Monthly Archives: September 2016

Breeding Daffodils

By Carlos van der Veek

Creating new daffodils is by far not as difficult as you might think. In fact, it is one of the easiest plants to hybridize. When you cross-pollinate two daffodils, you will very often be able to harvest some seeds after a couple of months. Every single seed you harvest is a new daffodil because with daffodils, same as with humans, not a single seed will look the same as another.

To cross-pollinate, you first choose two varieties you fancy. This can be anything, just choose two you like. When you look in the flowers you can easily find the pollen and the stamen.

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Stamen and pollen

All you have to do is collect pollen and put that on the stamen of another variety. To do so you can use a pair of tweezers to pick an anther with pollen, but I usually just pick a flower of a pollen plant (also called the “father” plant), flap it open and smear the anthers over the stamen of the “mother” plant.

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Pollinating
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Pollinating

After you have done this, you will see that the pollen easily sticks on the stamen. Be careful not to bruise the stem, neck or flower of the mother plant because on her flower the seeds have to grow for about eight to 10 weeks. During these eight to 10 weeks, you will see the seed bud, which is hidden on the back of the flower, slowly grow, and during the coming eight weeks it will swell to the size of a marble.

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Daffodil seed bud

This size goes for a standard daffodil. When you pollinate smaller daffodils, you will have smaller seed buds.

After about 8 weeks, you have to be careful to inspect the seed buds often, and when they start to turn brown and shrivel a little bit, they are ready to harvest. When you are too late inspecting them, the seed buds might burst and the seeds will fall on the ground where they are hard to find. The seeds will be the size of a pinhead. Seeds from large daffodils will be slightly bigger. Seeds from miniature daffodils will be smaller.

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Daffodil seeds

But now a part of the story that might be a little bit disappointing: you have to nurse the seeds for five to six years before you will be able to see your first results. It will take this long for the seed to grow to a large enough bulb to produce a flower. But to grow the seeds you really do not have to do much that is different from growing other daffodils.

In the fall, you plant the seeds, no deeper than half an inch, in a pot or tray. This pot can be planted in the garden in a spot where you also plant your other bulbs.

In the first spring, you will see each seed producing one single leaf that will not be much bigger than a leaf of grass from your lawn.

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One-year-old seed

The reason for planting them in a pot or tray is that you do not have to dig them after the first year of growing. In the first year, the seeds will grow into small daffodil bulbs, but these bulbs will be hardly bigger than the seeds you planted.

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1-, 2- and 3-year-old seeds

So digging and replanting will be difficult because you might not be able to find all the little bulbs. So I usually leave the pot or tray with seeds in the ground for at least three years, and all I do is keep them free from weeds.

After that, the bulbs really need replanting every year to give them more space. Bulb size is increasing rapidly these years so spacing will become more important. When you dig the seedlings in the fifth year, you will see that some of the bulbs have grown big enough to produce a flower. And finally in the sixth spring you might see your first creations, and you can really start to enjoy them. Some of your seedlings might need another year to grow big enough to produce a flower.

Not all of them are beautiful so selecting needs to be done. The good-looking ones may stay; the rest end up in the hedge or on the roadside.

During the next five years, sometimes even more, you keep on selecting, and only the ones that perform well year after year remain. For me the criteria for selection are, in the first place, a good-looking flower, but equally important is its garden performance. I prefer the flowers to be well above the leaves and not too much down-facing, and they have to look healthy and vigorous. Sometimes I discharge a nicer flower compared to the others because the others just are better looking plants and better performers in the garden.

Now after more than 10 years you finally might have a daffodil worth keeping, and you want to name her. To name a daffodil, you go the Daffseek website, http://daffseek.org, this is a database of the American Daffodil Society.

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DaffSeek Daffodil Database

This is a perfect place to check to see if the name you have in mind for your daffodil already exists. A name has to be unique, and already over 25,000 daffodils are named, so you might find it hard to come up with something original. But once you find a name, you go the related links on the Daffseek site and they will forward you to the Royal Horticultural Society site (RHS) in the UK where the worldwide registration authority of daffodils is settled.

