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Helleborus niger: The Best Gift Plant Ever

By Margret Delves-Broughton

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Tucked away on page 51 of White Flower Farm’s Holiday 2016 catalog is a plant that is, in my humble opinion, the very best gift plant, ever. It is so pretty that when my friend Henry walked into my house a few years ago and saw it in bloom, he paid the highest compliment I have ever gotten on any plant I have ever grown. “Those are fake, right?” he asked.

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As a houseplant, Christmas Rose, or Helleborus niger, is densely packed with shiny dark green leaves at its base. Above that, delicate white buds and open flowers with yellow stamens bring a little bit of woodland garden inside. I have had great success with them just by keeping them evenly watered all winter long. True, they did not look as great in April as they did in December, and some people might opt to move on to other houseplants at that point, but I think that would miss half the reason to buy this plant: In spring, you add it to your garden.

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After living for a few months as a houseplant, Helleborus niger was loaded with seeds that dropped all over my kitchen counter (warning: they look a lot like mouse droppings!).

Our catalog and website state that “once spring arrives, add this exceptional perennial to your shade garden, where it will soon settle in and bloom the following year. Plants are hardy in Zones 3–8.” I figured it was worth a try, so in about April I dug a hole and added a good amount of compost and planted my slightly tired-looking houseplant. That was probably 4 or 5 years ago, and I have since added several more in the same spot. As an outdoor plant, Helleborus niger acts a bit like a groundcover with lots of twisted stems and a ton of evergreen leaves, but unlike many groundcovers, it forms a clump that does not seem to be getting much bigger (this is a good thing for me, though I couldn’t think of anything nicer than a carpet of Christmas Rose).

Hellebore in garden
This picture gives a sense of scale. The flowers are not enormous, but they pop in a winter garden. Photo taken on December 16, 2015,

But here’s the best thing about my beloved Helleborus niger – it blooms. In December. In fact, it’s loaded with buds in my northwest Connecticut garden right now. It has blossomed every year that I’ve had it at this time, though I must add that some years we’ve had snow cover by this point so technically, I can’t verify that it bloomed during those winters. Any new gardener will laugh when they hear that the first few times it bloomed in December, I asked other gardeners what they thought was going on. Most of them looked at me funny and said that the plant must be “confused.” It turns out that it’s not confused – it’s supposed to do this! According to the Missouri Botanic Garden, “Helleborus niger, commonly called Christmas rose, is a winter-blooming evergreen perennial which blooms around Christmas time in warm winter regions, but later (February or March) in the cold northern parts of the growing range…. Flowers sometimes bloom in the snow and bloom can survive spurts of sub-zero temperatures.”

Christmas Rose in snow
This photo was taken on December 31, 2015.

If you’re thinking of adding one to your holiday list, here are a few tips: I planted mine close to my front door so that it’s easy to keep an eye on their pretty blooms when I am coming and going. As a houseplant, it dropped a ton of seeds in my house by the end of winter, so if you know what to do with Hellebore seeds, you could possibly grow more (I scattered them in my garden and hoped for the best – nothing happened). Another reason it’s a wonderful gift plant is that it doesn’t seem to be widely available, so it is a treat even for the person who has everything. If you are already convinced, you can order one here.

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Giving Thanks

White Flower Farm in the Snow
White Flower Farm in the snow.
On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Jack Frost blanketed parts of northwest Connecticut in snow. It was a lovely kind of snowfall, with fluffy flakes swirling down gently, accumulating slowly on hillsides and tree branches. Early Monday, we stood at the window, warm cups of coffee in hand, watching the show and observing things we hadn’t been able to see in some time. All around us, the majestic shapes of trees were etched against the winter sky, their essential beauty laid bare by the absence of leafy coats. Evergreens stood like sentinels in the storm, never bowing to the gusts of wind, their dark green shapes more visible now against a white background. The tracks of deer and rabbits told tales of early morning foraging beside shrubs and, yes, our gardens. The bright red berries of our native Ilex verticillata stood out against the snow, glittering like ornaments, and inviting us to begin our celebrations of the winter holidays.
In the run-up to Thanksgiving, our thoughts always circle back to the things we’re thankful for, and in the stillness of that snowy morning, we offered up a list. It begins, as it does each year, with the most obvious and essential things: our loving families and friends, the good, honest work that keeps our hands dirty and our hearts full, and the amiable, hard-working colleagues with whom we share our days at the farm.
Equal in measure is our gratitude to you. As customers, fellow gardeners, and gardening friends, you inspire us every day. Your visits to the farm and the website, your calls and your questions keep us striving to do our best, and seeking to learn and improve so we can provide you with the best of everything there is to have and to know in the world of gardening. In the clarity of winter light, it was plain to see that it’s the sharing that counts. Whether we’re passing around plates of turkey and stuffing at our Thanksgiving table, or introducing you to new annuals and perennials, our purpose and our joy are derived in sharing what we have – and what we have learned – with others. In case we neglect to say it during busier times, we’re thankful each and every day for your interest, enthusiasm, curiosity and support.
In this year of turmoil and strife on the national level, we’re especially grateful for the steadying force of nature, which tells us that seasons change, and storms come and go, but essential structures, like the big trees on the farm, will almost always stand fast and hold steady at least until their time has come. 
As you celebrate Thanksgiving, we hope you have the time to count your blessings, and to find pleasure, purpose and peace in thecompany of those you hold dear.
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Our Top Garden Gifts

When it comes to shopping for gardeners, the good news is most of us always need something. It could be a few new plants for the border, heirloom tomatoes for the vegetable garden, or perhaps some new shoes or boots to muck around in. If you’re not exactly certain what the gardener on your list is pining for, you will always succeed wildly with a White Flower Farm Gift Certificate. These certificates invite recipients to choose whatever they’d like from our broad array of annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines, tools, pottery, and gifts. They also welcome recipients to ask questions of our friendly staff members, who are always delighted to help gardeners of all skill levels – from the most experienced to those who are just beginning to get their hands dirty.

