|In late summer, crinums and dahlias bloom in my Traveler's Joy garden|
It’s hard to think about summer when you’re wearing socks to bed and are forced to don a parka to retrieve mail off the porch. The night the mercury dropped to 9 degrees one of our new pipes actually froze – not burst, thank goodness, but the water froze solid and I had to wait for the sun to hit the side of the house before I could make coffee.
Gardeners dwell in more than one dimension of time, however, always living off the promise, not the present; we are always looking ahead to the next season (or year, or lifetime…) when we will plant/ditch/drain/prune/fertilize/sow/reap exult in something that strikes everyone else as highly irrelevant just at the moment. That’s certainly how it is with bulbs, which must be planted months ahead of their flowering dates. Spring bulbs? By now they are yesterday’s news. The daffodils are already pushing up their blunt noses in my garden, and the earliest ones, like Narcissus ‘February Gold,’ started blooming a month ago, although the Polar Vortex hammered them. Lacking time last fall to plant, I will spend another spring wishing I’d ordered a few crocus in a spare moment, or a couple of hybrid muscari to make up for the scented blue and yellow M. ‘Golden Fragrance’ that didn’t survive the transition from my previous garden.
I consoled myself this week with a very modest order from Brent and Becky Heaths’ catalog of summer-blooming bulbs: a few dahlias and some Asiatic lilies. Accepted wisdom says that lilies get a better start when planted in the fall, but that season slipped past me. The bulbs are going to have to adjust, as I always seem to be doing.
LILIES OF THE FIELD
|Yellow passalong lilies in early June|
True lilies, of the genus Lillium, have been in cultivation longer than almost any other garden plant, which may be why a summer garden without them strikes me as incomplete. In rebuilding my collection here in Traveler’s Joy, I’ve been the lucky recipient of some remarkable ‘passalong’ lilies, including the sack-full bequeathed to me two years ago by my neighbor Steve, who had been helping his daughter G. renovate her garden. I have been grateful for their gift ever since the lilies bloomed that first June in a blaze of clear yellow, lighting up the bright shade beneath the pecan like a candelabra from Paradise.
On the other side of the path, in full sun, a remarkably vigorous hybrid lily has settled in comfortably, throwing up five-foot tall stalks in late spring and producing creamy, sunburst-type flowers with cinnamon sprinkled in their throats. I have passed along many divisions of this hardy lily since stumbling on it years ago, and left a large stand of it in my last garden, where I hope it blooms still. I bought it at the long-gone McIlwhaine nursery in Huntersville, North Carolina.
|McIlwhaine's Mystery Lily|
At that time, Huntersville was still sleepy and woodsy, with traffic on the back-roads often slowed by farm tractors. It was transitioning, like all of North Carolina, but had not yet devolved into the gridlocked exurban community of transplants from Buffalo and Long Island that it is today. Mr. McIlwhaine, a notoriously reluctant businessman, was a casualty of that transition. At his jungle-like plot off Gilead Road he held irregular hours and eschewed staff or signage of any kind, especially anything so mundane as a price tag. Those of us intrigued by the wealth of plant matter scattered around his acre braved the place hoping his wife would be on-site when we got there. She wasn’t as much of a misanthrope as her husband, and could sometimes be persuaded to sell a plant! It was there that I found a healthy-looking lily stalk sticking out of a small pot, no name provided and no clue to the color, and paid $6 for it, which I would have considered overpriced at a regular nursery. I planted it and it performed like magic. The bulbs increased quickly, and every June for fifteen years the ivory blooms have opened in slightly scented clouds of glory. I’ve tried to identify it, but there are so many lily hybrids on the market and so many variations on a theme of ivory flowers with brown speckles that I decided to call it ‘McIlwhaine’s Mystery Lily’ in honor of its source.
Lilies are occasionally troubled by diseases and pests, but you can improve your bulbs’ odds by siting them correctly from the start. When I first got interested in lilies I sent for a booklet from the North American Lily Society called Let’s Grow Lilies; an Illustrated Handbook of Lily Culture. It was first published in 1964; thirty years later when I got my hands on it the booklet's charmingly retro illustrations were still intact (what woman wears Capri pants and earrings when she’s on all fours in the dirt?...). The basic rules of lily cultivation outlined in Let's Grow have served me well. First rule: lilies must have excellent drainage. This isn’t always easy to achieve in our heavy clay soil, even if you plant in a raised bed, so I try to follow the auxiliary rule to that first one whenever I can, which is to plant the bulbs on a slight slope. This way they won’t be standing in water, no matter how much rain falls.
|In late May a pink hybrid lily blooms with Rosa 'Veilchenblau' in the background|
Secondly, the soil must be fairly rich but light and friable. This is best achieved by mixing plenty of humus into the site before you plant and also when you backfill. Replenish the organic matter regularly by adding leafmold or compost, but hold off on pine bark mulch or too many oak leaves, as that adds to your soil’s acidity and lilies do better with a neutral pH, between 6 and 7.
