUAL GARDEN  is much more than just. a book with photos, it's a journal of discoveries, learnings, and inspiration that any gardener will appreciate.

THE SCENTUAL GARDEN - Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance
by Ken Druse (Abrams, 2019)

ll disclosure - I learned about Ken's new book a couple of years ago while I was setting up the national show of the American Primrose Society at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. A long fan of artist Ellen Hoverkamp who mentioned to me that she was working with Ken on a book idea he had about fragrant plants (Ellen created many of the montage photos in this book with here unique photo-scanner style that she has made so famous). She said that she was going to stay late at the garden to see if she could photograph some of the lemon trees for the citrus assemblage that she was working on, when I offered that if she wanted, she could stop by my garden on her way home to Connecticut to see if there were any fragrant plants there that she or Ken might want to use.

This book has both artistic photos and garden photos. This allows one to view all the similarities and differences with 'like-plants' such as these alliums, but also see how they might look like growing in the garden.

In the end, a few plants did make it into the book from my garden (a page on daphne species, some bulb plants, and citrus), but I almost forgot about this book until Ken had emailed me near the end of the editing process asking me for some descriptions about the unique fragrance of a few bulbs. If you own any of Ken's books then you know about his approach, background, and expertise. Few garden authors today brings such a wealth of experience to a book. His years as one of New York's premier photographers (back when photography was truly an art form with 8x10 transparencies and large format cameras). This means that Ken brings not only the eye for excellence and lighting with his photos, but he also brings knowledge that few today can combine which in my opinion makes him the ideal photo editor, garden writer and book designer. Believe me, I know what it takes to create a well-designed book in a digital world! I can only imagine what working with Ken might have been like from his publishers' perspective, but I would imagine and hope that Abrams (very respectfully) appreciated his input and control.

When a plant lover and serious plantsperson creates a book about something like fragrance, no stone is left unturned. Fragrance can mean 'stinky' or alluring, but Ken Druse digs deeper into all sorts of adjacencies with plants and how or why they use fragrance and scent. It's a fascinating read.

This book is stunning (no surprise, what Druse book isn't) but while even I thought that maybe it was just a photo book discovered that moment that I opened it that it is much, much more. Ken writes about how the scent was appreciated (and sometimes, not) in ancient times to today. He taps into details about the complexities of the fragrance industry, examines the chemistry of flowers and the plants we both love the smell of and hate, and he then goes into greater detail about groups of plants and flowers that share similar scents, with descriptions worthy of a wine connoisseurs notebook or a cheese monger's book of descriptions (hello: baryardy?). I've been keeping this book by my bedside at night then bring it downstairs on snowy days to read through near my plant window - just because it's that good. It's one of those few books that I have to resist enjoying it too quickly, just because I don't want the experience to end.

Ellen Hoverkamp's artwork using a laser scanner and plants from gardens that she has access to round out this book with beauty and celebration, capturing each season or even each week of bloom from real gardens. Anyone who grows plants will recognize these relationships in her images.

Both of these books are art. They are 'work's that will never be in that pile of books that gets earmarked for the trash bin or for donation (you know what I mean!). These books will bring you joy (over and over again). They are not one-read-wonders.

I also should preface this post with the fact that  I purchased Ken Druse's book myself on Amazon and Amy Goldman's I accepted gratis from her publicist as a review copy (of course, I was pre-ordering it anyway!). As always, my reviews and recommendations are my own and always come honestly after reading a book in its totality. I like books, what can I say? I also not afraid to advise when a book wasn't right for me, or if it fails to deliver what was promised.

October 1, 2019

Tulips, Alliums and my current thoughts about spring Bulbs

Dare yourself to try tulips in colors you normally would not plant. A red tulip may be more complex in color than you might imagine it to be. Find yourself hating orange? What if it was a deep persimmon color flushed with purple, violet and magenta? Tulips offer all sorts of color options far beyond the slick, commerical studio photo may indicate.