If you’d like to see more gift ideas, scroll below. Whether you’re looking for a special present, a few stocking stuffers, or something in between, we’ve got a sleigh-full of great ideas for the gardener and non-gardener on your list.

Amaryllis 'Magical Touch'
Amaryllis ‘Magical Touch’

Amaryllis Bulbs, prices start at $17

At the risk of repeating what we have often said in catalogs and emails, there’s a reason Amaryllis bulbs are our No. 1 bestselling gift item year after year. All of our bulbs are top quality and guaranteed to produce 2 stems, most with a minimum of 4 blossoms each. In the middle of February, when the landscape in many parts of the country is a colorless expanse of white and gray, these easy care flowers come to the rescue, bursting forth with beautiful, colorful blooms. They are a great for gift for just about anyone on your list. No green thumb required.

'Ariel' Paperwhite in handcrafted green porcelain bowl with saucer
‘Ariel’ Paperwhite in handcrafted green porcelain bowl with saucer

Paperwhites, prices start at $22

The all-time favorite bulb for forcing indoors is the Paperwhite Narcissus. Large clusters of pure white flowers arch above graceful, blue-green foliage, and the sweet, heady perfume fills a room with fragrance. Paperwhites require no preparation and are absolutely foolproof. A bag of bulbs is a great stocking stuffer or hostess gift. We always keep a few bags around for unexpected visitors and spontaneous holiday gatherings.

Ultimate Garden Fork
Ultimate Garden Fork

Ultimate Garden Fork, $159 each

Every gardener deserves this hardworking, durable, beautifully crafted tool. We’re certain of it because we could not maintain our gardens at the nursery without it. The stainless steel fork topped by an Ash wood “D” handle is indispensable for digging up Hostas and Daylilies, loosening compacted soil, opening holes for new plantings, and turning the soil before planting bulbs, annuals and perennials. Built to last a lifetime, it’s a special gift that will be handed down to the next generation of gardeners. Overall length: 41″.

Lavender Sachets by the Yard
Lavender Sachets by the Yard

Lavender Sachets by the Yard, 8 sachets, $35

Give a roll of these wonderfully fragrant sachets to one lucky recipient, or cut them apart to make stocking stuffers for several people on your list. The lilac-colored organza fabric contains fresh heads of lavender, which not only smell heavenly, they discourage moths from invading bureau drawers and closets. We send a roll of eight 6” x 4” sachets wrapped with a butterfly ribbon. Hang them together in your closet, or cut them apart to tuck in drawers or stockings.

Red Long Reach Watering Can
Haws Red Long Reach Watering Can

Haws Red Long Reach Watering Can, 1 gallon capacity, $139 each

The superb quality of this professional grade watering can is evident in its heft and perfect balance. Made of heavy-gauge steel, it has a galvanized coating that resists rust and increases durability. Its classic English silhouette comes from the two-handled design and the long-reach spout that creates constant water pressure. The solid brass, oval rose can be attached to deliver a fine spray that won’t wash away new plantings. A filter is included to prevent dirt and debris from passing through the spout and into the rose. This superior watering can holds approximately 1 gallon. Made with exceptional craftsmanship that’s designed to last a minimum of 20 years. (Also available in gray metal 2.3 gal size for $169, or in 1½ gallon size recyclable plastic for $49.)

 

Cook's Herb Trio
Cook’s Herb Trio

Cook’s Herb Trio, 3 plants in 4” copper-toned cachepots with 16” x 5” tray, $50

Every gardener and cook on your list will delight in this trio of culinary herbs, which are great for adding fresh flavor and aroma to soups, stews, casseroles and omelets all winter long. Golden Sage, Rosemary, and English Thyme are as decorative as they are delicious. Enjoy cooking with them yourself, or give as a gift.

Cedar Tuteur
Cedar Tuteur

Cedar Tuteur, $120 each

This beautifully crafted, naturally weather resistant tuteur creates a dramatic focal point in any garden whether it’s smothered in Clematis, Sweet Pea, or Morning Glory blossoms, or standing alone and unadorned in a mixed border. It assembles easily with a Phillips screwdriver. The rot-resistant Western Red Cedar will weather naturally to a light silver gray. Measures 81″ tall, 2′ square at the base.

Seibert & Rice Agresti Vase
Seibert & Rice Agresti Vase

 Seibert & Rice Agresti Vase, $330 each

When only a “big” present will do, the gardener in your life will thrill to this heirloom quality hand-crafted terra-cotta pot from renowned importers Seibert & Rice. As much a work of art as it is a planter, the ornamental motifs on this exquisite vessel were formed using original molds from 19th century master craftsmen. Each pot is created freehand and signed by the highly skilled artisan who makes it. Pots can winter over in cold-climate gardens provided they are set on feet. (See full description of feet here — We recommend the use of 3 to support this pot.) Measures approximately 16″ wide x 11″ high, and has 1 drainage hole.

Garden Footwear

All of us at the farm have our preferred footwear for gardening and mucking around outdoors in all types of weather. From affordable Sloggers and Crocs to more costly Birkenstocks, Boggs, Hunter boots, Muck boots, sneakers, and hiking boots, every gardener needs durable, supportive, weather-proof footwear. Visit your favorite shoe store or e-tailer and choose something just right for your gardener.

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A feature of the New York Botanical Garden’s 2016 Orchid Show.

Membership to a Botanical Garden

Give a gift that supports a special place. Your recipient will enjoy the privileges of membership at a lovely garden, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting the work that goes on there – whether it’s maintaining existing plantings, educating the next generation of gardeners, or conducting horticultural research. Tops on our list in our neck of the woods are Longwood Garden in Kennett Square, PA, the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, NY, and Tower Hill in Boylston, MA.