But before you name a daffodil you might want to know what other people think of your seedling. Best thing to do is go to one of the many daffodil shows that are held each spring by numerous different daffodil societies throughout the United States. You might be able to find a daffodil show close by on the website of the American Daffodil Society [http://daffodilusa.org]. Everybody can enter flowers in these shows, and judges are present to evaulate your blooms and advise you. When it is a good flower, you even might win a ribbon.

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Judging Daffodils

When you are interested in hybridizing daffodils, it is best to first collect a wide range of varieties so you can find out which are most appealing to you. A mixture like The Works is an ideal start. Made up of 30 top quality varieties, it will provide you with a broad range of different daffodils to pick from.

Good luck with the breeding.

Our Hunt for Bulbs in Holland

As fall planting season approaches and you begin to consider which spring-blooming bulbs to add to your garden, we thought we’d tell you a bit about how we find those bulbs and introduce you to some of the bulb experts who help us do it.

To search out Daffodils, Tulips and other spring bloomers, we fly each spring to northern Holland, an area of the Netherlands that contains one of the largest concentrations of bulb growers in the world. Because of demands back at the farm, our trips have to be kept fairly short, only 2 to 3 days, but we pack in a great deal, visiting 6 to 8 bulb growers, and always making time for a visit to the legendary flower garden Keukenhof in Lisse.

On each trip, our first view of what awaits comes through the plane window. Laid out below is a colorful patchwork of Holland’s bulb fields in full and glorious bloom, stretching as far as the eye can see. As many times as we’ve seen this spectacle, it still does something to our hearts, stirring wonder and pure joy in equal measure.

The view from the plane. Photo credit: Eric Breed
The view from the plane. Photo credit: Eric Breed

At the airport gate, we’re met by two extraordinary men we’re privileged to consider our Dutch partners and friends. Carlos van der Veek and Eric Breed are two of the principals in Fluwel, an internationally recognized bulb breeding, growing, and exporting company. Carlos founded Fluwel in 1992 with Tulip expert Jeroen van dan Hoek, and Eric joined the company in 2008. “Fluwel” is an acronym for “Flowers love u, we enjoy life,” and it gives you some idea of the spirit that infuses the whole operation.

Our Dutch Partners

Carlos, a self-professed “bulb nerd,” grew up in the business. His late father, Karel van der Veek, was a renowned Daffodil hybridizer who collected and grew Daffodils behind the farmhouse where Carlos was raised and where his mother still lives. (Carlos is bringing up his own children in a house across the street.) Karel’s garden, which began with just two types of Daffodils, now contains 2,635 varieties. Carlos was “spoon-fed” bulb know-how by his Dad from an early age. Today, he’s internationally regarded as a “walking encyclopedia” on Daffodils.

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Carlos van der Veek

Eric, who is “a bulb nerd like me,” according to Carlos, is the son of bulb breeder Kees Breed. His maternal grandfather was a 3rd generation bulb grower whose fields abutted Keukenhof. Eric spent his youth in and around the fields, deadheading flowers, scanning for virus, driving the tractor, and cutting Tulips. He also worked with Jeroen’s father to learn about forcing Tulips. A photographer and consultant, Eric has traveled the world hunting for Tulips, and his trips to Kazakhstan, Georgia, Israel, Crete, Turkey, Spain, and Tibet are chronicled in his booklet Going Wild for Tulips.

Eric Breed in Kazakhstan in 2001, hunting for Tulip greigii and Tulip kaufmanniana
Eric Breed in Kazakhstan in 2001, hunting for Tulip greigii and Tulip kaufmanniana

Guided by Carlos, Jeroen, and Eric, who seem to have new and creative ideas every 6 seconds, the men have made Fluwel an international force that is synonymous with expertise and the highest quality bulbs. Their flowers are sought by buyers all over the world and can be seen in displays in Keukenhof; at Germany’s Schloss Ippenburg; and at the Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen, among many other venues. Their passion for bulbs inspires their efforts to educate people of all ages and to make learning about and living with flowers a fun and enriching experience for all. In Sint-Maartensvlotbrug, they created Tulpenland, a theme park and “land of eternal spring” that attracts visitors of all ages who are invited to walk through exhibits and playscapes inspired by the history of the Tulip.

