International Save-a-Plant Week

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Actually, there is no International Save-a-Plant Week … but I think there should be one.

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Gorgeous late summer flower beds at the International Peace Garden, Ottawa. All these plants will soon be pulled out and destroyed. Photo: gardenpromenade.ca

This would be a week in late September or early October when gardeners would be allowed to help themselves to cuttings of annuals and dig up tender bulbs in public spaces. I’m thinking of all the splendid plantings of so-called annuals that are actually tender perennials—plants like coleus, dahlias, begonias, flowering maples, cannas, feather grasses, hibiscus, echeverias, ornamental bananas, elephant ears and so much more—that presently fill traffic islands, roadside carpet beds and city park flower beds.

These gardens are actually stunning right now, but all of these plants will soon be pulled up and destroyed by teams of municipal employees. In warmer climates, they pull “summer annuals” to make room for winter ones; in cold climates, they’re often replaced by tulip bulbs … or the beds are simply left empty until the following spring.

A Bit of Organization

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This would have to be organized: we don’t want people rampaging through public gardens like Swedish soccer fans! Photo: Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, I’m not promoting allowing novice gardeners to rampage through public parks, taking cuttings and pulling plants indiscriminately. Many plantings are permanent ones and you need a bit of experience to tell the difference between perennials and shrubs that need to be left in peace and the temporary plantings that will soon head to the trash heap. You’d need to set up special days and schedules and have an employee or master gardener who knows their plants there to oversee and direct.

Or let local garden clubs harvest plant material, then offer it to gardeners.

Failing that, municipalities should at least put their pulled plants in piles in designated spots and let people rummage through them. And if you don’t think anyone would pick their way through piles of wilting refuse plants, you don’t know gardeners!

Criminal Mind

I must confess that each year at this season, while I see those luscious beds brimming with gorgeous plants that have no idea they’re about to meet their maker, I’m sorely tempted to sneak out after dark and do a bit of guerrilla plant harvesting myself. In fact, only the thought of arrest and possible imprisonment really holds me back.

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I’d rather think of myself as a horticultural Robin Hood than a plant thief. Illus.: cinemablend.com

I’m not even afraid of public embarrassment: you could put me on the front page of the local newspaper with a caption “Garden Writer Caught Stealing Coleus Cuttings” and I wouldn’t be ashamed at all. I know a lot of people who would see me as a sort of horticultural Robin Hood: stealing from Big Brother to give to the people.

So, what do you think? Don’t gardeners everywhere—and the plants that are about to die!—deserve an International Save-a-Plant Week? Bring it up at your local municipal council meeting. Maybe something can be done!20170922B

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Overwintering Hardy Water Lilies

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Even hardy water lilies may need a bit of winter protection. Photo: Kelvinsong, Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a curious contradiction: hardy water lilies (Nymphaea spp.), even those growing naturally way up north in the snow-covered boreal forest, are incapable of tolerating freezing! That’s because, even in the Far North, the water of a lake rarely freezes very deeply. So even aquatic plants adapted to very cold climates have never had to adapt to freezing. Therefore if you’re growing hardy water lilies in a garden pond, you have to take that into consideration.

In regions where ice comes and goes in the winter (usually zones 8 and above, as well as in certain zone 7 areas), the water in a pond will never freeze to any great depth and you can put your hardy water lilies just about anywhere as long as the crown is covered with water at all times, but in any climate where solid ice does form, you have to assume that the water will freeze to a depth of 12 to 16 inches (30-40 cm). Since water lilies are usually grown in pots placed on the bottom of the pond, that elevates their crown to about 8 inches (20 cm) above the bottom. In other words, if you add the two together, you’re essentially looking at needing a pond depth of 2 feet (60 cm) or more to ensure that the crown is not in danger of freezing.

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You can move the water-lily’s pot to the bottom of a neighbor’s swimming pool for the winter.

If your pond is over 2 feet (60 cm) deep, just move your water lily pots to the deepest part for the winter. Or, if you or a neighbor has a swimming pool, place them at the bottom of the pool for the winter. Another possibility is to dig a trench in the garden and to bury the pots below the frost level.