Garden Help

Hire a helper for your favorite gardener, someone who’s a dab hand at mulching, pruning, planting, and tending a garden. You not only give someone you love a helping hand, you support an individual who might make or wish to make his or her living as what we call a “greenie.”

potting shed

A Garden Shed

If your budget has a fair amount of elastic in it, consider building or buying a shed for your favorite gardener. Whatever the size, a shed is a terrific place to store pots, tools, and other supplies essential to gardening. Larger models might include windows and a potting table. Employ a local carpenter to build a custom shed, or choose from any number of prefabricated styles available from a wide variety of retailers and e-tailers.

garden magazines

A Subscription to a Gardening Magazine

Give a gift that goes on all year! Good gardening magazines provide year-round inspiration and information. Some of our favorites include Gardens Illustrated, Garden Design, Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Better Homes & Gardens, and Country Gardens.

 

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Citrus Sampler Gift Box, starting at $35

Straight from orchards in Florida, our juicy, ripe Citrus makes a delicious gift for anyone on your list. The fruit is ripened on the tree before being harvested and shipped directly to you or your lucky recipients. We promise you can taste the difference. Our 10-pound sampler includes an average of 4 Ruby Red Grapefruits and 10–12 Oranges. A 20-lb box includes an average of 8 Grapefruits and 20-24 Oranges. To send three 10-pound samplers to 3 addresses for $135, standard shipping included, click here.

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Staff Members Choose Their Favorite Amaryllis

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Choosing which Amaryllis varieties to order for yourself or as gifts can be a challenge. This is especially true if you’re selecting from among the 84 varieties we’re offering this season. When choosing, some of us instinctively select by color – red, pink, white, or bicolor. Others by form – Single, Double, Nymph, Cybister, or Small-Flowering. If you’re looking for more help in narrowing your choices, read below. We asked 12 staff members to choose one favorite Amaryllis variety and to tell us why it’s their top choice. Their remarks might steer you to some surprises. (The photos of these glorious flowers probably won’t hurt either.)

Amaryllis 'Spartacus'
Amaryllis ‘Spartacus’

Amaryllis ‘Spartacus’

‘I’d have to pick ‘Spartacus’ for it’s large blooms and bold color and pattern. The red and white provide a wonderful contrast, while not overpowering each other. Plus when the sun hits it just right the petals produce an iridescent shine you can get lost in.’

Sean

Amaryllis 'Tres Chic'
Amaryllis ‘Tres Chic’

Amaryllis ‘Tres Chic’

‘I love this amaryllis because although it has smaller blooms it makes up for it by knocking my socks off with tons of long lasting flowers. I usually get three to four flower stalks per bulb with 4-6 blooms per stalk. The blooms are gorgeous, the green throat and the contrast between the white centers and the beautiful red outer edge is just classically beautiful. If I could pick just one to grow every year (which I never do), this would be it!’

Martha

Amaryllis 'Purple Rain'
Amaryllis ‘Purple Rain’

Amaryllis ‘Purple Rain’

‘One of my favorite varieties is ‘Purple Rain.’ The large, exotic bi-colored blooms are so striking you have to get close to see if they are real. The closeup reveals intricate veining and a gorgeous sheen to the flower.  (And it’s the perfect year to honor Prince!)’

Barb

Amaryllis 'Picotee'
Amaryllis ‘Picotee’

Amaryllis ‘Picotee’

‘I like ‘Picotee’ – it has a very delicate flower, neutral palette, and it strikes me as funny/fascinating that there’s genetic coding for the edging color, which seems like pure ornament . . .’

Eliot

Amaryllis 'Lagoon'
Amaryllis ‘Lagoon’

Amaryllis ‘Lagoon’

‘My fave is ‘Lagoon.’ Years ago we had ‘Vera,’ almost the same, a gorgeous rich pink. No star in the middle. I love it after the holidays because it is not red or white. It goes with green so well, and we have lots of shades of green in our house. When I force paperwhites, they look beautiful together. And the blue hyacinth as well.’

Susan

Amaryllis 'Double Delicious'
Amaryllis ‘Double Delicious’

Amaryllis ‘Double Delicious’

‘I love the bright red pop of color, the sculptural flowers, and the large size of the double blooms! Every time I see it, it brightens my day, and lights up my office!’

Liz

Amaryllis Benfica®
Amaryllis Benfica®

Amaryllis Benfica®

‘My fave is Benfica because that rich, deep red has bloomed in my house through the beginning of February so it’s like love is exploding on my mantle on Valentine’s Day.’

Mary

Amaryllis 'Alfresco'
Amaryllis ‘Alfresco’

Amaryllis ‘Alfresco’

[Two staff members picked this one!]

‘As a gift or for myself, the white blooms go with any décor, and they are uniformly enormous and showy. They really do prompt people who receive them to thank me twice – once when they get it, and once again when it blooms. Last year, I got a hand-written note about one . . .’

Margret

‘Incredibly prolific, lots of stems holding lots of blooms, the blooms seem to just keep coming!’

Rob

Amaryllis 'Aphrodite'
Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’

Amaryllis ‘Aphrodite’

‘The ‘Aphrodite’ Amaryllis is my favorite for its beautiful coloring and ruffled edges. It is a true feminine beauty that will draw you in, and the name speaks for itself!’

Shantelle

Amaryllis 'Flamenco Queen'
Amaryllis ‘Flamenco Queen’

Amaryllis ‘Flamenco Queen’

‘Best one I remember from last year’s trials was ‘Flamenco Queen.’ What struck me was the dark red color with white overtones on top of each flower with the lighter reddish white bottom. The lighter color on bottom most of the time had a red edge to the flower petal, not only very striking visually, but also the lighter bottom was very consistent in all the flowers.’

Ray

Amaryllis 'Terra Mystica'
Amaryllis ‘Terra Mystica’

Amaryllis ‘Terra Mystica’

‘In trials last year, this one stood out from all the others. A small-flowering variety, it produces a remarkable number of blooms in a warm terra-cotta color. Each petal is neatly edged in white as if a very fine tailor had seen to every last detail.’