The Barnum-like expansion of Fluwel over the years is governed by the same passion and enthusiasm that characterizes our meetings with Carlos and Eric, who are equal parts farmers, bulb experts, and ambassadors for all they grow.

The Search Is On

Leaving the airport, we hop into Carlos’ van, and we’re off, traveling across miles of Holland’s flat fields, all of them exploding with colorful flowers. Among our stops is Fluwel, where acres are planted with Daffodils, Tulips, and Crocuses. Over coffee, a tradition of Dutch hospitality, we talk bulbs. As Carlos likes to say, “Once you start talking about Tulips and Daffodils, just make another cup of coffee, because we won’t stop talking anymore.”

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White Flower Farm’s marketing director, Eliot A. Wadsworth, left, and Daffodil expert Carlos van der Veek

When coffee time comes to an end (about 3 cups later), we head outdoors.

Walking the fields with Carlos and Eric is an extraordinary pleasure and an inspiration. They might show us ancient Narcissus varieties rescued from abandoned home sites; talk about how the different colors of the blooms change over the course of time as the flowers age; help us learn about optimal planting depths and how they affect the overall success rate or possibly just the bloom timing; and point out planned and unplanned color combinations that we can translate into the garden pairings we suggest in our catalogs. What we learn on these walks, we pass along to our customers, the benefit of Carlos and Eric’s wisdom distilled not only in our plant choices but in the information we provide for growing and taking care of them.

Tulip 'Lalibella'
Tulip ‘Lalibella’
A yellow double in its habitat
A yellow double in its habitat

While at Fluwel, Carlos, Eric and our staff members work together to create the proprietary mixes of Daffodils and Tulips that White Flower Farm customers love. Many longtime favorites including our Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, The Works Daffodil Mix, and the Golden Legacy Daffodil Mix were designed in the fields at Fluwel. (Both Daffodil collections include varieties grown and tended by Carlos’ father.)

Fluwel Mix at Keukenhof
The gardens at Keukenhof attract thousands of visitors each spring.

Before leaving Fluwel, the fittest among us take the time to climb one of the company’s wind turbines, reaching the top to get a bird’s eye view of the fields below.

In addition to showing us around Fluwel, Carlos and Eric don their hats as bulb exporters, and we spend the next few days visiting a handful of select specialty growers. These are individuals who have worked with and grown bulbs for Fluwel for years, and most are personal friends of Carlos and Eric. At each stop, we’re offered coffee, of course, and before the day is through, we’ll have had about 15 cups; which is quite useful when battling jet lag.

We visit growers who specialize in the hybridization of new varieties of Tulips; maintain stocks of existing varieties; grow for the cut flower market; or have a wide range of very special bulbs.

Muscari Maxibell
Muscari Maxibell

Everywhere we go, enchantments abound, with unusual flowers to see and choose from. One highly specialized grower produces only varieties of miniature Muscari, and the tiny blossoms are so small they seem suitable for dollhouses. With Carlos and Eric at our elbows, we take notes, snap pictures, and begin ordering samples to be shipped back to Connecticut for trials in our gardens.

Tulip 'Red Impression,' Tulip 'Pink Impression,' and Tulip 'Apricot Impression'
Tulips ‘Red Impression,’ ‘Pink Impression,’ and ‘Apricot Impression’

Keukenhof Gardens

No spring trip to Holland is complete without a detour to world famous Keukenhof. Carlos and Eric accompany us, escorting us through the displays of individual bulbs and the stunning combinations created by a variety of growers and designers including Fluwel.

Combinations we see sometimes become the inspiration for the bulb gardens we offer White Flower Farm customers at holiday time. But early on, we learned that bulb combinations that bloom simultaneously in Holland don’t always perform similarly in the United States. Because our climates are different, and the sun tends to be stronger in the U.S., combinations that work beautifully at Keukenhof don’t always succeed in our part of the world. Carlos and Eric tell us which combinations will work stateside and which won’t. (We also trial each combo we create to ensure that the results are as spectacular as they can be.)