The easiest solution, though, is to find cultivars capable of growing at a good depth (60 cm or more), such as ‘Sultan’, ‘Comanche’, ‘Attraction’ or ‘Moorei’, and to simply place them at that depth permanently. Yes, they’ll be slower off the mark in the spring (the deeper a water lily grows, the longer it takes for its leaves to reach the water’s surface), but at least you’ve saved yourself the effort of sloshing knee-deep through the cold water of a pond each spring and fall as you carry your water lily pots back and forth.20170921a Kelvinsong, WC

How Bulbs Plant Themselves

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Contractile roots pull bulbs down to the proper depth.

For a long time, scientists wondered how bulbs, which grow from seeds that germinate at or near the surface of the soil, end up being buried so deeply. And they discovered that it’s because they produce unique roots called contractile roots. These begin the season like any other root, penetrating deep into the soil, but then they begin to contract, becoming condensed and wrinkled, like an accordion that deflates. Since the lower end of the root clings to the soil particles in its vicinity, the result is that they pull the bulb downward. Thus, the bulb actually plants itself!

The Right Depth

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Traditional planting depths for spring-flowering bulbs.

Each species of bulb at its preferred soil depth, one that shelters it from predators and drought, and may take a few years to reach it, descending deeper and deeper each season as the bulb, tiny when it germinates, grows in size. The bulbs even adjust to the type of soil, descending deeper in light, airy soils than in dense, heavy ones.

Studies have shown that the main influence in bulb depth is actually sunlight. Contractile roots react to light penetrating the soil, specifically rays at the blue end of the spectrum, pulling the bulb deep enough into the soil that the penetration of blue rays no longer influences it. And the degree of tolerance to blue rays varies according to the species, explaining why some bulbs descend more deeply than others.

In Your Own Garden

If you pay attention, you can actually observe the phenomenon of contractile roots in your own garden. Here are two examples:

  • While planting bulbs in the fall, you accidentally drop one and it lies on the ground all winter. (And who hasn’t done that!) You’ll find the lost bulb in the spring, as it will bloom even if it’s only partly buried. But come summer, it will have disappeared entirely, pulled underground by its contractile roots. Within two or three years, it will have planted itself at the right depth for the type of bulb in question.
  • Or you planted lily bulbs at a depth of 6 inches (15 cm), as recommended on the planting instructions that came with them. Now, some lilies adapt very well to that depth and will remain there. However, when you decide to divide your lilies five years later, you will find that some have “migrated” to a depth of 8 inches (20 cm) and others to a full foot (30 cm), according to their true preferred depth.

Tulips Like It Deep

Most tulips actually like much deeper plantings than bulb companies usually recommend: some botanical tulips will descend to a depth of 2 feet (60 cm) over the years!

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Bulbs often pull themselves down below depths where predators can reach them.

The theory for this extreme depth is that the bulb is trying to protect itself from bulb-loving marmots found in their natural environment. The squirrels of your own garden also like tulip bulbs, but they won’t dig anywhere near 2 feet (60 cm) to find them. They’ll even give up past 8 inches (20 cm)! That’s one of the reasons why tulip bulbs planted 1 foot (30 cm) deep often perennialize better than the tulip bulbs planted at the usually recommended 6 inches (15 cm). (Read more about this phenomenon at Deep Planting Prolongs Tulips.)

The bulbs that plant themselves: ain’t nature wonderful?20170920A

Plants: Not Good at Multitasking

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20170919A.jpgWe all know people who seem capable of multitasking (performing multiple tasks simultaneously): answering the phone while filling in a crossword, weeding the vegetable garden while watching the kids, washing the baby while mowing the lawn, and so on.

But plants are not very good at multitasking. They prefer to do one thing at a time, performing their various tasks—rooting, growing, flowering, producing seed, preparing for winter, lying dormant, etc.—successively. Thus, when they’re in bloom, they’re not inclined to produce new roots, new stems or new leaves, nor when they’re producing seeds, and when they’re dormant … well, they won’t do much of anything!

This affects the way we garden, or at least should affect it. Unfortunately, too many gardeners expect their plants to do everything at the same time and come away disappointed or confused when that just doesn’t work.

