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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Patience not required

This fall, I find myself planting myriad bulbs as the days shorten. How wonderful that I do not need the patience to wait until spring to see the rewards of my labor.

I love when bulb season comes along. Planting spring-blooming bulbs in the fall is an act of faith that hard labor will pay off in the season to come. It aligns with the gardener’s need to have patience in all processes horticultural. But this season I am low on patience—perhaps the weather, the endless debate over the possible results of mid-terms, or the simple fact that until this week I have been hauling hoses all over just to keep plants from being brown. It seems hard to plant the dun-colored bulbs of squill and daffodils with hope that they will show up in the spring when it is hard to imagine much of my garden coming back to life at all (although this week’s rain seems to be helping to raise my hopes of being in the green again).

It is for this reason that, while I will still add my share of trout lilies and species tulips to my garden, I am also planting bulbs that I have not made much use of in the past—those that are fall blooming. As gardeners, we tend to think about spring and summer blooming bulbs—tulips, grape hyacinths, daffodils—and those that lead us into summer—allium, lilies, Dutch iris and even some of the species gladioli. But there are also bulbs that bloom later in the season, and two of them—colchicum and saffron crocus—are just starting to show their flowers in the weeks ahead. And, most importantly, they can even be planted in the season that they bloom, which is pretty good given my impatience for all things horticultural at the moment.

Lilac Wonder
For years, I found colchicum cultivars to seem out of place in the fall landscape due to the color, but they actually play well with the flowers of asters and Japanese anemones.

Their flowers will come up in the weeks ahead, but this does not preclude them from being planted now. Unlike spring bulbs which produce their foliage in concurrence with their flowers, these fall bloomers send up their foliage earlier in the season to build up their flower power (photosynthesizing and storing the necessary carbohydrates in their bulbs to allow them to push flowers forth at the end of the season) and then their leaves go dormant in midsummer. These bulbs are often planted in the middle of borders or other areas where they can naturalize and produce offsets, but their foliage will make itself known in midsummer and if they are set in a lawn, it cannot be mowed while the foliage is still up and storing energy for the end of season performance of their flowers.

They send up their flowers in great numbers, but naked of any foliage, which causes them to sometimes be called naked ladies. This moniker seems apt, as they are the horticultural equivalent of the entertainment at a late-season stag party, with their many petaled flowers that resemble spring crocus coming forth in September and October without any leaves surrounding them for modesty’s sake. For many years, I found myself only able to consider the white-petaled forms, such as the curiously named variety ‘Innocence’ (I mean how innocent is a flower that comes out bearing no foliage whatsoever?), because the lilac varieties seemed to belong to a color palette that I associated with spring. I used to wonder why they could not be the rich reds, oranges, and butter yellows of autumn. However, over time, I came to realize that their tones were also reflected in other fall-blooming plants, such as asters, pink Japanese anemones, and mums, and even the soft purple tones of the late-blooming bush clover, so why not give them some space in the fall landscape as well?

Colchicum Innocence
I love the white flowering forms, like this colchicum ‘Innocence’, as they seem to blend in with the fall landscape.

So here I go and, fortunately, it is not too late to add them to the garden; this is the season in which these bulbs are typically planted. Another stroke of good luck is that local plantsman David Burdick grows a number of varieties right here in the Berkshires and sells them on his website (daffodilsandmore.com) and at a few select local nurseries. So, once again, I find myself planting myriad bulbs as the days shorten. How wonderful that I do not need the patience to wait until spring to see the rewards of my labor. If only the results of all our garden chores could be so easily and quickly realized. Oh wait, the only other fall task that bears such immediate results will be on us before we know it—the act of raking leaves. I think I will prefer the sight of a cluster of flowers to a pile of leaves, but life moves forward.

C. aggripinum
This checkered form of C. aggripinum reminds me of the spring-blooming snake’s head frittilary.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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