Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bulbs for Spring Bling

Few plants give us as much joy, color and diversity as bulbs. Their popularity is well deserved, what other plants are nearly fuss-free once planted?  Plus they don’t clash with established landscapes. Quite the contrary; they enhance perennial borders, shrub plantings, even the hell-strip.  Purchase (or divide freebies from friends), dig, drop, water, and wait.  That’s bulb planting in a nutshell, but here’s a closer look.
Photo from
Bulbs, technically called geophytes, meaning they are herbaceous underground storage units for their seasonal growth cycle.  All the nutrients the flowers require are stored neat and tidy in these small plant organs.  What most gardeners collectively call bulbs also includes other categories – corms, tubers, rhizomes, and tuberous roots.  

True bulbs like lilies, tulips, daffodils, garlic and onion consist of fleshy layers of leaves (called scales) with a small base of roots at the bottom (basal plate) that anchors the plant in the soil. Corms like gladiolus, crocus, freesia, crocosmia and bananas (not grown here, but now you know they are corms) contain a solid mass of stem tissue and grow new (baby) bulbs from the main bulb (mother).  They look similar to bulbs but are usually round in shape and slightly flattened, not pointed like a true bulb.  

Tubers, the most well-known example in the culinary world – the potato, form roots and foliage from growth buds, known as eyes. Tubers are usually short, rounded and fat with no covering.  Caladiums, poppy and Greek anemone, cyclamen, gloxinias and gloriosa lilies all grow from tubers.  Rhizomes are thickened, branching underground stems that grow horizontally.  Most grow along or slightly below the surface of the soil, sending stems above the ground. This group includes cannas, calla lilies, lilies of the valley, corydalises, wood anemone and iris. Tuberous roots look like swollen tubers.  New growth buds or eyes appear at the base of the stem during the growing season.  These include daylilies, begonias, dahlias, clivia (houseplant) and foxtail lilies. 

Bulbs truly have a wonderful life. They store up all their energy during a brief period of good weather then remain mostly dormant during harsh weather conditions.  When the weather is favorable again they grow and bloom, we smile.  They are further categorized by their hardiness and time of bloom.
Bulbs, Corms, Tubers, Photo by Brian Wilder,
The hardiest of bulbs survive our mostly zone 5 winters along the Front Range and at higher elevations and include spring flowering bulbs – crocus, daffodils, tulips and iris.  
Summer bloomers include hardy lilies and ornamental onion to tender bulbs that need to be lifted and stored over the winter or will die each fall – dahlias, gladiolas and elephant ear. 
Fall bloomers are often forgotten but should be on more lists to plant in late summer – autumn crocus and colchicums. 

Winter flowering refers to bulbs forced to bloom out of season, they are planted for winter enjoyment – paper whites and amaryllis are the most common and easy to plant.  But with a little more planning and preparation tulips, daffodils and hyacinths can be your indoor centerpiece early next year if potted later this fall.  