Here are some examples of situations where it is better to let our plants do one thing at a time:

  • When you transplant or divide a plant, pinch off its flowers. It may pain you to do so, but you’ll reap the rewards later, as a pause in blooming encourages the plant to concentrate on producing a good root system. Once it is well established, you can let it bloom again … and now it will bloom much more heavily.
  • Avoid supplying nitrogen fertilizer (one where the first digit on the label, nitrogen, is the highest) to plants that are “hardening off” (preparing to enter dormancy), especially in late summer. Too much nitrogen at that time can stimulate off-season growth that will be weak and subject to cold damage and even reduce the plant’s overall hardiness.
  • Remove any fruits in the first year or two after planting small fruits (blueberries, currants, bush cherries, etc.) and for up to five years after planting fruit trees (apples, plums, pears, etc.). This will give the plant time to settle in well before having to invest its energy in bearing fruit.

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    Cutting back salad greens just before they mature will often encourage  them to start all over. Photo: Kent Tarrant

  • Harvest leafy vegetables like lettuce, arugula and spinach just before they reach their peak by cutting them back to about an inch (2 cm) above the ground. This will prevent them from producing a flower stalk and thus thwarts their goal of producing seed. It’s a well-known fact that when leaf vegetables “bolt” (the term used when they produce a flower stalk), they become bitter and inedible, but if you harvest them early, most will resprout from the base, producing new leaves … and giving you a second harvest.

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    Let broccoli resprout after you harvest it. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

  • Similarly, rather than pulling out broccoli plants after harvest, simply leave what remains of the plant growing. Since you prevented it from blooming (what you harvest on broccoli are its immature flower buds), the plant will try to produce new flower stalks, giving you a second crop. This works too with cabbage and kale … if there’s still a few weeks left in the growing season, they’ll have time to produce a small head (cabbage) or a cluster of new leaves (kale).
  • If you buy a perennial that has been forced into early bloom for May sales (often the case with echinaceas and gaillardias, for example), it will pass the rest of the season trying to keep on blooming and will barely put on any growth at all, no matter how much you baby it. Thus it won’t produce the solid root system it needs to survive the winter. As a result, you often you’ve paid for a perennial that behaves like an annual and doesn’t come back the following spring. The secret to “re-perennializing” such a plant is to not to let it bloom at all the first year, but rather to remove not only the flowers that were present at purchase time, but every flower that it tries to produce that season. Since you thwart its effort to keep putting its energy into blooming, the plant will invest it instead in a robust root system, dense foliage and hardening off for winter. Then, the next summer, once it’s well-established, let it bloom its head off and you’ll find it’s gained in both vigor and hardiness.
  • Deadheading (removing the faded flowers) from certain shrubs and perennials (roses, golden marguerites [Anthemis tinctoria], perennial salvias, etc.) will prevent them from putting energy into producing seeds and will therefore often help the plant rebloom that same season.
  • Remove flowers and flower buds from cuttings and pinch even the tip of their stem to stop them temporarily from growing and blooming. That way the stem will focus on rooting.

Take full advantage of the natural tendency of plants to unitask and encourage them to do what you want them to do. After all, it is your garden!20170919A

The Rule of Three

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Plant bulbs at at depth 3 times their height and space them at 3 times their diameter.

The basic rule for planting bulbs is to plant them at a depth equal to three times the height of the bulb and to space them at three times their diameter. In very cold climates (zone 3 or less), it may be helpful to bury hardy bulbs deeper than normal, up to a depth equal to five times the height of the bulb. That way the bulb will be better protected against the cold.

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Tulips perenniallze best when planted 1 foot (30 cm) deep. Photo: fiercebloom.com

It is also worthwhile making am exception for hybrid tulips, like Triumphs, Parrots, and Darwin Hybrids. You’ll find that they will be more more perennial and better protected from squirrels if you plant 1 foot (30 cm) deep. That’s about twice the usual recommendation.

Even so, only plant tulip bulbs extra deep when you can offer them loose, well-drained soils. In heavy clay soil, which the tulip’s spring shoot  has more difficulty piercing, it is better to stick to the original rule of three!011.K

Plant Trees without Amending the Soil

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When planting a woody plant, just backfill with the original soil. Photo: Alex Indigo, Flickr

Forget the old technique for planting shrubs and trees, the one I learned when I was a kid. We were told at the time to amend the soil removed from the planting hole of a tree, an evergreen or a shrub by mixing in a good dose of compost, organic matter or fertilizer. Some gardeners even went so far as to replace all the soil removed with quality top soil.