Deb

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Forcing Bulbs – It’s Easier Than You Think

Forced Narcissus

For starters, “forcing” is a misnomer because it sounds too much like work. We’re just tricking the bulbs into thinking winter is over quite a bit sooner than it is. Forcing is an easy sleight of hand that offers the soul-restoring scents and colors of spring at a time of year when spirits sorely need reviving. But you need to plant now, in autumn, to enjoy the results when the snow flies! Although we usually think of forcing Daffodils, Hyacinths, and Tulips, many of the smaller bulbs are also extremely easy and gratifying to force: Crocus, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Scilla, Dwarf Irises, and Anemones also will give great results.

Forced bulbs can be divided into two groups: those that require a chilling period and those that don’t. When bulbs do need chilling, what they actually require is many weeks less than typical northern winters. (See the list at the end of this post for details.)

In a nutshell, here’s what you do . . .

 Force Bulbs That Need Chilling

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Pot the bulbs in any well-draining potting mix, water them, and set them aside in a cool but not freezing dark spot for the required minimum time (see below), then bring them into warmth and light in the house. The bulbs think spring has arrived and quickly sprout and flower. It’s that easy — the bulbs do most of the work.

This is a great project to do with young children, if you want to invite the kids or grandkids to participate. The actual planting is a little messy, so it’s a good idea to spread some newspapers to catch any spilled soil, gather all your pots in one spot, and do all the planting at one time.

Containers and Potting Mix

Bulb containers with moistened potting mix
Bulb containers with moistened potting mix

You can use any pot you like to hold bulbs you want to force, as long as it allows room for root growth — about 3-4” of space below the bulbs. This is a great opportunity to showcase flea market finds and tag sale treasures, or your favorite terra cotta pots. If you choose a pot without a drainage hole in the bottom, you’ll have to water your bulbs carefully, because bulbs that sit in soggy potting mix soon will rot. Consider using a ceramic or terra cotta pot if you’re forcing tall Daffodils or Tulips. These flowers can be top-heavy when in full bloom and may topple if grown in lightweight plastic pots.

We recommend that you plant bulbs in a soilless potting mix (available at garden centers and hardware stores). A soilless mix holds moisture but allows excess water to drain away readily.

Potting the Bulbs

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To pot the bulbs, begin by placing potting mix in a plastic tub or bucket. Slowly add water and stir until the mix is moist but not soggy. This is an ideal job for a very young assistant, if you’d like to invite a child or grandchild to join the fun. Add the moistened mix to the container until the pot is about three-quarters full. Set the bulbs root-side down on top of the mix (or on their sides if you can’t tell which end is up, as with Anemone blanda). Space the bulbs much more closely than you would in the garden – they should almost touch. Then add more mix. Cover small bulbs completely with a ½” layer of mix; cover larger bulbs up to their necks, leaving the tips of the bulbs exposed. Water thoroughly after potting.

Chilling the Bulbs

Bulbs in bags in Mary Valente refrigerator door; Tulips; Daffodils; Narcissus; Hyacinth; bulb forcing
You can keep bulbs cool in a refrigerator, but only if there is no fresh fruit stored inside. The ethylene gas released by fruit during its natural ripening process will interfere with flower development. Better to store bulbs in an extra refrigerator, if you happen to have one.

To force cold-hardy bulbs into bloom, you must first encourage them to produce new roots by keeping them cool and moist for a period of time that varies by type of bulb (see listing below). The ideal rooting temperature also varies, but most bulbs flower best if stored at 40-60°F for the first 3-4 weeks after potting, then at 32-40° for the balance of the cooling period – a shift that mimics the drop in soil temperature outdoors as fall turns to winter.

The easiest way to chill bulbs is to put them outdoors and let nature do the rest. To insulate the bulbs from rapid changes in air temperature and from freezing cold, bury the pots in a pile of dry leaves held in place by a plastic tarp or in a pile of mulch, such as bark or wood chip, and cover the pile to prevent formation of a frozen crust. You also can chill bulbs in a cold frame if you’re lucky enough to have one; a cold basement; or an unheated garage (provided the temperature doesn’t fall below freezing). If you choose to chill bulbs in the refrigerator, be certain there is no fresh fruit stored inside. Fruit releases ethylene gas as a natural part of its natural ripening process, and the ethylene will interfere with flower development. In locations other than a refrigerator, it may be difficult to arrange for the ideal shift in temperature described above. Fortunately, most bulbs haven’t read the manuals, and they will root beautifully if the temperature does not stray too far above or below 40°F during the rooting time. Professional growers fill huge walk-in coolers with potted bulbs and control the temperatures precisely. Using an old refrigerator in a basement can deliver great results without ever touching the temperature controls.

The possible downside to outside storage has four little legs. If mice or other rodents have access to your bulbs, they will devour all but the varieties that are poisonous or distasteful to them (such as Narcissus, more commonly known as Daffodils). Protect potted bulbs with steel mesh, such as hardware cloth.

Please note that moisture is as important as temperature in the successful chilling of bulbs. Check the potting mix in the pots every few weeks and water thoroughly when the surface is dry to the touch.

Toward the end of the recommended rooting time, begin checking the pots for signs that the bulbs have rooted. If you see fleshy white roots poking through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots, the bulbs are usually ready to bloom. If you don’t see roots, give the bulbs more time in cold storage. Don’t judge readiness by the appearance of shoots from the tops of the bulbs; without roots, the bulbs won’t flower properly.

Once the bulbs have rooted, you don’t have to bring them out of the cold immediately. Most will tolerate extra chilling time, allowing you to orchestrate a succession of winter bloom.

Bringing the Bulbs into Bloom

Forced bulbs under lights
Forced bulbs under grow lights. A sunny window also provides adequate light for bulb forcing.

When the bulbs have rooted, bring the pots out of cold storage and set them in a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperature stays below 65°F). Bright light will help keep the leaves and flower stems compact; in weak light, they tend to flop. You’re likely to find that the bulbs have produced white shoots during cold storage. Sunlight quickly turns them green.

Keep a close eye on the moisture needs of the bulbs as they send up leaves and flower stems. Initially, the bulbs probably won’t need to be watered more frequently than once a week (if that much), but by the time they bloom, you may need to water them every day or two.