It's nearly too late to order bulbs, but there is still a bit of time (do it now!). I am high on bulb-ordering and planting right now, and thought that I might share some new insights and ideas I have about my bulb planting schemes, and some from others that I recently discovered.

Ordering bulbs is one of those things that sometimes overwhelms me. I am experienced enough to know that in July I must order the rarest of the rare which often must be imported from overseas - Latvia or Lithuania (and as such, the cut-off date for these smaller European nurseries is before Aug. 1st - not to mention that things sell out quickly). Not that I order all that much anymore from Ruksans or that Lithuanian crocus nursery, but sometimes I try to remember, and if lucky, I get a few treasures. 

Bulb planting and curating is indeed an art, and a craft that good gardeners keep perfecting over their lifetime. The good news is that bulbs are rather fool-proof, so there is no bad time to begin, and fear of messing it up is rarely a threat. Still, when it all comes together and you discover the ideal combination of bulbs in the garden, the effect can be extraordinary. Far too often, especially in the US, we plant bulbs as an afterthought. We pick up a few - a dozen of these, 24 of those, some crocus for along the walk, maynbe a frittilaria or three and feel that we are doing the right thing. Most of us learn by seeing, and it seems every year we are pushing oursleves to try something new. One neight has an amazing display of giant allium and soon others invest in a dozen or six, to flank their walk or set in the border. But what else could you do?

I say...let's raise the bar much higher. Plant complex matrixes in our perennial borders. Push ourselves to try colors that we wouldnt dare buy or combine. Plant something you've never grown before. Break the rules and try combining two, three, eight colors that make you feel uncomfortable. Blow your budget by investing in 100 bulbs of just one type - like giant frittilaria imperialis or F. persica and see what happens.

Tulips combined with other spring bulbs and flower from my garden (in this rejected photo from my new book) show how surprisingly well they all combine together. Of course, such density doesnt happen in the garden, but notice how red and white striped tulips here and there play against other bulbs like the frittilaria.

After that, I seem to get lazy. Or, maybe just dazed and confused with all of the choices offered in the main-stream imported Dutch bulb catalogs. This shouldn't stall me. I have been growing bulbs since I was very young begging my mom to let me buy bulbs at a local discount store (Spag's in Shrewsbury, MA) at around the same time I would be asking my dad to buy me Matchbox cars. Im sure that at young age, I would choose colors that I probably would never buy today, as experimenting in a garden is a right of passage for most gardeners. Plant fearlessly and learn.

We may think that the harsh-coloring of tulips like this red and yellow parrot tulip are too extreme for us, but in a garden that is still mostly grey and brown, it stands out and acually feels very natural.

Don't get me wrong, I love color, and after 30 years as a graphic and product designers - I love to experiment and play with palettes - but back then, I was probably more likely to be moved by a fancy striped 'Rembrant' tulip than being as strategic as creating a palette and an integrated garden design. The funny thing is, I've never walked away from those streaked and striped 'Rembrant'-type tulips, in fact, I am even more interested in sourcing the correct 'Rembrant' types - those that actually have the virus that causes the window-paneing and streaks - but sadly, they are hard if not impossible to find easily in the US anymore (and the very great ones, while available in the UK, are always sold out by the time I remember to order some),

I am always pleased with this combination in very late winter or early spring. Maybe becasue it is like fire or 'heat'? But it totally works in my garden.

This past weekend I had the incredible honor to be asked by the Massachusetts Master Gardeners annual Symposium. Joining three other speakers, I stayed for the entire day and learned much more than I thought I might. The topics were perfectly timed for the season, with noted bulb expert Jacqueline van der Kloet author of the new book 'A Year in My Garden'  that will be available in the US next February on Amazon (it's available in the UK sooner, however). 