Bulb Essentials –

  • If you want the best display of bloom and years of enjoyment think before you purchase bargain bulbs.  You get what you pay for. 
  • Look for firm, plump, healthy bulbs in the garden center. They should feel solid when you pick them up and not have any bruises, soft spots or sour odor.   Don’t worry if they have lost their papery cover or tunic, if it’s loose you’ll be better able to check bulb quality. 
  • Read bulb packaging or labels.  If they are labeled “top size” then they are the largest commercially available size, producing more or bigger flowers than smaller bulbs.  These are usually 4 ¾ inches around or 12 centimeters.  Less expensive bulbs are smaller than 4 inches or 10 centimeters.  If you want a “look over here,” gorgeous bulb display in your yard, purchase top-size bulbs. If you’re naturalizing (planting in drifts so bulbs multiply) then it’s economical to purchase smaller bulbs, they catch up in size in a season or two anyway. 
  • If purchasing mail order, inspect them upon arrival and plant right away.  Mail order companies send orders based on your planting zone and for the most part, bulb quality is good because they are stored properly prior to shipping.  If you can’t plant right away, put them in a dry spot (indoors, 40-50 degrees) with good air circulation and keep the bag open (mesh is best). 
  • The hardest part is deciding which bulbs to plant.  Select the site first and make sure the drainage is good otherwise bulbs may rot.  Sunny locations work best, but that doesn’t have to be sun all year. Planting near or under deciduous trees that haven’t leafed out and cast filtered shade are fine locations.  Careful not to plant the earliest bloomers near walk ways where you’ll be shoveling snow.  And plant where you can see and enjoy them!
  • Spring flowering bulbs grow their best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Dahlias and cannas which bloom in the summer also need sunny locations.
  • The sequence of bloom can start in late winter running right up through summer when you can plant dahlias, cannas and gladiolas.  Start out with snowdrops, aconites, then scilla, crocus, and chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow).  Follow with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.  Tulips and daffodils have the most range of bloom times, look for early, mid or late varieties.  Include some of the showy flowering alliums that bloom mid to late summer.  More Bulbs - Allliums 
  • Books, magazines and on-line sources can elaborate on bulb design principles.  They’ll all say that more is better.  Plant in masses or drifts through the perennial and shrub beds and rock gardens.  You can play with varying heights adding depth and interest or plant a solid color and variety or repeat the bulbs and colors throughout the landscape. The only rule is to plant what you like and reflects your style and expression.  More Bulbomania
  • Keep in mind that certain tulips only last a year or two so should be treated like annuals. Other types will perennialize and come back if they are happy in their location and not disturbed.  Read the package or paperwork near the bin and look for these repeaters - Species tulips, Kaufmannia or Greigii tulips, giant Darwin hybrid tulips, and Fosteriana, also called Emperor tulips.  More Best Bulbs for Perennializing 
    Photo from
  • Why all the names for daffodils? The whole genus is Narcissus. Daffodil is the common name, they are larger flowered.  Jonquil is a species name within the genus, usually smaller and fragrant. 
  • September and October planting gives bulbs plenty of time to establish before the ground freezes.  Some gardeners say they still get good results when planting into November, but that all depends on our weather and how it affects soil conditions.
  • Soil preparation is important for bulbs, just like all other perennials.  They want loose, amended soil (no full clay) for room to grow with good drainage. Use a phosphorus or balanced fertilizer (5-10-5) in the planting hole.  Bone meal isn’t recommended unless you have soil pH that is under 7, which a soil test will indicate. 
  • Plant depth is three to four times the height of the bulb, pointy side up. If in doubt what side is up, lay on its side.  Plant two inches deeper if you have sandy soils.
  • For large area planting remove enough soil to accommodate all the bulbs. Fertilizer and compost or amendment can be added to the entire area prior to placing the bulbs.  Scatter or place in groups.  Just don’t plant them like soldiers, all in a perfect row.
  • Label your bulb plantings or make a drawing so you don’t disturb the bulbs next spring.
  • Water the bulbs after planting and water through the fall and winter (every 3-4 weeks) if we receive little moisture.  Use a screw driver or trowel and dig down to check soil moisture.
  • Mulch the bulbs with a three inch layer of organic matter like leaves and grass after a couple of hard frosts to maintain moisture and prevent the soil from heaving which may up-root the bulbs. 
  • Bulbs can be bothered and eaten by squirrels and mice.  They like tulips, crocus, lilies and chionodoxa.  They leave daffodils and hyacinths alone.  Enclose them with ½ inch hardware cloth boxes or dip the bulbs in a liquid repellent product like Ropel® before planting.  And remove all papery skins after planting so they won’t be drawn to the area by any lingering scent of the bulbs.
Photo credit -, Felder Rushing

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tomato Tales Part III

Good on ya if you had a productive and healthy tomato season. Between cold nights (lots of them in May and June), more than average moisture (we're up 3-4 inches for the year) and hail (7 times at our house), many tomato plants struggled.  They battled the usual suspects, early blight, blossom end rot and tomato spotted wilt virus. But this season bacterial speck and spot, not often seen in these parts reared its very unattractive head.  I got two out of the four, how about you?

My tomato story is short.  They were planted in late May, pampered early season with cover cloths to ward off the chill and hail, then given lots of room and prepped soil to make up for lost time. Nothing mattered. They were determined to constantly remind me that they were in control or rather Mother Nature was in charge of the number of love apples she was willing to keep healthy. And she took her time to ripen fruit that wasn't hit with disease. I'm still hoping for a few more 'Better Boys' to ripen and enjoy.  We've only had TWO tomato pies this season, a down right culinary disappointment. Tomato Pie

But why complain, it's called gardening.  Expectations are usually in check with gardeners.  Some summers are better then others, and most years we get decent tomatoes, peppers and enough cucumbers to pickle, share or laugh at the ones that grew too large.