Most bulbs will bloom 2-5 weeks after they come out of the cold, heralding spring with their bright colors and sweet fragrances. Duration of bloom varies with the type of bulb and the variety but is generally shorter than you’d expect of bulbs in the garden. Warm temperatures and low humidity indoors speed the decline of the flowers. Shifting the pots out of direct sunlight and moving them to a cool room at night helps prolong bloom.

When the blooms fade, we usually recommend that you toss the bulbs on the compost pile. If you keep them in a sunny window and continue to water them, forced bulbs can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years. Tulips rarely bloom again, but Daffodils, Crocus, and Grape Hyacinth are more likely to be worth the effort of planting.

Forcing Hyacinths Without Soil

The whiskery white roots of some Hyacinth bulbs appeared in just 24 hours.
The whiskery white roots of some Hyacinth bulbs appeared  just 24 hours after they were removed from cooling and were set atop glass gems with water below.

Hyacinths can be forced in pebbles and water, or in glass jars. They still require a cool rooting period if forced this way. Special forcing glasses, in use since Victorian days, are shaped like an hourglass and keep the bottom of the bulb dry—only the bulb’s roots reach down into the water. If you are using pebbles in another type of container, place a 2-3” layer of pebbles, such as pea stone, marble chips, or river rocks, in the bottom of the bowl or pot. Set the bulbs on top of the pebbles then fill with more pebbles, leaving the top 1/3 of the bulbs exposed. Add enough water to create a reservoir for the roots, but be sure the bases of the bulbs stay above water level. If they sit in water, the bulbs will rot. Then place the container in a dark, cool area (40-50°F) for 4-8 weeks. Check the water level occasionally and add more water as necessary, keeping the water level below the bottom of the bulb. When roots have developed and leaves begin to grow, it’s time to move the bulb into a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperatures stay below 65°F). Bulbs forced in water can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years – if ever.

Recommended Cooling Period

Professionals often recommend very lengthy cold periods, but we’ve had good results at home using the minimums listed here. Remember that bulbs can keep chilling for longer than the minimum. Please note that Tulips do require the longest period to flower successfully.

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Recommended Rooting Times for Cold-Hardy Bulbs

  • Anemone (Windflower), 8-10 weeks
  • Chionodoxa (Glories of the Snow), 10-12 weeks
  • Crocus (Spring-blooming Crocus), 8-10 weeks
  • Galanthus (Snowdrops), 10-12 weeks
  • Hyacinthus (Hyacinth), 12-14 weeks
  • Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata and other spring-blooming bulbous species), 10-12 weeks
  • Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), 8-10 weeks
  • Muscari (Grape Hyacinth, to keep the leaves shorter, store cool and dry for 6-8 weeks, then give 2 weeks of cool rooting time)
  • Trumpet Daffodils, 14-16 weeks
  • Large-Cupped Daffodils, 15-17 weeks
  • Small-Cupped Daffodils, 16-18 weeks
  • Double-Flowered Daffodils, 16-18 weeks
  • Split-Corona Daffodils, 14-16 weeks
  • Narcissus (Triandrus), 16-17 weeks
  • Narcissus (Cyclamineus), 14-15 weeks
  • Narcissus (Jonquilla), 15-16 weeks
  • Narcissus (Tazetta), 14-15 weeks
  • Narcissus (Miniature), 14-16 weeks
  • Scilla (Squill), 10-12 weeks
  • Tulipa (Tulip), 14-16 weeks
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In Drought Conditions, Water Until the Ground Freezes Hard

It’s no secret to any gardener based in New England that the region is experiencing a significant rainfall deficit. In Connecticut, where we’re located, assessments provided by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for September 2016, indicate that all regions of the state are in either “extreme drought” (a deficit of 2.75” of rain or greater) or “severe drought” (a deficit of 2” to 2.74” of rain). While October delivered a few showers, we still have a lot of making up to do. The situation is the same across New England. (See for yourself by clicking here.)

In September, according to NOAA, “Abnormally dry and drought conditions continued to contract in the Midwest and intensify in the Northeast, where extreme drought developed. The unusually warmer-than-normal temperatures increased evaporative stress which exacerbated the drought conditions in the Northeast. Soils were dry, vegetation stressed, and groundwater and streamflow levels low. According to USDA statistics, topsoil moisture was short or very short (dry or very dry) in 50 percent or more of Rhode Island (100%), Massachusetts (78%), Connecticut (76%), New Hampshire (65%), and Vermont (53%); subsoil moisture was short or very short in 50 percent or more of Rhode Island (100%), Massachusetts (91%), Connecticut (80%), New Hampshire (63%), and Vermont (52%); and pasture and rangeland was in poor to very poor condition in 50 percent or more of Massachusetts (81%), New Hampshire (65%), Rhode Island (60%), Maine (59%), and Connecticut (56%).”

Massachusetts and Connecticut have been critically impacted, according to the NOAA data. “Fifteen states ranked in the driest third of the historical record for April-September, with two in the Northeast having the tenth driest, or drier, such 3-month period. These were . . . Massachusetts (at fourth driest) and Connecticut (at fifth driest). The last three April-September time periods have been drier than average for these two states.”

In southern New England, the dryness is part of a longer-term pattern. “Thirteen states ranked in the driest third of the historical record, with the severest dryness (driest ranks) persisting in southern New England — Connecticut had the fifth driest January-September and Massachusetts the seventh driest,” according to NOAA. “Four of the last five year-to-dates have been much drier than average for Connecticut.”

In forecasting trends for this winter’s weather, NOAA predicts New England’s drought conditions may improve somewhat in western parts of the region but dry conditions may persist in the east.

Given the drought conditions in many parts of New England, it's essential to keep watering plants until a hard frost.
Given the drought conditions in many parts of New England, it’s essential to keep watering plants until a hard frost.