Here in the states you may know of her work in planning the fantastic bulb palette at the Chicago Lurie garden, (or that blue allee of scillas and other blue minor bulbs at the Bedford, NY home of Martha Stewart). Jacqueline's slide show was very inspirational for me, as not only do I enjoy seeing how others combine their bulbs, but it changed how I think about choosing and planting bulbs. You can visit her website to see how she combines bulbs and plants, but I'd say get her book as well. She layers a matrix across an entire garden or bed, often mixing bulbs within perennials and grasses as the Dutch tend to do to make gorgeous communities of plants.

I should mention that the other two speakers were Paul Zammit - the Director of Horticulture from the Toronto Botanical Gardens, and Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. (I know, right? How could I forget that line up?). Fergus had many slides with bulbs, as did Paul who showed them mostly in containers, but still so inspirational. Seeing three accomplished gardeners share their ideas on what one can do with bulbs had me staying up all night ordering tulips. These seminars are dangerous.

Now, this year, I was a good boy and ordered many of my tulips and bulbs earlier (just a few weeks ago), starting with bulbs sell out quickly, a(mostly Madonna lilies) and galanthus varieties so with me, a deadline is always good, but for everything else, I keep stalling and making list after list, usually committing only once I start seeing my favorite varieties selling out. I hate that feeling. My problem is usually that I cant make up my mind.

In gardening, we are often taught to plant great numbers of one variety together, and while this works well with many plants, it can be boring. Imagine this bed of tulips with two more varieties of contrasting or similar colors, or smaller bulbs are perennials scattered throughout.

Jacqueline van der Kloet focused three points - the color palette, the transitions between the various bulb seasons -and how to integrate bulbs into borders or with other plants. So imagine a bed of perennials and interplanted bulbs through the entire spring season. It can begin with smaller bulbs, the early ones like snow drops and crocus, and then transition along with early emerging perennials into one stage of early to mid-season tulips and maybe narcissus in one color palette, and then how that same bed could move into a late-spring statement, maybe with giant alliums and the tallest tulips that were late-blooming. I think in this country, we forget to weave in a web of densly planted bulbs of many types within our perennial borders. Instead we either clump types together, or we place a few allium and call it a day.

Both Fergus and Jacquiline used similar varieties as well, which surprised me as maybe I was missing something. Sure there were muscari and scillas set out as a carpet - even forgetmenots, self seeded in pools of color usually over planted with a red or apricot Darwin or early tulip, but then tall and magestic late blooming tulips scattered throughout a bed with emerging perennials took over - and more than one color sprinkled around a border as if they too self seeded in amongst the perennials and other bulbs. Both used lily-flower tulips that bloom late, but are very tall - like brilliant orange 'Ballerina' tulips and 'Merlot', a deep wine colored one with vase -shaped buds. Two tulips I would never think of buying when I see them in catalogs. 

A mid of colored tulips works well, but while this formal English bedding scheme of nothing but tulips works here at Tower Hill; Botanic Garden, few of us have the time and dollars to pull out an entire Victorian bedding scheme once it is complete to install something else. I do plant a few rows like this around the garden, near the greenhouse or along a drive, but always remember that you can create your own mix of tulips and sprinkle them through a border of perennials.

Top back this up, 'Merlot' shows up frequently on top Euro garden designers 'favortie plants' lists. So I need to order some, as apparantly the color blends in well with other plants, and it is of a shade of purple that works well in the garden. I mean - let's face it, some tulips in purple are too dark or just receded when viewed in the garden. Others are too lavender, or feel out of place in the natural setting. 

Now here's the thing about tulips - something I learned early-on in my career when I used to help install spring flower show displays in the late 1970's - There is hardly a bad combination of colors when it comes to tulips. So honestly, mixing up a bunch of similar or even different colors is often not a bad idea. Most colors work well, but if you are committed to a scheme or want to curate a particular palette, it's not a bad idea to mix three different varieties of the same or similar color. A peachy pink, a dark pink and a magenta, for example. Many of us have learned this lesson with dahlias, but now let's take it to tulips. I want to plant a bed of all the red tulip shades together to see if it will convince me that solid red tulips can be beautiful in the garden.

