Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hyacinth Crazy

Growing Hyacinths out of season, also known as forcing, is a lesson in patience. Just like the Little Red Hen, early preparation is the key to sure success. Growing these amazingly fragrant bulbs is a fantastic winter hobby for those that are itching to get to spring just a little faster.
.....very collectible Hyacinth Vases, or forcing glasses....each bulb is matched to a specific vintage or antique vase, labeled on the bottom. There are forty + varieties in my collection (bulbs)
I began forcing Hyacinth and other bulbs as a boy with my dad. We had a small collection of Danish forcing vases brought back from living abroad in the late fifties and early sixties. We would search out the largest bulbs we could find at local garden centers, or order from "wish book" catalogs that I read front to back. My father taught me to always add a little activated charcoal to the shapely vases to keep the water sweet. We would wash the vases, and fill them nearly to the "neck" where the fat bulb would sit. The water level should always be just below the base of the bulb, not sitting in the water, but just above.

You can force any Hyacinth bulb, not just the more expensive, pre-chilled varieties. Once the vase is filled, adding a piece or two of the activated charcoal, you are ready to go! All the bulbs need now is eight to twelve weeks of cool rooting in darkness. The ideal temperature is between forty degrees and fifty degrees. Ideal places are cabinets in heated garages, cool cellars, deep cold frames or even that spare beer refrigerator down in the basement! make sure the vases never freeze, just cool and dark. Now check on the water level every few weeks, and top it up to the base of the bulb, but just below it. If the water gets cloudy, just change it-but this rarely happens.

Collectible antique Hyacinths in pots, ready to root and be cooled...the anticipation is killing me!

Every variety has it's own internal clock that is controlled by the gibberellic acid that needs time to develop in order for the flower stem to grow and lengthen properly. Some Hyacinth may only need eight weeks or so,others will need more time. How will you know when to bring your Hyacinths out of there cold-dark period? The roots will have filled out the bottom of the vase, and the top growth will have lengthened a few inches, then they can start their journey to bloom!

Hyacinth "Midnight Mystique" sold for over $100.000 per bulb just ten years ago...still rare, but now affordable-the worlds first black Hyacinth, a dark purple- black-these were hard to come by!

When the bulbs are well rooted, and top growth is evident, bring your Hyacinth vase into a cool, dim light for a day or so, then to brighter light still. Turn the vase regularly to keep the bulb growing evenly. The cooler the spot, the longer the Hyacinth will stay in bloom!

 If the vase method sounds too hard (it's so easy), an even easier way is to keep the bulbs in a refrigerator, in a brown paper bag, and chill for at least eight to twelve weeks, then let the bulbs root directly in cool brightness, even a kitchen window sill.

I'm collecting antique varieties, and for those, I have bulbs growing in a sandy potting soil, so I can easily keep the rare varieties in their own pots. Each variety has it's own unique scent, like a rose does. Colors- wow, so many great subtle tints, like water colors or multi- colored gem stones. To grow and "force" Hyacinths in pots, just use a sandy soil mix, place the bulb below the soil surface, water well and let root for the eight to twelve weeks in cool darkness-a cold frame, root cellar (I know, who has them any more..) cool basement or even a trench out in the vegetable garden.Can you use a refrigerator? yes you can! If they are outside in the ground, fill clean sand around the pots, then cover with straw and a few boards to keep them tucked in for the rooting period. Bring in a few pots at a time to draw out the season-well before the real spring has arrived! Easily found antique varieties include pale pink "Lady Derby"-1875, pure white "L'innocence"-1863, Easter yellow "City of Haarlem"-1893 and the beautiful salmon "Gypsy Queen"-1927  Try your local garden center, or order on line from McClure and Zimmerman, Old House Gardens, or Brent and Becky's bulbs. If the provenance isn't important to you, just buy a mixed bag from your local home store and be pleasantly surprised when they bloom, you won't be disappointed! Most will cost a dollar or less, more rare varieties will be much higher in cost.

Hyacinths make wonderful cut flowers, and are spectacular for personal flowers in elegant wedding work, I like to use Hyacinths with other spring bulb flowers like Anemones, that compliment each other.This is a simple bride's maid bouquet, accented with aqua-teal French ribbon...and it smells so good!

Hyacinth "Peter Styvesant" with green Dianthus and double Tulips...below, with white Hydrangea and ageratum

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Night of Family-Halloween for Me

I have always loved Halloween, in old Irish Samhain (Sow- won), celebrating the spirit world, and all those souls that came before me. Far from a night of terror, I think of it as a soul celebration, and invite all those that have passed before me to join and be celebrated.