What does all of this mean for gardeners? Water. Water. Water. Unless restrictions have been imposed in your area, continue to water your gardens and any new plantings including trees and shrubs until the ground freezes hard. Plants that have been stressed by lack of water are far more vulnerable to winter kill. New plantings are at particular risk. Keep your plants hydrated by watering on a weekly basis. (Ideally, you want to water slowly – setting up a sprinkler or drip irrigation system are two ways to do it. The goal is a slow but steady discharge of water that will seep down to the roots of your plants. You want to stop watering before the ground is too saturated to absorb more. Do not overwater or plants will be discouraged from forming good root systems. Standing water might also freeze overnight creating a hazard for you and your plants.)

The ground here in Litchfield County generally freezes hard sometime after Thanksgiving so we’ll keep watering until then.

Watering Guidelines for New Plants

For best results with new plants including potted perennials, shrubs, trees and vines, give their roots a good soaking in their pots on the day before planting. (You may even stand each pot in a bucket of water for up to 30 minutes so the soil is soaked through. Remove each pot from the bucket and let it drain.) On the day you put the new plants in the ground, water them again, as needed, before and after planting.

For bareroot perennial specimens, soak the roots in water for a few hours before planting. If the root is woody (as in roses), soak for up to 12 hours. Follow directions for planting your bareroot specimen then water it in once planted.

Water Restrictions

If you live in an area where water restrictions have been imposed, you may choose to collect “grey water,” the type that’s generated by routine household rituals including bathing, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and rinsing fruits and vegetables. As you start the shower or run the tap to rinse something or wait for hot water, collect the runoff in buckets or jars and bring it outside. Please note: While grey water that contains detergents or soaps may be used for some things, it is not recommended for watering plants. Be sure your grey water is free of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, dish detergent, grease, etc., which can potentially damage your plants or attract critters.

Plants that are stressed by lack of water are more susceptible to winter kill.
Plants that are stressed by lack of water are more susceptible to winter kill.

Rainfall, if we get much, is another excellent source of water. Install rain barrels below your gutter pipes or set out buckets and pails to catch whatever falls from the sky. This is a terrific practice whether or not drought conditions prevail.

Take Care of Your Hose

To prevent your hose from cracking on nights when the temperature dips below freezing, remember to discharge any water that’s trapped in it after each use.

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While You’re Out Leaf-Peeping, Stop by the Store!

30% Off Sign

Against all expectations (given the dry summer), it’s a dazzling autumn here in the northwestern hills of Connecticut. The trees are ablaze in colors of red, orange, yellow and gold. If you’re within driving distance of our retail location in Morris, we hope you’ll hop in the car, do a little leaf-peeping, stop for lunch in the Litchfield area, and while you’re in the neighborhood, visit the store. To help encourage you to visit, you’ll find all remaining perennials, shrubs and trees available at significant discounts. (It’s our way of helping them find homes before winter.) You’ll find our bestselling daffodil collection, The Works, on sale with 200 premium bulbs at 50% off (while supplies last). Inside the store, peruse the wide selection of top grade bulbs – from tulips and daffodils to alliums and hyacinths – for fall planting. You’ll also find an array of distinctive and unusual gifts – from field guides and stationery to garden tools, houseplants, and early blooming amaryllis bulbs – which will give you a head start on your holiday shopping and help you ready your home for upcoming festivities.

South African Amaryllis

To make bulb planting easier and more enjoyable, we offer a range of tools designed to facilitate the task. Our custom-made Bulb Planters make speedy work of digging holes. Our Ultimate Garden Fork loosens the soil in garden beds, which makes digging holes for bulbs a breeze.

Tools on display

If you’d like amaryllis to be blooming in your house (or someone else’s) at holiday time, the store is stocked with South African types. These varieties are harvested ahead of their Dutch cousins, and they consequently blossom earlier in the season with most producing flowers in time for the holidays. Decorate your entry table or sideboard with festive blooms in colors of red, red-and-white, white, and pink. Visit soon for the best selection.

Forcing Bulbs in Glass

For forcing amaryllis and other bulbs, the store is showcasing a variety of glass vessels including vases and hurricanes, for just that purpose. Our staff members will be happy to answer any questions you have about forcing bulbs.

Irish Firewood

To keep the yule log burning at your house, consider our Irish Firewood, which is made from 100% organic, authentic Irish peat.

Holiday shopping

If you’d like to get a start on your holiday shopping, we’re offering a range of gifts to suit gardeners and non-gardeners alike. In addition to the items mentioned above, choose from among our durable, top grade garden tools, lovely houseplants, hummingbird feeders, birdhouses, field guides, stationery, and wall calendars.

Enjoy your ride along the country lanes amid fall’s splendor. We look forward to seeing you at the store.

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It’s Cleanup Time!

The garden staff is busy cleaning and carting away spent annuals, and the foliage and faded blossoms of some perennials and shrubs.
Faded annuals, and the foliage and spent blossoms of some perennials and shrubs have been pulled out and are ready to be carted away.

Here in northwestern Connecticut, the fall foliage show is nearing its peak, and in some places, the leaves have begun to fall. They rustle at our feet as we go about our rounds. This is Nature’s way of telling us it’s time to clean the garden.

Clearing out beds and borders means different things to different people. Some gardeners clear every last leaf and past-bloom plant from their gardens while others find reasons to leave everything as is until spring. We fall somewhere in the middle. We believe that maintaining a healthy garden and nutritious, well-structured soil requires different cleanup rituals for different garden spaces. At the farm, here’s how we go about it:

The spent flowers of a Zinnia are beginning to develop mold. Those will be cut and discarded, but for the time being, there is a certain beauty in decay.
The spent flowers of a zinnia are beginning to develop mold. They’ll be cut and discarded, but for the time being, there is a certain beauty in decay.

Remove Most Annuals

For starters, we remove most annuals. In general, these plants are easy to spot because after the first hard frost, many of them, including impatiens, begonias, and coleus, have withered and turned brown. If the spent foliage and blossoms on these plants are free of mold and disease, we put them in the compost pile. If we see traces of powdery mildew (zinnias are often afflicted), downy mildew or other diseases, the plants are put into trash that’s hauled off the property. Keep in mind that any mold or disease that’s allowed to stay in the garden will overwinter and reinfect new growth in spring.