As our Holland visit comes to an end, we place our bulb orders, and bid our Dutch friends goodbye.

Back in Connecticut, as we usher in the busy spring season, the bulbs in Holland continue to grow. When summer arrives in the Netherlands, the bulbs are harvested and cured by drying them or keeping them at particular temperatures, depending on their type. In the large warehouse at Fluwel, the bulbs are sorted, counted and packed by machines. Proprietary mixes, including our Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, are assembled by hand.

Tutti Tulpi, the making of a mix
The making of a bulb mix in the warehouse at Fluwel.

Our brand labels are added, and the bulbs are moved to temperature-controlled containers for the trip across the ocean. Maintaining optimal temperatures is a critical part of the process because buying the best bulbs in the world does no good unless they’re properly stored during transport. To ensure our bulbs are kept at optimal temperatures, each container houses a thermostatic recorder to keep an account of temperatures from portal to portal. When we receive the bulbs at our warehouse in Torrington, Conn., in late August and early September, members of our staff carefully check the recorders to ensure that the correct temperatures were maintained during the trip. If everything is in good order, we transfer the bulbs to our own temperature-controlled coolers and keep the bulbs active and healthy until they’re shipped to customers.

Our partnership with Carlos and Eric is one of the highlights of being in the gardening business. It’s a relationship that’s built on friendship, trust, mutual admiration, and a common desire to share the benefit of our knowledge with those who plant bulbs in their gardens.

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As Carlos puts it, “We gather knowledge and share it.”

For us, that’s what gardening is all about. That, and all those beautiful flowers.

Visiting a Few of England’s Great Gardens

Sissinghurst, Wisley, Great Dixter, Beth Chatto – for American gardeners these are iconic names, alien but as resonant as Mantle and Mays are for baseball fans. This summer we had the opportunity, in between visits to breeders and growers, to see these legendary English gardens in all their late-summer glory. We came home feeling awfully lucky. Photos from other peoples’ business trips, we’re told, don’t often look like these.

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Beth Chatto Gardens in Colchester

The Beth Chatto Gardens in Colchester was our first stop on this trip and perhaps the jet lag exacerbated the “through-the-looking-glass” sensation that we Zone 5 gardeners experience when confronted with the English climate. Fuchsia, Gunnera, Agapanthus – we’re not accustomed to seeing these plants used as permanent border elements, and these gardens feel, in places, quite tropical. In fact, this is one of the driest areas in England, and the gravel garden (converted from a parking lot) serves not only as a striking visual contrast to its lush green surroundings but as a long-running experiment in how a more “Mediterranean” plant palette fares with absolutely no watering.

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Fuchsia in a mixed border
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Gravel garden at Beth Chatto gardens
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Gunnera manicata at Beth Chatto Gardens

Our next stop was in Northiam, East Sussex, at Great Dixter, which holds a special place in White Flower Farm’s collective heart. Dixter was the lifelong home of plantsman and author Christopher Lloyd, and since Christo’s passing in 2006 the estate has been maintained by a charitable trust under the leadership of head gardener Fergus Garrett. In 2001, we collaborated with Mr. Garrett on the design and installation here in Connecticut of a 280′ mixed border (referred to as the Lloyd Border), which, under the subsequent care of our Head Gardener Cheryl Whalen, exhibits the same effusive density and variety of color and texture that make Dixter’s gardens so inviting. It was a special treat to see the “ancestral home,” as it were, of one of our own gardens, and to experience a gardening landmark that is so unmistakably a personal expression.