I started my day by cleaning the house, getting things "in order" for the week. I went out to the vegetable garden and found the last three pumpkins to carve for the holiday.This year, I decided to carve my jack o' lanterns with the family names of my Irish heritage. I thought it might help welcome my family to my spirit party!

I began looking for all things Halloween, and found some likely candidates...My glossy black Sumatra hens were dressed for the occasion! They had a large helping of pumpkin guts as their "treat"for the special day. At work, I've carved A LOT of jack o' least twenty five I think, most were for a fantastic party one of my clients has for her lady friends, they go all out!

After I fed the birds their treat, I went to the greenhouse and found some more likely holiday faces, the always cheerful pansies gave good goblins with a sunny disposition ;)

I spent the rest of the daytime gathering wood and brush for a huge bonfire later in the evening. The days get shorter and shorter, and I was really rushing that last hour of light, assembling my pyre for the night. I came inside and made dinner, then set about carving my pumpkins for the night. I loved that they were my own produce-I buy a ton from a specialty grower near me, and they do a great job(Schaakes' Pumpkin Patch) but these were the last from my own hands, and that gave my great joy! When I was done with the carving, I lit them, along with lots more candles and had dinner. Was I alone? funny, I felt like I was in great company! I took my orange friends out to the site of my bonfire, and gave them a proper seat for the festivities-an old Victorian wirework plant stand was perfect!

Then it was time to set it all a blaze....the perfect temperature for a good spirited fire. It only took a few moments for it to really take off, and boy, did it burn!!!

I enjoyed the flames until after midnight, the sparks rising higher and higher, disappearing into the black and starry night. When the fire was behaving in a more manageable way, I took the pumpkin with my mother's family name up into the woods where my mom's memorial Oak tree stands, surrounded by her ashes- and placed the ceremonial offering at the base of her tree, glowing a beautiful, rich orange in the dark.

Maybe, just maybe,I'll have flesh and blood guests for this event someday, but I was not alone, that's for certain! I hope everyone takes a bit of time to celebrate those that came before us, and say thank you for the life we all enjoy! Happy Halloween to you all ;)


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Searching Out the Elusive Roman Hyacinth...

Once upon a time, long ago, a delightful and fragrant bulb was grown during the winter and spring months to celebrate the miracle of spring, albeit a bit early. Nobody knows who first began to "force" Hyacinths, both in soil as well as a novel and beautiful method of growing in specially designed Hyacinth vases, but it became a very popular hobby for the horticulturally inclined in most of the western world.
The many amazing varieties that have been bred in the last three hundred years can all be tricked into early bloom, but the queen of the hyacinths is the wild species, known as the French-Roman Hyacinth. The primary hybridisers have always been the Dutch, and at one point, Hyacinths were at a similar frenzy of popularity that the Tulip is famous for. Double blooms,single blooms, more and more colors were selected and developed into the fat fragrant spikes that can scent an entire room with their powerful perfume. The antithesis of all this hybrid frenzy, was the wild Roman Hyacinth. It naturally came in four colors; the first and most common color was a deep blue, then a beautiful pale porcelain blue color, followed by a pure white form and last but not least, the cinnamon scented pink Roman Hyacinth. What makes these Hyacinths so special? Well the primary difference is that the flowers themselves are much more delicate, spaced more widely than the common hybrid sorts. Their scent is more sweet and ethereal, and the best part, is the fact that these bloom with multiple sprays of  fairy- wand flowers.

These French -Roman beauties were raised by the millions for the world market, primarily in southern France, and grown in wealthy as well as working class homes.They could be grown in a pot of damp,sandy soil, or in the favored craze of water forcing--early hydroponics. Most reference books claim that these more delicate bulbs could not be grown into a North American zone five-but I've only known them to be completely hardy here. Most Dutch Hyacinths don't perennialize easily, but Roman Hyacinths can make a fine colony in just a few years. You can have them bloom early, then let their foliage continue to grow and mature, replanting them in a fertile place during the next fall season. These Asia minor beauties need to be grown where they will receive good sunlight and moisture early on, then have a dry summer rest.  I think Around deciduous shrubs is a good choice, assuring a more arid atmosphere compared to a typical well watered flower bed.