Some annuals argue to be removed a bit later in the fall. “If the Cosmos or verbena bonariensis are still green and self-sowing, I will leave them until later,” says nursery manager Barb Pierson. “Plants like Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun,’ which can overwinter here, will be left until spring. Kale is pretty late in the season, too.”

Cleaning out the beds beside the store. Rudbeckia 'Prairie Sun' bows out after an exceptional summer performance.
Cleaning out the beds beside the store, Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’ bows out after an exceptional summer performance. (Because the plant is sometimes hardy in our zone, some gardeners keep it in to see if it returns in spring.)

Clean Out the Vegetable Garden

In the kitchen garden, Pierson removes all vegetable plants, paying special attention to any varieties, such as tomatoes, that may have fungal leaf spots and mildew. Afflicted plants must be completely removed and put into the garbage (or carted to the dump) or the same afflictions will plague next season’s plants. “Most vegetable plants are best removed unless you are growing fall lettuce or other cold crops here in New England,” Pierson says. “If we plan to plant tulips in the raised beds for a nice spring show, this is the time to do it. If we don’t plant bulbs, we will remove any soil that comes up with the vegetables and add fresh soil in spring. Compost can be added in the fall if it is fresh, but we prefer to do it in the spring because we use fully composted material. Each spring, we replace the top 1/3 of soil – at the least – for best results. Mulching can attract digging rodents so we don’t mulch the beds during the winter months.”

Perennials & Shrubs

In the perennial garden, our methods vary. In the shady beds near the store, our gardeners clean and clear away dead and dying foliage. They cut back ferns, hostas, astilbes, and ligularias. Why? One year, when they let the decaying leaves lie, they discovered that the cushy, warm environment attracted critters who dug around and sometimes nested in the leaf mulch. That would have been all right except the critters didn’t stop at the mulch. They burrowed into the roots of the plants, inadvertently killing a few, and those had to be replaced the following spring.

Browning fern foliage being yanked out and hauled away.
Browning fern foliage is yanked out and hauled away.

In areas where critters don’t pose much of a problem, Pierson and many others believe that the decaying leaves of most deciduous trees are beneficial to the garden. For starters, they form a natural leaf mulch that provides insulation for perennials and shrubs. Oak leaves, which are waxy and don’t easily break down, are particularly good for insulation. Mounding them around perennials and shrubs protects the plants from seasonal temperature swings. Pine needles are another fine insulator, and they’re especially good for acid-loving plants including rhododendrons and azaleas. Leaves that break down more readily such as maple, ash and birch leaves add organic nutrients to the soil, and help improve soil structure.

The foliage of Phlox 'Robert Poore' is covered in powdery mildew. The plants need to be cut at the base and removed or the mold will return in spring to re-infect the plants. It won't inhibit the blossoms, but it's not much to look at.
The foliage of Phlox ‘Robert Poore’ is covered in powdery mildew. The plants need to be cut at the base and removed or the mold will return in spring to re-infect the plants. It won’t inhibit the blossoms, but it’s not much to look at.

As with annuals and vegetable plants, it’s important to note that any perennials or shrubs that exhibit mold or disease should be cut back, and the spent foliage and blossoms should be carted away to the trash (not the compost pile). Plants like Perovskia (Russian Sage) should not be cut to the ground, Pierson says. “The most important thing to remove is the foliage – not the crown or stems – so I would say remove leaf litter and prune stems as you would for that variety, in general 3-4” above soil level.” Some of the perennials and shrubs most commonly affected by powdery mildew include peonies, monarda (bee balm), phlox, and roses. As with vegetable plants and annuals, if you leave afflicted plants in the garden, the mold and disease will overwinter and reassert itself in spring. The mold won’t interfere with blossom production, but it will detract from the beauty of the foliage.

We like to leave the seed heads of Echinacea in the garden. Birds feed at them, and they also look lovely dusted in snow.
We like to leave the seed heads of Echinaceas (Coneflowers) in the garden. Birds feed at them, and they also add winter interest when dusted in snow.

As you cut down bee balms, phlox and peonies, keep in mind that there are other perennials and shrubs you’ll want to keep. While ornamental grasses can be cut back in fall (leaving 6” of growth to protect the crowns), the argument for leaving them until spring is that they look quite lovely dusted in snow. The seed heads of Echinacea and the berries of Ilex verticillata (winterberry) feed the birds as winter sets in. The pods of Asclepias, the flower clusters of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Eupatorium, and the seed heads of Echinaceas (Coneflowers) all provide winter interest.

Purple kale won't be taken out of the garden until a deep freeze. For now, the intense color adds beauty to the autumn landscape.
Purple kale won’t be taken out of the garden until a deep freeze. For now, the intense color adds beauty to the autumn landscape.

So clean as much or as little as you choose depending on the types of plants you have in your garden. But whatever you decide, it’s time to grab your rake and pruners, and spend a few days in the glorious autumn weather putting your garden to bed.

In one of the display gardens, the bright lavender blossoms of the autumn-blooming Colchicum have popped up amid a sea of lime-colored Sedum 'Angelina.' We won't be cutting these!
In one of the display gardens, the bright lavender blossoms of the autumn-blooming Colchicum have popped up amid a sea of lime-colored Sedum ‘Angelina.’ We won’t be cutting these!
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Planting the Tulip Border: Going for Drama

By Cheryl Whalen, Head Gardener

Driving around the Litchfield hills the other day, all of a sudden it hit me! Wow! Look at the leaves! The subtle yellows and tans of early autumn had been set ablaze seemingly overnight by brilliant oranges and reds. I had previously resigned myself to the fact that this fall’s colors would be humdrum and subdued perhaps somehow due to our prolonged lack of rainfall this summer. This sudden fantastic burst of color jolted me out of my end-of-season slump. The cool crispness of the morning air further confirms my declaration. I feel fully confident and satisfied that fall has officially arrived here in northwest Connecticut. My thoughts immediately hone in on the fall to-do list in the gardens. One of my favorite projects rises to the top . . . bulb planting! Out with the annuals, leaving this past summer season in the rear view mirror, and in with the bulbs, each one sunk into the earth with hopeful anticipation of next spring’s colorful awakening after the winter slumber.