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Great Dixter
White Flower Farm's Lloyd Border
White Flower Farm’s Lloyd Border

Sissinghurst Castle Garden is in Cranbrook, Kent, just up the road from Dixter (with only a few potentially lethal “roundabouts” between), but it offers quite a contrast to the latter. Compared to the ecstatic wildness of Dixter, Sissinghurst’s manicured garden “rooms” feel carefully choreographed and managed. Like Dixter’s, Sissinghurst’s history goes back hundreds of years, and the gardens were designed and installed over the course of several decades by the last private owners, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. The property has been under the care of the UK’s National Trust since 1967.
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RHS Wisley

Our last stop was in Surrey at RHS Wisley, one of four Royal Horticultural Society  gardens (there’s a fifth in the works) scattered across England. The RHS is a member-supported private charity that dates back to the early 19th century, having received its Royal Charter in 1861. In addition to maintaining gardens, the RHS offers educational programs, organizes flower shows (including the Chelsea Flower Show), and generally promotes horticulture and gardening. Wisley is the RHS’s oldest garden and serves as the administrative hub for the society’s extensive trialing program, which grants top-performing plants the Award of Garden Merit. We talked our way into an early entrance and spent most of a day exploring a garden that, unlike anything else we saw on this trip, offers grandeur on an imperial scale.

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We returned home with achy feet and fresh eyes, and are already scheming about when to return to soak up even more of all that these astounding gardens have to teach us.

Down on the Farm: A Look Back at a Magical Summer

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The end of summer at White Flower Farm

At this address, the end of summer is attended by a flurry of activity both indoors and out because we are obliged to deal simultaneously with this year’s plants (being delivered to purchasers), next year’s plants (being propagated, potted, pruned, and sometimes imported), and plants that will be on offer several years from now (requiring photos, stock plants, hardiness trials, production plans, and greenhouse space projections). In the background is, of course, speculation about the likely date of first frost by which time greenhouses need to be covered, irrigation systems drained, and all outdoor equipment readied for winter. The mix of exhilaration and anxiety is familiar, even reassuring, as the sleepy saunter of summer changes to the brisk strides of fall.

It would be a mistake not to take note of the highlights of the summer just passed, not least because they contain both lessons and inspirations for next year. Perhaps most striking at this moment is the total absence of fruit in our small orchard. After two hard and late frosts decimated buds, our trees (apples, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots) are completely barren, a stunning contrast to the gigantic crop we enjoyed last year. The trees earned their rest, but it’s hard to explain to the pigs, who count on dropped apples as the mornings cool. Elsewhere, a long, mild spring, and a warm and dry summer produced contrasting abundance that started with the spring-flowering bulbs and continued through our various plantings of shrubs, perennials and annuals (with a bit of watering when the thunderstorms missed us in August). Especially noteworthy to the undersigned, who walked the gardens practically every day for four months, were the following:

–          Tulips in the beds adjoining our store that bloomed for an extra two weeks thanks to obliging weather.

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White Flower Farm Perennial Tulip Mixture
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French Single Late Tulip Mixture

–           Korean Dogwoods (Cornus kousa), planted to mask a greenhouse, became a feature on their own, alternating pink and white varieties that bloomed long and hard. A trial of ground covers at their feet produced mixed results about which more later. The trees’ fruits are now bright red and very cheerful, but seem not to be attractive to birds.

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One of our Korean Dogwoods underplanted with a trial ground cover combination

–          Our Blackmore & Langdon Tuberous Begonia display moved to a new greenhouse two years ago, took a year to get adjusted, and then returned to top form, starting in June and still going strong this week. Our friends at the English nursery that bred these marvels actually called upon us to help them restore varieties they were struggling with, the ultimate compliment to our Head Gardener, Cheryl Whalen, who curates this collection. We sell the tubers only in spring, but you have permission to start dreaming now.

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White Flower Farm’s Begonia House

–          After some nail biting caused by minus 18 degrees F in February, an astonishing border of Lavender ‘Phenomenal,’ 81 plants without a single loss, settled in comfortably in its second year and proved once and for all that Lavender can be grown in New England. The site faces south and is well drained. We trialed fragrant Sweet Peas on the fence behind and were entranced by the effect.

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Lavender Phenomenal™

–          A marvelous late summer showing in our beloved Moon Garden where strong late-blooming perennials Phlox paniculata ‘David,’  Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album,’ and Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ matched up with annuals and tenders such as Cleomes and Dahlias to make last week’s full moon something quite out of the ordinary.

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White Flower Farm’s Moon Garden

–          Containers of annuals that changed their look and feel with every week of the season and are still strutting their stuff at the first week of September. Ms. Whalen, mentioned above, generates new designs yearly with seldom a disappointment, and many recipients re-order annually.