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Tree and shrub roots tend to remain in the area with the best soil, eventually girdling the plant. Photo: distinctivetreecare.com

However, studies led notably by the American tree guru, Dr. Alex Shigo, have since shown that when the soil in the planting hole is better than the soil all around, the roots tend to stay in that area, circling within that patch of richer, more friable soil. In fact, with time, they can literally girdle the tree, strangling it.

Instead, backfill with the original soil, adding no soil amendments (fertilizer, compost, manure, etc.). Since the soil is now of the same quality everywhere, the roots will do what Mother Nature wanted them to do: extend out in all directions.

You can, however, apply mycorrhizal fungi to the plant’s rootball, especially in soils that have been perturbed. These beneficial fungi improve root growth and, contrary to fertilizers that, when added to the planting hole, encourage the roots to stay nearby, actually tend to spur them to spread out widely.

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To improve the soil around a tree or shrub, apply compost or fertilizer throughout the entire root zones… and it extends beyond the drip line. That will encourage the roots to extend outward.

If you do want to improve the texture or quality of the soil, do so after planting, fertilizing or applying a layer of compost over the entire area, as far as the roots will eventually reach, that is out to and beyond the tree’s eventual drip line. That way, you’ll encourage the roots to spread in all directions in search of the added nutrients … and you’ll also improve the growth of all the plants in that zone.20170917A.Alex Indigo, Flickr

10 Favorite Daffodils

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I don’t often repost blogs that were posted elsewhere, but I just saw this one, written by Kathleen LaLiberte of Longfield Gardens and recently published on the National Garden Bureau website and it was fun, simple and attractive, so why not share it? Also, I’m a big fan of narcissus (daffodils or jonquils if you prefer). Besides, with over 500 cultivars of narcissus currently available, who doesn’t want to know, which ones a plant expert considers to be the best!

Here you go!

The National Garden Bureau’s 10 Favorite Narcissus

Yellow trumpet daffodils are far and away the world’s most popular style of daffodils. But why stop there when the daffodil world has so much more to offer? According to the American Daffodil Society, there are 13 official daffodil flower types and more than 25,000 named cultivars!

So how do you decide which varieties to plant in your garden? Start with these 10 timeless favorites. All have proven to be vigorous, sturdy and reliably perennial. They include many different flower styles and bloom times, so you will get a full month of spring color every year.

#1 – Dutch Master’ or Yellow River’

Daffodil Dutch Master - The iconic daffodil is big and yellow with a very large cup. A Top 10 Favorite from NGB

The iconic daffodil is big and yellow with a very large cup. For years, the go-to variety was King Alfred, but it’s no longer in cultivation. Instead, look for ‘Dutch Master or ‘Yellow River. Both have large, egg-yolk-yellow flowers with oversize trumpets. These classic yellow daffodils are great for massing and naturalizing. They bloom early and have a bold presence in the landscape.

Height: 18  inches (45 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#2 – ‘Barrett Browning

Daffodil Barrett Browning has pure white petals surrounding a red-orange cup. One of NGB top 10 favorite daffodils for your garden and home
 This daffodil is easy to recognize: pure white petals surrounding a red-orange cup. A golden yellow halo encircles the base of the cup and adds to the glow. ‘Barrett Browning’ is an early bloomer, an excellent naturalizer and it holds up well in warm climates.
Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#3. Goblet

Daffodil Goblet has a yellow halo at the base of the trumpet gives the blossoms an even sunnier look. One of the top 10 NGB daffodil picks for your home and garden

This daffodil makes a perfect partner for ‘Dutch Master or ‘Unsurpassable. The large flowers have pure white petals surrounding a widely flared and ruffled yellow cup. A yellow halo at the base of the trumpet gives the blossoms an even sunnier look. Long-lasting and simply beautiful.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#4 – ‘Orange Progress

Daffodil Orange Progress have Deep yellow petals set off brilliant orange, tightly ruffled cups. One of NGB top 10 Daffodils!
 Extra-large flowers and extra-bright colors make ‘Orange Progress’ a great choice for landscaping. The flowers never go unnoticed. Deep yellow petals set off brilliant orange, tightly ruffled cups. The weatherproof blossoms have thick petals and lots of substance.
Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#5 – Pink Pride