Tulip colors are often much more complex than we imagine that they are. A wine colored variety with an orange one may seem like it wouldnt work, but once you examine the colors in a petal, you can begin to see the variety of tones and layers in a blossom that might make you rethink how you combine colors. Solid or bi-colored pre-curated mixed sometimes feel sterile compared to a complex mix of bulbs.

We tend to make crazy rules about color, which I understand but not if you have never grown that particular plant and have seen it in flower in your garden. I've worked with a few clients this spring who had very strict rules about the colors they wanted with their tulips. And while I tried to convince them that in springtime, combinations like orange and purple are extraordinary once viewed in a spring garden (particularly one that is still mostly brown or grey, with lime green growth emerging) but I think many people just imagine a harsh Sunkist orange (as in a closeup of a tulip photo in a catalog) and seeing the entire picture - meaning, the low-angle setting spring sunshine which is so bright and direct, especially when it illuminates the petal from an angle, and the atmospheric tones of a spring garden - mostly every shade of greyish brown - essentially a canvas of earthy colors (more grey on overcast days, and more chocolate and cocoa on sunny days) all with speckles of lime green foliage on branch tips, or reddish emerging tips on perennials). 

Look at the colors on this parrot tulip. On an overcast day, it's almost blue or violet - yet a photo in a catalog may look simply bright red. Light is everything when it comes to tulips and most bulbs, and the fact that this purple-blushy red tulip blooms when the garden is still mostly brown, granite and grey? Means that it looks outstanding in the landscape.

We really need to think like artists or painters and not interior designers when we choose our spring palettes with bulbs (or even annuals). I mean - you may not be interested in white flowers, but snowdrops? How precious are those in February or March? You never think about a color palette when planting those bulbs. They 'fit' perfectly with dried woodland leaves, composting branches and bits of the remaining show. 

'Black tulips' which are really dark violet, always seem like a good idea, but just be sure to site them well. They need distance behind them or light-green foliage somwhere to add contrast. If you do the often mimiced scheme of black and white together the effect can even be worse, as the white tulips will stand out and the dark ones will recede. Think first then plant.

So imagine tulips now. I've experienced great excitement with tulips that few might think are attractive in the garden - those bright yellow and red or maroon-streaked varieties like 'Hellmar', 'Gavotta' or brighter yet - 'Keizerkroon' or a favorite 'Bright Parrot' which to many with taste, may seem like a clown-pants inspired combo, but there is a reason why it is the one parrot that sells out first in most catalogs - when you see it in full bloom in the brown and grey garden of April? You instantly 'get it'. It 'works' then, and only then. Even better when combined with the deep purple of Muscari or the blues of hyacinths - I mean - It's spring 100%. And it's a combo that would never work in June or even in high summer where it truly would be considered tasteless and eye-bleeding, but in April or May? It is completely acceptable and creates joy in much the same way Easter pastels do in March, but never in October.

Here dark tulips set against a light background work great. Even on an overcast day.

Speaking of pastels colors and Easter colors - in the garden, that palette can often be dull. You need to push it a bit into Sweet Tart bliss with the addition of other candy colors to really make it work. What I mean is, again - a palette that can work in the grey and brown canvas of early spring will rarely work any later once the foliage emerges in the garden. I often have to remind new flower gardeners that while planning a garden in winter is fun and important (the process of cutting out photos of flowers from seed catalogs or using screen-grabs to create an idea board), the reality is often very different once you get the plants out into the garden. 

Most tulips pair well with each other, but I find that the pure or solid colors like solid pink or solid red are often the most difficult to use outdoors. Be open to using shaded tones, light orange to dark orange combined with purple, or many shades of orange (which in tulips often include bits of pink) combined with other colors.