With McIlwhaine’s Mystery Lily, the yellow passalongs, and a nameless pink hybrid lily from a local garden center performing well in the upper garden’s beds, I’m taking a chance this summer on Lillium ‘Forever Susan,’ (couldn’t pass up the name, clearly), despite the fact that Asiatics are generally short-lived in Southern gardens. I am occasionally tempted to overlook their flash-in-the-pan constitutions for the sake of color and eye-popping pattern. The one I ordered promises maroon lilies with orange bands (and no – I’m not a Virginia Tech grad), which I’m imagining in combination with marigolds and the double-flowered species ditch lily, Hemerocallis kwanso. At bloom time I will probably wonder what I was thinking when I behold the garish effect, and will find it hard to remember, in May and June, how desperate I was for hot colors in February.
Dahlias also satisfy cravings for color. I confess to being a former snob where dahlias are concerned, having seen too many videos of British estate gardens with portions of the vast parks cordoned off to contain “day-lee-awz” as the plummy-voiced BBC announcers call them. Who can appreciate a garden consisting of plants segregated by their genus and each strapped rigidly to a stake, putting one in mind of heretics prepared for immolation rather than flora cultivated for pleasure? Despite my disinclination, however, there was that longing for color, so I tried (and failed) to grow several of the discount store varieties one digs out of bins, the tubers dried-out and puny. My experience seemed to confirm what certain Southern gardening experts tell us, that we should resist our longing for dahlias when in Dixie. It’s either too hot or too cold in our Carolina climate, I’ve been told, and these natives of Central America must have sharp drainage or none at all. In addition, wherever temperatures dip below 20 degrees, dahlia tubers supposedly must be dug up at the end of the season, stored in wood shavings in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place, and re-planted in the spring after danger of frost has passed. I’m convinced that this practice was handed down from a duchess with a gardening staff bigger than my town’s population.
|Dahlia with Black-Eyed Susan vine|
Whatever the current horticultural opinion on dahlias may be, it’s interesting to note that they were grown in Southern gardens historically, and with great success. In a collection of papers compiled from an annual conference held in North Carolina on restoring southern gardens and landscapes, I found an intriguing piece written by garden historian and researcher Davyd Foard Hood. His paper examines evidence found in letters, journals and travel accounts of the plants people grew here in centuries past. One of those people is Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston, who brought to her marriage a dowry of two plantations, and who gardened at those farms in Halifax County, Looking Glass and Conneconara, as well as a third home called Hascosea. Until the Civil War intruded on the Edmonstons’ lives and Miss Catherine was finally forced to close her diary of daily life in April 1865, she kept an enthusiastic log of her activities in those gardens. Hood notes that “the dahlia held pride of place in her garden” (17). Writing in July, 1860, she exults: “My dahlias are magnificent! … Glory is gorgeous indeed; and Cheltenham Queen is indeed a Queen for delicacy and purity!” (17). From her meticulous accounts, one learns that Edmonston oversaw the disinterring of her beloved dahlias’ roots “after frost but before freezing,” storing them in late autumn until they could be safely set out again in spring (17). Since Halifax, NC, is about three hundred miles north of Traveler’s Joy, and tends to be a good deal colder in the winter, I can see how this may have been prudent practice. In any case, labor-intensive horticulture wouldn’t have posed any more problem for Miss Catherine than a duchess with an army of gardeners, considering that the Edmonstons owned over eighty slaves who worked their gardens and tended their crops. That ended in 1865, and so, we presume, did the dahlias. Drat that Abraham Lincoln!
I’m not sure what prompted me to give dahlias one more try, but I’m glad that in a rash moment three winters ago I sent for half a dozen Dahlias ‘Classic Elise,’ a single form with dark stems. The tubers arrived from the Heaths at the recommended planting time for my zone; I was surprised by their size (looking much like small sweet potatoes) and their density. No dried out roots, these. They grew and blossomed well in the first summer, becoming a showstopper by the second. The color of the flowers changes with the sun: glowing peach by morning light, turning to bright pumpkin under the noonday sun, and heating up to copper in the slanting light of September afternoons.
CRINUM MORE, MY DARLING
‘Elise’ dazzles in combination with the neon-pink crinum hybrid, C. ‘Ellen Bosanquet,’ a clump I have divided and moved several times since purchasing one leek-sized bulb at Plant Delights Nursery in Sanford over a decade ago. (As usual, I have no hand in planning the most pleasing combinations of blossoms in my garden. The crinum-dahlia pairing is another one of what I call my “brilliant accidents.’) While these two plants have different water needs (more on that later), planting them together makes sense from the standpoint of winter mulching. While Zone 8 gardeners may not need to dig them up and replant them every winter, crinums and dahlias do need protection from severe cold. With the duvet-sized pile of leaves and fir branches I packed over their crowns I’m hopeful that I prevented severe damage or death on our recent single-digit nights.