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Photo: dutchbulbs.com

Possibly the best pink daffodil around. The oversize flowers and have broad, thick, snow-white petals. Prominent, ruffled cups open apricot and age to coral pink with a touch of orange (no narcissus has truly pink cups). ‘Pink Pride’s blossoms face outward and slightly upward, which makes them extra showy in the garden and great for cut flower arrangements.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#6 – Tahiti

Daffodil Tahiti - One of the all-time greats of the daffodil world.

One of the all-time greats of the daffodil world. ‘Tahiti is a multiple award winner and has been consistently popular since it was first introduced back in 1956. Layers of rounded, golden yellow petals are interspersed with frilly, red-orange accents. ‘Tahiti is a mid to late season daffodil that is long-lasting in the garden and is an excellent cut flower.

Height: 18 inches (45 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#7 – Cheerfulness

Daffodil Cheerfulness's double flowers are creamy white with yellow highlights and one of NGB top 10 Daffodils for your home and garden

There are so many reasons to love this daffodil…starting with the name ‘Cheerfulness’! The double flowers are creamy white with yellow highlights and are borne in clusters of 3 to 4 blossoms per stem. ‘Cheerfulness has long slender stems and narrow foliage. It looks fabulous in a vase and has a wonderful, gardenia-like fragrance. Blooms in late spring.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#8 – ‘Golden Echo

Daffodil Golden Echo - An outstanding daffodil in every way.
 An outstanding daffodil in every way. ‘Golden Echo’s mid-size flowers and relatively compact height are perfect for flower beds and containers. The blossoms measure about 3” across and have long, lemon yellow trumpets, crisp white petals, and a striking yellow halo. They are fragrant and just the right size for cheery spring flower arrangements.
Height: 14 inches (35 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#9 – Jetfire

Daffodil Jetfire is an energetic little daffodil that looks like it’s rushing full speed into spring. A top 10 daffodil for your garden and home.

‘Jetfire is an energetic little daffodil that looks like it’s rushing full speed into spring. The 1” wide flowers have bright yellow petals that sweep back from their long orange cups. This variety’s 10” height makes it perfect for planting in the front of a flower bed, tucking under shrubs or growing in containers. Very long-lasting and doesn’t flop over.
Height: 10 inches (25 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#10 – Tête-à-Tête

Daffodil Tete a Tete - This adorable miniature daffodil is among the longest-blooming, most versatile varieties you can grow.

This adorable miniature daffodil is among the longest-blooming, most versatile varieties you can grow. ‘Tête-à-Tête’ blooms early and keeps on going for weeks. Great in flower beds, landscaping and in containers. The grassy foliage doesn’t compete with the flowers and it fades away relatively quickly. Available since 1949 and still in the top 10.

Height: 7 inches (18 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

Growing Narcissus

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Narcissus bulbs. Photo: Longfield Gardens

Plant narcissus bulbs in the fall, between September and November, in a location that receives lots of sunshine in the spring. They can be planted at the base of deciduous trees and shrubs in spots that will be shady in summer as long as their foliage has time to receive its annual dose of sunlight before it fades away.

The bulbs prefer deep, loose and moderately rich soil that is relatively moist in the spring. Avoid places where the soil is always damp, though, like irrigated gardens: the bulbs do like to dry out during the summer.

Plant the bulbs, with the tip pointing upwards, at a depth equal to three times their height, spacing them at three times their diameter. Adding a good slow-release fertilizer and mychorrhizal fungi to the soil under the bulbs is often helpful. Cover with soil and water well. It’s always wise to mulch well for at least the first winter.

No attention is needed when the bulbs are in bloom in spring. Afterwards, let the foliage yellow naturally before removing it.

After several years, the bulbs may become too crowded and flowering decreases. If so, dig up and divide the bulbs when their foliage turns yellow. No need to wait until the fall to plant them, however: put them in the ground as soon as you’ve harvested them.


And there you go: the very best narcissus and how to grow them in a nutshell! Best of luck with your narcissus planting this fall!10-Favorite-Daffodils-NGB1