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Annuals in containers at White Flower Farm

–          The Lloyd Border, over 300’ long and 20’ deep, was once again heart-stoppingly beautiful through the entire summer and will remain so until a heavy frost. It’s worth a visit all by itself. A drone-based video is in production, which we hope will capture at least a fraction of this experience. It’s not too late to visit this year, and next year is a must.

The Lloyd Border at White Flower Farm

Looking backward in this way seems a little self-indulgent but perhaps can be justified on the basis of reminding ourselves, and you, what rich and varied joys are to be found in our gardens, and yours, at every time of year. Both big ideas and small can produce stunning beauty and deep satisfaction. In addition, our gardens serve to support our proud assertion that we are plantsmen first, merchants second. Please read the following overtly commercial messages with that in mind.

Shortening Days Are Sending a Signal

The message, lest you have missed it, is that next spring’s garden begins now, and we are standing by to help you make ready. A few practical suggestions follow:

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The Works Daffodil Mix

First – spring without Daffodils (properly known as Narcissus) is like kissing your sister, a pleasant ritual with no zip. The answer we recommend is our longtime favorite Daffodil Collection called ‘The Works.’ The name reflects its unique character as an assembly of 100 bulbs from 30 different varieties of the best traditional and recent Daffodils varieties, chosen and blended to provide a broad variety of colors and forms plus the longest possible period of bloom, roughly six weeks in our climate. Our bulbs are purchased under long-term contracts by our partners in Holland who, being Dutch, are always working to get the best possible value. They secure top-size bulbs, all blooming size, that will put on a spectacular performance their first year in the ground, actually increasing their numbers thereafter in a site they like (good drainage and at least half a day of sun). Of course, everyone knows Daffodils, but not everyone knows that they are long-lived, pest free, extremely winter-hardy, and absolutely and unconditionally immune to deer, which won’t touch them. Thus, the biggest and brightest early flower of spring is also the toughest and most enduring. Scatter them in a meadow, along a path, through existing gardens, and at the edge of woods and count on a glorious display, plus armloads of fresh flowers for the house, for decades to come. Please note that their natural period of dormancy means that Daffodils (along with many hundreds of other varieties or spring-flowering bulbs) can ONLY BE PLANTED IN FALL. Click here for details.

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Old-time Peony Collection

Second – To make your Daffodil commitment more efficient, Mother Nature kindly arranged that three other magnificent garden plants, all hardy from Zones 4-7, also require fall planting. This trio comprises Peonies, perhaps America’s favorite flower after the Rose, Tall Bearded (also known as German) Iris, the most overtly glamorous June blooming perennial (with one of the sweetest fragrances), and Poppies (Papaver) whose frilly June blooms can be as pale as dawn or crackle with the boldest reds and oranges in the world of gardening. If you can’t find something to love in this exquisite trio, have your eyes checked.

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Rainbow of Tall Bearded Iris Collection

 

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Papaver orientale ‘Turkenlouis’
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Tulip Tango

Third – Many readers of this text will have nearby the ruins of the summer vegetable garden. In our patch, we perform fall cleanup as part of a sequence that terminates with the lining out of many dozens of Tulips of all shapes and sizes. Once in the ground, they are promptly forgotten until their noses appear in spring. A couple of weeks later, we begin snipping small bouquets of every possible description, which could hardly be more delightful. When bloom is spent, it’s a quick and easy task to fork out the bulbs, and probably about time to sow the peas. One of our imaginative associates named this switching process the Tulip Tango. That may be a little chic, but the principle is sound. If you want to give the idea a try, consider a bag of our Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, a collection of 50 bulbs, all different. It’s good value, good fun, and an education in itself. Click here.

Are you getting the point? A few hours of scratching around in the garden on a bright fall day can deliver huge dividends in spring. It’s not hard work, and the possibilities are enormous, whether you are starting with bare ground or presiding over an established garden. Our remarkable Customer Service staff, all gardeners and many of them Master Gardeners, stand ready to provide all the assistance you can possibly require, with a little encouragement thrown in.