Monthly Archives: October 2016

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.

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.

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!

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.

052
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 . . .

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.