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.)
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?