Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fall Isn't Only About Foliage

As summer flowers fade, and October themes of harvest, fall and Halloween predominate, gardens are getting more subdued, and more orange. If your gardening energy isn’t flagging, you could fight this with a huge infusion of late annuals, and almost recreate the riot of color of early July. But for those of us who are over age 25 and eschew the use of stimulants more powerful than coffee, it may be more practical to accept the general trend of softer and browner tones, livening them up with perhaps a few points of late-blooming or long-lasting perennials or shrubs (especially roses, such as the ‘The Fairy’ I showed two posts ago).


Gladioli (the magenta spikes seen at left above) are not very long-flowering plants. Their flower spikes look good generally for just a week or so, which period can be stretched slightly if you deadhead the lower flowers (which bloom and fade first) while the topmost flowers are still opening. They are available in any color, but the yellow-to-red spectrum predominates.

Although they are individually short-flowered, you can plant them at any time from the start of May to the end of June or even into July, and they will then flower reliably, if not exactly predictably, about 2½ to 3 months later (by late July, or as late as right now). Their spiky foliage also looks pretty good and healthy for a long season.

My late-planted (6/29/07) Gladioli are almost peaking today. They did not appear affected by the near-freezing morning temperature we experienced the week before last. Late plantings are of course at some risk of freezing off before they get a chance to bloom. On the other hand, in the absence of hard frosts, cooler daytime weather and shortened days should extend any bloom period.

As seen here, I have a clump of Gladioli in my lawn. Gladioli do not mind the low-fertility conditions apt to be found in an unfertilized lawn. You do need a tough step-on bulb-planting tool to get this effect in turf. I think this feature will work better visually if I put a bigger clump next year. In the lawn they stand up vertically; it can be hard to get Gladioli planted in flower beds to do so. You can stake them, or use any awkwardness as an excuse for cut flowers on the table.

Gladiolus corms are not difficult to overwinter, their skin keeping them in good shape under a range of reasonable conditions (unlike Dahlias, whose tubers can shrivel and die if too dry, or get moldy and die if too moist – of course, Dahlias are larger plants, with a much longer bloom season). Late-planted corms are less likely to build up enough strength in their new corms before frosts shut the plants’ photosynthesis down, but like most bulbs Gladioli are fairly cheap as garden plants go.

After frosts have killed off the foliage (or indeed, right now, for earlier-planted ones which flowered more than 6 weeks ago), dig up the corms (or even pull them up slowly by the stem, if they’re in fluffy cultivated earth). To keep them through the winter you should rinse them off, dry them out for 2 weeks on a tray in your basement or garage, then tidy them up by cutting off straggly roots and pulling off last year’s corms. You can store the corms in a mesh bag or panty hose, hanging them up in a dark cool spot such as in your basement. Only the larger corms are likely to flower next year, but you can also save the numerous smaller corms, to plant out next year in some place like a vegetable bed, to bulk up for flowering the following year.

I’ve met a gardener in this area who regularly left her Gladioli to overwinter in the ground. They came back some years and not others, presumably depending on how hard and deep the ground froze in a given year. If you are going to take this gamble, I’d at least recommend putting about 4 inches of loose mulch over them to increase their chances. (We’re in zone 5b in most of the Northern Berkshires, while most Gladioli are reported reliably hardy to zone 8, with thick loose mulch and a position up against your house making them hardy to zone 6, according to my American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia.)

Hardy Mums

The most common – if not ubiquitous – flowers at this time of the year include the “Hardy Mums,” a form of Chrysanthemum. One can certainly overdo them, but they are healthy and reliable, and available in almost any color except for blue.

Why are Mums always left in pots? Mostly because they’re cheap enough to treat as annuals. Some are not in fact reliably winter hardy here, although they earn their name by holding up well to early frosts. I planted two in the ground a year ago, giving no special coddling or mulching. One survived into this year, and is just now starting to bloom again. I like its orangey contrast with pinky-mauve Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ as seen here.

Mums like ideal positions, namely full or mostly sun, and moist but well-drained soil. Whether you intend to overwinter them or not, Mums will do at least as well for now in the ground as in a pot, without the need for the regular watering or fertilizing of a pot plant. They are also more likely to survive the winter if they are planted now, rather than after another month in their pots. The only downside to putting them in the ground is if you would consider a death there a demoralizing failure. But if it’s a plant you would otherwise nonchalantly kill off by leaving in a pot outside, why hold on to such a cautious attitude?


Southview said...

Is that "RAG WEED" I see flurshing in your garden?

DWPittelli said...

Goldenrod (Solidago) is not ragweed (Ambrosia) or sneezeweed (various species), and is not a significant allergen. Goldenrod gets a bad rap for people's autumn hay fever because it blooms at the same time as ragweed (mid-August through September or thereabouts).

Southview said...

I stand scientifically corrected...although we have always called any growth of that color no matter what the genus or family or species "RAG WEED". And you are correct, but we will always call goldenrod and any variegation their of......Snot runnin Rag Weed! :~) It is a local thing!