Here's my 2014 photo vegetable disease diary, plus some successes.  No need to say a thing, I know we're on my same wavelength...there's always next year.

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus

Blossom End Rot and Possible Bacterial Spot
Inside tomatoes, white, mealy and tasteless
Tomato Early Blight
Downy Mildew on Basil
Japanese Beetle damage (skeletonized leaves) AND herbicide drift leaf damage (puckering)
Tomato Pie from Colorado Cache Cookbook (my crust needs work)


Monday, September 15, 2014

How'd You FARE after the FROST?

Did your vegetables or annual plantings make it through last week's cold snap?  The data says the temperatures got down to 34 degrees on 9-11, 33 degrees on 9-12 and 35 degrees on 9-13.  Of course how you fared is all dependent on your landscape's warm and cold spots or micro-climates for short.  If you covered well and kept things protected during the coldest hours, then you're happy and probably still harvesting and enjoying your annual flower plantings. 

I ended up pitching three tomato plants and a tomatillo plant on Wednesday in preparation for the storm. I needed to choose what to cover and what to let go based on the health of the plants and how many sheets and row cover I had on hand. I managed to save a couple of tomato plants, plus several pepper plants, eggplant, herb containers and ornamental annual containers.  My green beans got frost nipped on the tips, along with some damage on a nearby squash plant.  The okra wasn't happy at all and just turned brown despite being well covered and told to hang in there.  I'm not all that unhappy about the beans, okra or squash since they were planted mid-summer following the garlic harvest.  They were 50-50 at best.   

I'll wrap up the vegetable season in my next blog and finish showing some tomato diseases, wait until you see the downy mildew on my basil plants!  Many thanks to Patti O'Neal and her plant diagnostic master gardener volunteers in Jefferson County for giving me the bad news.  I can't blame them, they just figured out what was wrong with my plants. Maybe part of the blame is on La Nina or is it El Nino, need to look up which one causes more rain. Sometimes we just have a tough growing season.  What a summer, at least the lawn is happy.

Frost nipped the Okra (planted mid-July, so no great loss)
Peppers and Eggplant did just fine, they were well protected

Ornamental Container Plantings Post Cold Snap - A Okay!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

FROST and FREEZE Protection


If you want to extend your vegetable or ornamental plantings, cover when temperatures dip below 50 degrees.  Tonight (September 11, 2014) it's supposed to freeze, rain and snow.  Cover first with a cloth, or sheet, then plastic to keep in the warmth. Floating row covers work great, but if you don't have any on hand (sold in garden centers or on line), use some kind of light weight cloth. Once covered with the sheet, the plastic needs to go all the way to the ground to hold in warmth, use bricks or boards to keep it from blowing around.

No time to cover, then harvest what you can and hopefully the tomatoes are far enough along to ripen on the counter or wrap in newspapers or wax paper and check them every few days.

Photos -
Floating Row Cover over Tall Annual Container

Recent plantings can be covered with a garbage can or box

Basil needs a heavy cloth, then plastic, your best bet is to harvest now

A hoop system lets you cover easily, especially low growing plants

Be sure the plastic doesn't touch foliage, it will transfer cold

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tomato Tales Part II

I had to take a break from writing about all the things that went wrong with my tomatoes this season. I'll return to the list later. For now check out my humble first BLT of the summer season, definitely well worth the wait. No doubt you have your favorite version or order of packing the layers.  Personally I use prosciutto instead of bacon, mainly because I have it on hand for use in recipes (baked, then crumbled as the icing on pasta is divine).  Don't get me wrong, bacon is the preferred choice for BLTs by most humans who aren't vegan or vegetarians. 

Then I use large leaf basil instead of lettuce, again because I have it on hand...I grow it all summer.  BUT, everything else is the same as you...tomatoes, (must be homegrown), mayo (your favorite brand), salt and pepper and toasted bread.  Ina Garten of Food Network fame has her favorite recipe, which I also recommend, click here Ina Garten California BLT.   If you're a bacon avoider try baked tempeh or avocado in its place. Time for lunch.

PS:  After posting this photo I realized that you don't even see the tomatoes, well, they're in there...'Early Girl' who took her sweet time ripening! 

First PLT sandwich of the summer season, along with mini-carrots and blue corn chips