We should all pay attention to the total atmosphere of space. Reflected light, the angle of light, what the plants will be set against, a dark hedge or a distant view, even a fence that is painted white. Remember that the real garden experience is often missed by planning merely on paper or on-screen. More often than not, we forget that a garden is mostly all green (or brown and tan in spring).

Similarly to the black-tulip -juxtaposition concept, lime green and burgundy foliage on perennials and shrubs in early spring can be used as a great effect with tulips. Notice the tulip foliage which often is a harsh, kelly green that does little to enhange the blooms, but the gold tradescantia and peony foliage add as much color to the canvas as the tulips do.

I like to encourage folks to first take notes and digital photos (scroll back on the pics you took the past few seasons - flag those that worked, or ones that revealed insights that surprised you, and also mark what didn't work. I do both, and often my notes in a notebook are the most useful, then backed up with photos that are visual. In this way, my handwritten notes reminded me that all of those borders with purple, white and pink tulips I saw at posh suburban gardens were - well, yawwwwnnnn. While a few with the sparkle of Princes Irene orange tulips and violet tulips with an underplanting of Muscari were 'wow'. 

Tulip 'Princes Irene' is a long-time favorite of mine. Many might think of it as simply an orange tulip, but depending on the light that particular day, it can look burginy feathered with a blush of lavender frost across the entire petal, or purple againse persimmon. It pairs perfectly with blue Muscari or scilla. It's dark stems too make it a standout in a spring garden.

The combination made my heart race and it felt like spring. I also noted down why, because Princes Irene is a unique tulip - one that has a faint feathering on violet on the outside of the petals - over the 'orange' (and while I realize that orange is a polarizing color' this ain't no orange tulip - it's a complex blend of colors (like most good tulips) that changes over time. Once you add the airbrushing of pale lavender blush over the deep persimmon of the bloom and the violet feathering, along with the dark stems and foliage - and the underplanting of deep violet muscari, and you can instantly see why this is a favorite of botanical garden planners, good garden designers, and again, why it sells out early. Also, it was featured on the cover of last years' White Flower Farm catalog.

'Broken' or 'Rembrant' types are always a favorite with me.


This year, I am ordering 100 each of the tall, lily flowered tulips - 'Ballerina' (orange) and 'Merlot'. If both experts use them in their gardens, I must try - and it does make sense, at least in dense, community plantings which are essentially the borders I have here (a combo of grasses, small shrubs, perennials and self-sowing annuals). I need tall tulips to emerge through all of the growth and to float above the bright foliage -much of which is lime green or purple.

'Gavotta' is a dark wine colored tulip with custard colored edges, another favortie of mine as it fits nicely into the landscape, but it is harder to mix in with other tulips.

I also am designing an earlier matrix of multi-flowered narcissus, muscari, scilla to provide early color, and a secondary palette of Early Tulips, that is more traditional 'spring', if you will - Easter candy-colored blooms ranging from 'Apricot Beauty' tulips, to lavender, ones white brushed with red, and pale yellow brushed with white 'Vancouver'. I love this combo which when combined with Muscari 'Valerie Finnis' reminds me of the old, spring flower shows that I used to go to as a kid at Horticultural Hall in my home town on Worcester, MA.

In the greenh
This winter I am forcing a collection of swarf iris -mostly Iris reticulata named selections, not just because they are easy, but because they are beautiful, and interesting when viewed as a collection with all of the varieties.
 They are also rather inexpensive.

Let's not forget forcing bulbs. If you plant to do any forcing, these too are best to order first so that you can get them chilling. I'm planting my bulbs for forcing this week - as I need 16 weeks of vernal cooling. This year I am focusing on growing all of the dwarf iris I can get my hands on (so far 25 varieties of I. reticulata). They are easy (yes, I am lazy and impatient at times), and I can take them out from under then benches near the foundation where they chill near 38° F as early as New Years' Day, to provide a boost of spring color both in the greenhouse and indoors briefly in mid-January. 

