Hi again, and thanks for coming back to my blog. These are some ideas I’ve been thinking about as summer slides away and autumn creeps in.
Reading Stephen Westcott-Gratton’s article about lesser-known spring bulbs (“Unsung Bulbs For Spring,” Fall 2010, pages 58-63) has set me to thinking about another little darling of the spring that makes itself useful in hard-to-plant places: the star-of-Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum (Zone 4 with winter mulch, Zone 5 without mulch). In dry soils under maples or at the feet of large evergreen shrubs, fat clumps of white upturned flowers (several to a stem, and with a pale green stripe to each petal) shine in spring. I remember these from my grandmother’s garden, blooming with forsythia and P.J.M. rhododendron, and they were the first bulbs I planted in my own ground, under a maple. Once installed, they reproduce readily (from seeds and offsets), and soon new clumps appear to form a patchy groundcover. (In warmer climates they’re considered a nuisance spreader, but that’s unlikely in our colder soils.)
Star-of-Bethlehem is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). It’s sometimes known as nap-at-noon and sleepydick, referring to the grass-like foliage that tends to lie down in an untidy manner when days grow warmer. The bulbs require moist soil and a half day of sun in spring, followed by shade and dry soil in summer. You can probably think of several difficult places in your garden where these little flowers will be an asset. They’re also highly nectariferous, producing lots of sweet nectar for early pollinators.
Ornithogalum is poisonous, containing toxic alkaloids (safe to touch, but do not ingest), and consequently entirely without pests. However, don’t let that put you off them; many of our garden plants are toxic (monkshood, delphinium, bleedingheart, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus), and we all know not to eat them.
I should have known better about Karl…
Last spring I noticed that the clump of ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zone 4) in my small, sloped front garden had spread outward, leaving behind a vacant centre. (I seem to remember writing something about this: see page 34 in the Fall 2010 issue of Gardening Making.) This is the growth pattern of many clump-forming ornamental grasses with prairie heritage, and a demonstration of how they effectively march from Saskatchewan to Alberta.
Preferring to attend to more instantly gratifying tasks (making tussie mussie bouquets and acquiring new roses), I didn’t take the time to get ‘Karl Foerster’ out and deal with him. And so, after a season of heat and frequently applied irrigation, I now see that the clump has gobbled up more territory and is huge, with a solid mass of roots. Unearthing it will unsettle a neighbouring boulder and disrupt plants in half the bed. What’s more, I’m probably not strong enough to do it alone, requiring an appeal for brawny assistance. (Oh slothful gardener!)
So here is what I will do: instead of trying to get the whole clump out, I’ll lightly excavate around the edges and use a pruning saw to cut through the roots, taking it out in smaller clumps and removing dead roots from the centre. This will make four to six new divisions, and the vacant space that remains can be replanted.
Using a thick serrated kitchen blade or short pruning saw to dismember large root balls in situ is far easier than struggling to lift the whole mass out. But it would have been better to do something about it in spring, when it was smaller. I look in the mirror and say, “I told you so.” (And by the way, Lee Valley Tools, www.leevalley.com , has a good root saw for just this purpose.)
Dept. of This and That
• I have amazing success with self-sown cleome seeds! Three years ago I planted ‘Purple Queen’ annual cleome in a sunny spot among some rocks. They stayed in flower until late autumn, forming seed cases along the stems under the flowering tops. Seed must have spilled before the plants were pulled out, and each spring since then I’ve had spontaneous seedlings appear. These plants are husky and tall, and much sturdier than any I’ve ever grown from transplants. Although ‘Purple Queen’ is a hybrid, the colour has remained consistent (not always the case with seedling generations of hybrid plants). The seeds spend the winter on the soil surface and probably benefit from vernalization—the exposure to prolonged cold that enhances seed germination in similar summer annual plants such as ageratum, cosmos and calendula. It’s always nice to receive an unexpected bonus.
• Plants respect hardiness zones, but pay no attention to international borders. That being the case, here’s a good source of information about spring bulbs and their companion plants, from Cornell University in New York: www.hort.cornell.edu/combos. The photos of the plants through the seasons are explicit and very useful for designing a planted bed. Cornell University is located in approximately Canadian plant hardiness Zone 6b, but most of the illustrated bulbs and perennials have colder hardiness ratings.
See you again soon!