I’ve been consulting my copy of Elizabeth Lawrence’s definitive tome on Carolina gardening, A Southern Garden, first published in 1942, in which she writes that of the seventeen crinums she had grown in the open, “ten had proved hardy” (114). Lawrence gardened in Raleigh before moving to Charlotte and starting over in the fifties. Winters in Wake County, like Halifax County, tend to be a good deal colder than in my current garden. I speak from experience, having weathered the snow of ’96 in the little town of Wake Forest when my daughter’s elementary school was closed for a week and when, desperate to save our sanities, I tethered the family dog to the sled and allowed Wally to drag her all over the snowy neighborhood. I’m hoping that in Traveler’s Joy my tender bulbs have a slightly better chance than Lawrence’s did. In any case, I’d like to find a hardy white crinum to add to my collection, like the Crinum moorei var. Schmidtii Lawrence grew in her Charlotte garden. She describes this crinum as having bloomed normally after an especially cruel winter that partially killed or inhibited blooms on all the other crinums in her Myers Park plot.
During the growing season, crinums are thirsty plants as well as very heavy feeders. I planted ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ at the bottom of a sloping bed where the soil gets quite boggy during heavy rains, and where organic matter washed down the slope tends to pile up. If I expect to see plenty of richly-colored buds forming on stalks in mid-summer, however, I must also douse the plant regularly with diluted fish emulsion.
This regimen is not advised for dahlias, which do need plenty of water but can’t abide standing in it. I thought I’d planned for this differential by planting ‘Classic Elise’ on the incline above the crinum, where water doesn’t collect under normal conditions. Last summer was so rainy, however, that the lawn in the upper garden was a lagoon much of the time, and ‘Classic Elise’ contracted a bad case of wilt. I struggled with it all summer, cutting back the withered foliage and blackened stems, eventually digging up and disposing of several infected tubers. I won’t know for several months if the patient survived the surgery; Dahlia ‘Purple Puff,’ when it arrives in April, is headed for a drier and higher spot beside the shrub roses.
GLAD TO KNOW YOU
|Glads catch the morning rays|
Arguably, the easiest summer-blooming bulb to grow in my southern garden is the gladiolus. Glads (which actually grow from corms, not bulbs) are enjoying a revival of sorts, after being out of fashion in the flower world for a long time. Like virtually all the gangly boys of summer, these spiky plants must be staked, and reproduce so rapidly in genial conditions that they require a bit of maintenance in the form of digging up and dividing. But they are the most excellent cut flowers my garden produces, and once cut, the flowers last indoors for long periods. For my daughter’s bridal shower, held at the house in late June last year, the most magnificent decorations at the party were the jewel-toned bouquets of freshly-cut glads. Blooming in abundance were the purple-flowered 'Violetta,' pink and white 'All My Love,' 'Green Star,' and an extraordinary peach-colored glad with a lavender throat that was passed along to me from a gardening buddy in North Carolina. More than one person asked, "are those real?" and trust me, they were.
|Cut glads decorating a June bridal shower|
As with dahlias, gardeners in the middle south are advised to dig up the glad corms at the end of the season and store them away from killing cold. However, since glads multiply as fast as rabbits in a sack, I consider it highly unlikely that an entire family of corms could be killed by anything, including Arctic cold. If I’ve got time to spend on cultivation and care I’d rather use it to dig up the glads in early spring and separate the fresh new corms from the previous year’s exhausted ones. The old corms cling to the basal plates of new ones like flattened inner tubes; with one twist of the wrist they can be snapped off and discarded on the compost pile. Don’t destroy the baby corms, or cormels, that cling to the new corm, however.
Set out the ones that are about
the size of a penny, re-planting them along with the rest of the gang. In a couple of years they’ll be ready to send
up stalks and will flower.
|Gladiolus 'Wiig's Sensation'|
|Last year's shriveled gladiolus corm (bottom) is ready to be twisted off|
Meterologists are forecasting another 'wintry mix' headed for us next week, which squares with what the groundhogs all predicted. As far as I can see, however, the only thing predictable about this time of year is that gardeners like me will be looking beyond the bare trees, frozen birdbaths and sleepy groundhogs. We'll be dreaming of our summer gardens, knowing that when the flowers are in their glory, there's no place on earth we'd rather be.
www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com (The Heaths' website offers information, catalogs, and takes orders)
www.lilies.org (This is the official website of the North American Lily Society)
www.plantdelights.com (Plant Delights does an extensive mail order business, but it's a treat to visit the nursery during their bi-annual Open House days. Check the website for dates.
https://www.gardenconservancy.org/garden-preservation/gardenpreservationservices/preservation-projects/elizabeth-lawrence-garden?title=2 Elizabeth Lawrence's garden in Charlotte has been restored through the joint efforts of the Garden Conservancy and the neighboring Wing Haven Garden and Bird Sanctuary. It is open to visitors.
Hood, David Foard. "Their garden was of moderate size, well laid off..." Historic Southern Gardens in Letters, Journals and Travel Accounts." Cultivating History; Exploring Horticultural Practices of the Southern Gardener. Proceedings of the Thirteenth Conference on Restoring Southern Gardens and Landscapes. September 27-29, 2001, Old Salem Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 2003. 1-26. Print.
Lawrence, Elizabeth. A Southern Garden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1942, 1967, 1984, 1991. Print.
Lawrence, Elizabeth. A Southern Garden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1942, 1967, 1984, 1991. Print.