Iris reticulata bulbs are placed into plastic pots with a quick-draining potting mix, and kept outdoors until November or when hard-freezes threaten as I dont want the bulbs to freeze. They then are moved to a location which is dark and just above freezing until New Year's Day or after. For me, that's in the greenhouse on the floor under a bench but you might try an isulated beer cooler on your porch or in an unheated garage or shed that doesnt freeze.

Of course, paperwhites have been ordered - most of the various varieties because I love the scent of cat pee (really, they all smell good to me), and some smaller forcing narcissus - particularly the hoop miniatures, which have become very inexpensive this year for some reason (the 'Julia Jane' strain) which I pot up thickly in 4 inch pots. These too will add cheer in January and February.

I can already imagine what my plant windows will look like starting in late January with the forced bulbs, but it does take some planning -which is sometimes difficult in late summer and early autumn with other tasks calling you.

I am working of a bit of a mini-master plan of the garden, in an attempt to just be more mindful about what I plant. The new borders and walks where the putting green used to be, isn't complete yet as I spent the summer working on my new book, but there are spots where I want to plant different combinations of things. One side path that leads to the old stone long walk has about 8 feet shaded by a tall Picea japonica 'Skylands'. The soil here is perfectly loamy and well-draining, and I filled it with turks cap lilies (Asiatic pendant ones) last year, which did very well. I trialed a few Fritillaria pallidiflora here for the past two years, and they thrived so this year I am adding 40 more. A little excessive but I've learned that investing in a big show with some plants is much better than getting just 5, or 10. It's an excellent habit to exercise with any plant in the garden. 

My TIp for you? Keep your tulip bulbs cool, and not indoors until you plant them. THe buds inside tulips can abort in room-temperature settings (like a hardware store).  Also avoid discount tulips if they have been mistreatred - a local supermarket keeps thier bulbs outside too late in the season and I know they have frozen many times before being sold. Ideally, good garden centers will keep them in a cool room, and not expose them to hot temperatures. When in doubt, mail order is often the best way to get bulbs at the right time for planting.

Of course, before investing in significant numbers of one plant, it's always good to trial them. I have killed many fritillaria imperialis over the years, but I have one yellow one in a certain spot that has bloomed annually for over 20 years. In this spot, I want to plant a larger collection of them, but as they are costly to invest in, I will wait a year or two. This year I am still ordering a few smaller lots of other bulbs (tulips in various colors) and narcissus) to 'trial' as one really should observe them 'in the garden' on-site, to see how the colors really look in the unique light and colors of your garden. I sometimes just plant these smaller lots in the veg garden, because I can use them as cut flowers, moving them later if I love the combos into the borders.

Alliums were never really all that interesting to me, but lately, I've appreciated their value. I'm referring here to the large if not gigantic and tall alliums like 'Gladiator' and 'Ambassador.' While costly, (and always worth it if you can spare not eating for a month) when May arrives, one rarely regrets all of that ramen. To make things more afforable, I've learned to tier-out various large alliums, not buying as many of the super-sized ones, just a few. I plant 6-12 of each giant variety filling in with smaller ones. The reality ends up being about 25 per bed, but again, they are being mixed-together with other bulbs and perennials and together, put on a sensational show that doesn't break the bank.

Cut-flower farms for tulips are becoming more commom like this one in Rhode Island, but notice how the rows of colors are rather uninteresting. These places are a great place to see lots of varieties together though, and if labeled, make notes of how you imagine certain colors being planted together.

Jacquiline showed how she mixes and planted large amounts of bulbs in the mixed borders. She has her team mix up a batch of bulbs in a wheelbarrow and then tosses then into a border so that they land irregularly spaced. On commissioned sites, she has the border mown, so that one can see the bulbs, and then a team goes in and moving from one end of a bed to the other, they get planted.