We have a border just south of our shop that has, more years than not, been loaded up with tulip bulbs each fall which then in turn greet our visitors with a dramatic welcome each May. During the summer, the garden plays host to a variety of annuals as well as tender dahlias. With the onset of fall, these seasonals are dug out and the garden is prepared for tulip planting.

measuring-tape-and-bamboo-poles-are-used-to-lay-out-the-design-for-the-tulip-border
Measuring tape and bamboo poles are used to lay out the design for the tulip border.

Back in August, I dreamed up my tulip planting scheme. Armed with my scissors and stack of pictorial catalogs, I fall back on my trusty collage design technique to create my planting plan. This year I decided to focus on the group of late-season blooming tulip varieties featured in our bulb offering. Because I’m going for the drama, I try to tailor my planting so the tulips will bloom all at once in order to achieve the maximum color impact when the bulbs flower. Collaging is effective for this type of scheme. I shuffle around my tulip picture cutouts on my graph paper until I am certain each variety will play well with its neighbors. Then I translate the lineup to the garden map below, filling in the tulip varieties in each section along with a corresponding quantity of bulbs needed to fill that space.

bulb planting plan
Using a collage technique, it’s possible to create tulip pairings and adjacencies that will flower in next spring’s garden.

The garden is 5’ wide by 66’ long. I happily cram just over 3,000 tulip bulbs into this plot. A little bit of prep work happens before I actually begin planting the bulbs. With measuring tape outstretched alongside the border, I use bamboo canes to divide the garden up into sections as dictated by my planting map.

A good garden fork helps loosen the soil before bulbs are planted.

Then, starting at the north end, I employ the use of my garden fork, which is affectionately named “Favorite” because that’s what he is . . . my favorite. I don’t know what I would do without him. I dig a section or two of the garden, loosening the soil to make planting easier. After smoothing out the soil surface, it’s time to lay out the bulbs. Spacing between bulbs in this garden is on the close side usually no more than 4” apart. Remember I’m going for the drama in this garden so I want to plant as many bulbs as I can in order to reach my theatrical goal.

digging-the-bulbs-in-one-at-a-time-cheryl-plants-them-about-4_-apart-for-a-dense-display
Upwards of 3,000 tulip bulbs are planted each year in the tulip border.

The next step is to sink those beautiful bulbs into the earth. I prefer to do this on my hands and knees using a trowel to dig each hole. The soil is loose so the digging is easy and being close to the ground saves my lower back from being achy. My little white bucket contains ground oyster shells, which are part of my defense strategy against the underground assaults of voracious voles against my precious bulbs. After digging a hole and dropping in my bulb, I throw in a handful of oyster shells. The oyster shells are scratchy to the voles’ hands and skin so my hope is to have them think twice about coming close to my tulip bulbs. Hopefully they will go elsewhere for dinner. I don’t put oyster shells in every hole because that would be a whole lotta shells. Instead I put them in the bulb holes on the edges of the planting area in an attempt to create a “barrier” of shells that the rodents won’t cross as they enter the garden from the rock wall or lawn. It’s not 100 percent foolproof but it does provide some protection.

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The effort is always worthwhile, don’t you think? This is how the border looked in May of 2016.

 

It likely will take a whole day and a half to complete the bulb planting but I don’t mind. I like to listen to the radio as I plant. Sometimes I will challenge myself to see how many bulbs I can plant while a certain song plays through and then I try to beat that number when the next song comes on. Time goes by quickly and before I know it, I’m all done. I stand up and stretch. Looking back at the border I squint and try to imagine the day next spring when all of those tulips will sing together and be in their colorful glory. I smile as I gather up Favorite and my trowel. On to the next bulb planting project . . .

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Tour the Lloyd Border With Our Head Gardener

Did you get a chance to visit us this summer? If not (and even if you did), we’ve just released a new video that offers all garden lovers a tour of White Flower Farm’s Lloyd Border in the company of our head gardener Cheryl Whalen.

“The Lloyd,” as it’s known around here, is the brainchild of White Flower Farm’s owner, Eliot Wadsworth, who years ago chose to turn a large expanse of lawn in the midst of the Litchfield countryside into a mixed border in the English style. His aim: to create a garden with a long season of interest in New England. To design the garden, Mr. Wadsworth enlisted Fergus Garrett, steward of England’s Great Dixter, the world-renowned family home of the late gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd. Garrett’s design, which was installed beginning in 2001, mixes trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals with the goal of ensuring a continual succession of bloom from spring to fall.

If you have the privilege, as we do, of seeing the Lloyd Border develop and change over the course of an entire season, you’re treated to successive waves of bloom and color, form and fragrance, and to the glorious alliances that occur when plants are successfully combined.

Lloyd Border (July):Phlox, Rudbeckia Goldsturm, Echinacea Kim's Knee High, Grass Leymus Arenarius, Agastache, Zinnias (possibly Profusion Orange?)
The Lloyd Border during a previous July: Phlox, Rudbeckia Goldsturm, Echinacea ‘Kim’s Knee High,’ Grass Leymus Arenarius, Agastache, and Zinnias create a riotous mix of colors, textures and forms.

Our new video captures the Lloyd during one “moment” in 2016 – a late summer day when the garden is at a peak stage of bloom, filled with the flowers and colors of Russian Sage, Rudbeckias, Dahlias, Zinnias, Verbena bonariensis, Ageratum, Phlox, Nicotiana, Sedum, Tagetes Marigolds, Salvias, and plenty more.

The garden changes each year, largely because there are new plants or plant combinations to try, but its essential bones remain the same.

You can build your own garden in the same manner as the Lloyd, anchoring your space with small trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses in repeating patterns that define the garden and give it year-round structure. Fill in with perennials that return each year to provide color and texture, and leave designated spaces for annuals, which, because they’re planted each spring, can be changed year to year according to the gardener’s whims.

Click the link, take the tour, and you may come away with some ideas and plant combinations for next season’s garden.