DWPittelli said...

Goldenrod gets no respect because it grows so successfully in the wild around here. (In England one may find it planted in some of the fussiest gardens.) It is not unreasonable to consider it a weed, but I like it. It's attractive to people and pollinating insects, and of course requires no work to keep healthy.

I also like common milkweed (Asclepias), for its purple globular flower clusters and essential usefulness to the Monarch butterfly, and black-eyed Susans and related yellow daisies (Rudbeckia).

Southview said...

Speaking of "milkweed". There use to be a lot of it around when I was younger, but it seems to have gottin sparce. What's up?

DWPittelli said...

I didn't know that milkweeds were getting sparser, although a quick check now confirms your suspicion. (e.g., They certainly seem common in my garden and some other gardens I've seen.

I'm not sure which species you used to see more of around here. The ones liking wet conditions may have been muscled aside, as were cattails, by invasive purple-loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

But probably a bigger factor is that there are also fewer minimally cultivated meadows now than there were, say, 40 years ago, due to property development on many, natural reforestation on many others which have been abandoned, and the use of herbicides on those still used for cattle or hay production. (The milkweed's toxins, which protect the Monarch, don't agree with the stomachs of other animals, so farmers have some incentive to target them specifically; but even where they don't, their widespread use of Roundup is probably a major factor.)

Southview said...

Wow!!!! I never dreamed there were so many plants called "Milkweed". The local variety I was referring to has a purple flower and big pods that ooze milk and burst open to allow their white seed propellers to take them to parts unknown. They use to be everywhere but I haven't seen them lately. Come to think about it, I haven't seen the Monarch Butterfly around much either?

Southview said...

And since I mentioned it...where are the crickets? You couldn't step outside on a summers evening and not be deafened from the sounds of Crickets. Now all there is is silence, and that is deafening. There is something very strange going on???

DWPittelli said...

Re Crickets:

I hear a fair number often at my house. Fewer, however, than I recall when I was a child. (Then again, the house and property on which I grew up have also shrunk over the past 25 years!)

It was discovered in 1970 that there is a parasitic fly which finds male crickets by the sound of their mating chirp, depositing fly larvae (maggots) on the crickets. The larvae devour the crickets from the inside within a few days.

This fly has been found to drastically reduce cricket populations, which had been counted largely by sound. But then scientists discovered that cricket populations (particularly in Hawaii, where the timing of the fly's arrival was known) were also capable of quickly evolving away the chirping sound with a simple change in male wing structure to match that of the silent females.

Populations of crickets are probably down in many areas. (The fly is pretty much global, and attacks many species of crickets.) The extent of the decline is unknown, as is the extent of mute crickets in different species and populations. Even among populations which successfully become mute, this process has a cost in reproductive fitness to the crickets (it must also be hell on the flies). A very few noisy males tend to live on, trading increased reproductive success for high risk of predation.

I believe it is not known when or where the flies started this strategy.

Google "Ormia ochracea" (the name of the fly in question) for more info.

Southview said...

I checked it out. I never dreamed that there were so many different flies around. My knowledge of flydum is limited to the crispy dead carcass of the "House Fly" that you find on the partition between the upper and lower window, just above the lower end of the shade. That fat almost dead black flying hippo that always seems to find your coffee cup and loves to buzz, bouncing off the rim and plop upside down into a freshly poured cup of joe. Then there are the ones that get stuck to those sticky strips that everyone had hanging from every ceiling in their house. I am also familiar with the "Garbage Can Fly" That green alien lookin thing, As a youngin my chore was to empty the garbage....(back when we had trash pick-up and actually had someone come to your house and pick up your garbage from that silver, foul smelling, maggot filled, garbage can.) that also sometimes is called the "Picnic Fly", because they follow you when ever you go on a picnic. Then of course you have the "Dragon Fly" which I don't think is a fly at all and I'm surely certain that it isn't really a dragon!

savvymummy said...

Hi,I do experience winter here but the coldest is 1 or 2 deg without any snow/ice. Do you think I can leave my gladioli corms in the ground after they die down?

Also, mine have just finished its flowering and the flowers are withering. Do I need to remove the flowers or cut the flower stalks off or trim the leaves? I know gladioli are bulb/corm plants and daffodils and cyclamens are too and we are not allowed to remove any leaves or flowers of daffodils/cyclamens and just leave them to die down naturally as they need that energy to build new bulbs/corms underground, but how about gladioli?

THis' my first time growing gladioli and I havent found any info on this.


DWPittelli said...

It would certainly seem likely they would survive most winters for you, if they have good drainage, as in a slope or at least somewhat raised bed. The same glads are still (summer 2009) living in my yard, on a slope which often has little snow cover due to slope and wind.

You can cut the flower stocks when you wish, but leave the leaves on until they get quite ratty, or at an absolute minimum, until 6 weeks after flowering. They need photosynthesis to rebuild bulb strength after flowering.