Jacquiline did share a tip - which she sometimes has to use, which is after they toss around all of the bulbs, she sets out apples where the allium might go, as these are bulbs that are sometimes shipped separately and you don't want to shove a spade into an expensive fritillaria! While randomness is encouraged when spacing bulbs, there are placed were rows work (at least in my garden). I don't mind a tidy row of something lined along a path if it is well-curated with tiers and interest.

There have been years when I tried mixed that were just 'too expected' or too pretty, if that could be a thing. This mix just wasnt for me as it felt a little too contrived or matchy matchy.

Mostly though, all of us agreed that mixed planting is the way to go, with a natural approach that is both modern and respectful of nature. Such garden is not only good pollinator communities but ecosystems, a point Fergus made when they had Great Dixter audited recently  (2017) to discover the biodiversity. I don't have the details as I forgot my notebook, but his first response from the government authorities on such matters was more of a nod, as they expressed that a 'garden' that is cultivated may not be as diverse as natural woodland or meadow would be. The results were staggering in favor of a garden is more varied - discovering even rare bees and other animals that shocked the auditors.

 I think we get caught up in things like permaculture, so-called 'bad invasives' and native plants - all very important, of course, but we fail to recognize the complex plant communities of our own gardens. Great Dixter even established a Biodiversity Committee in 2012, a lesson that many American public gardens could learn from or introduce, as few of us think about biodiversity in the cultivated and curated garden. We know that pollinators appreciate a mixed community, but so do other species. Learning that these complex relationships exist in the artificial or curated space is proving to be just as important as those in wild sites. I really want to learn more about this in the future.

Don't forget to plant plenty of bulbs for cut flowers too.  Often these choices are different than tulips I might choose for the borders. Darker colors are stylish now, and in a vase or indoors they can often be more effective than in the garden.
That does raise a point however, that I want to research more, after being prompted to consider writing about how spring bulbs are 'good for pollinators' by a gardening organization. As with most topics suggested to me, I started to dig a little deeper on the subject, always questioning and proof checking my sources to see, for example, if snowdrops are indeed an excellent source of pollen for early emerging bees. I quickly learned that no, they are not, as are not most spring-blooming bulbs. Sure, bees do visit these flowers, but often at risk. Honey bees may benefit the most (they are non-native, remember) but the native bees rarely visit these flowers, and aside from Bumblebees, few if any native pollinators visit imported plants this early in the spring. One study at Cornell even looked at how such plantings can harm native bees, acting like ' bird feeders' in winter - where finches and migratory seed eaters begin to depend on a site and source, that only briefly appears off-season, thus luring them into an environment that won't consistently deliver food and energy.

What I learned (briefly) was that native plants that bloom early are the best for native bees and pollinators. Pussy willows, for example, or Skunk cabbage. Shrubs that bloom early are ideal as well, as they last longer and thrive consistently when the weather is truly right where a snowdrop blooms when it is too cold, and while irresistible for pollinators, often attracts them to their death or crocus which will open for an hour if the sun is positioned to their liking and the temperature is just perfect, but will close as soon as a cloud passes over or when snow flurries strike.

It is bulb planting season but I cant start until next week. Still, keeping up with the orders as they come in is often a chore. My advice is to plant as they arrive, and don't save them up for a bulb planting day, as the task could be too much to undertake in a single day.

For now, I need to go plant bulbs as the boxes are arriving.
I know. Most of us don't have a team when it comes to planting bulbs. A task I always forget about until that time comes when on that gorgeous fall day, I have to commit to digging and planting a thousand bulbs by myself. Fergus had a slightly easier plan, and that was to set in one bulb at a time around existing perennials (which is what I will probably do). He

Lastly, you have permission to order all that you want now, as I just placed my orders today :)
One must protect one's resources~!

Some of last years tulips in my garden combined with primroses and anemones show how well many colors do go together.