So, do you want to go out and buy yourself a big bag full of these great historic bulbs?? Well, that's a little bit of a problem. These were traditional decorations from Christmas through Easter time, gracing windowsills around the world, often grown in small crates as well, wrapped in colorful crepe paper and ribbons, as well as just to cut for vase arrangements. After a hundred years of this hobby, it must have seemed old fashioned and thus less and less desirable for the modern generations that had just discovered the new craze for African violets and other "tropical" beauties as well as the much larger, colorful Dutch hybrid Hyacinths. Even twenty years ago, you could easily order Roman Hyacinths along with all the other popular spring flowering bulbs, today there are no large scale bulb firms that sell the real thing. They may have a hybrid version called a "festival" multi floral Hyacinth, and they are very nice, but impostors, none the less. These are hybrids with the colorful and popular large flowered Dutch Hyacinths with their wild cousins, the true Roman Hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis albulus. I think it's important to preserve the species bulbs, and perpetuate them in our modern gardens, as well as our modern lives.

When I became more and more fascinated with these bulbs, I found a few sources for these antique bulbs-and now there is even less availability to buy these treasures. I obtained my first bulbs the best way, I traded another gardener for them. I had spotted a front yard in an old neighborhood, with a fine stand of the pale blue variety. I introduced myself to the owner, a lovely octogenarian, who had moved these bulbs to her present garden thirty years before, a gift from a fellow gardener. She called them blue bells, and they do look a great deal like English blue bells-but are much easier to grow in the United states , and they have the fabulous Hyacinth scent as well. I traded a big clump of hardy Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and some White Czar Violets for a nice clump of the antique bulbs. We both felt like we had scored! It's sometimes easier to move bulbs "in the green" as the Britt's say, and you can find the bulbs before they disappear for another summer season

The next year, my friend Tim went to a yard sale for a house that was going to be demolished. The owners had gardened all their lives there, and had dug up many plants to sell before the property was cleared.He bought a group of bulbs, curiously, also referred to as "blue bells". He planted them, and the next spring I was taking a look-see in his garden, when I spied his new charges. These were a dark blue form, and very vigorous. I asked him where he had gotten the Roman Hyacinths, and he told me about the garden sale the year before. We drove back to the house where the sale had been, and found a cleared lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. Now, I'm not one to be deterred by a construction fence, and I found an opening to crawl through. Rough grass was all I saw initially, but then I spotted one and then another deep blue flower stalk, dotted in the wild grass. I had brought a shovel, and began to dig the first bulb. these bulbs were much deeper than I had thought, at least twelve inches deep in the dark soil. I'm not sure if that's how they always grew there, or that the soil depth changed when the house was razed.

This season, I found the cinnamon scented pink form at Old House Gardens. This is a wonderful resource for antique bulbs and flowers, give them a try! the bulbs are expensive, but they multiply and form nice clumps in just a few years. Now, the search is on for the elusive pure white variety. This should not be hard to find, as it was so popular a hundred years ago, but I've hit many dead ends so far. Someone, most likely a southerner, has them growing happily in their gardens. Although the blue forms seem perfectly hardy for me, maybe the white form is truly more tender? I've never seen it in the Midwest. I always keep my eyes open in turn of the century neighborhoods of our area, for a vintage swath of the snowy blooms. If anyone out there in the blog sphere knows of a source, or would like to trade something for some of the alba variety, please let me know! 

The next post will continue my obsession with all things Hyacinth (this season...) heirloom varieties and how to grow them, Hyacinth vases,(so collectible) and using hyacinths for beautiful, fragrant bouquets as well as high- end wedding work. Happy Hyacinth hunting!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Last Rose, First Cyclamen...Autumn Begins

Where has this year gone? I ask myself this question on a daily basis now that I'm in the process of putting the garden to bed. Planting bulbs, removing unruly plants, top dressing flower beds with compost and chicken get the idea.

When I was little, some of my favorite memories were with my Dad, out in the garden, doing all the things that I still do in the fall. Jack was in charge of the vegetable garden, an anomaly in the suburban neighborhood of my youth. We had a very productive raised bed that fed us for nine months a year, and fed our souls for all twelve. We would bring wheel barrels of compost and aged manure, spreading the"black gold" as he called it. This was never considered work, quite the contrary.

For my mother Marie and I, this was also fall bulb planting time. We would go over all the colorful catalogs, she letting me circle the things that I just couldn't live without. I went for oriental hybrid lillies-("Imperial Silver" was my favorite), while Marie preferred to add to our Narcissus collection that counted in the thousands for a decadent spring display. She liked the fact that they just kept getting better and better, turning our back garden where the Apple trees were, a sea of gold and white. I plant Daffodils and other narcissus with the same excitement...selecting wooded pathways for a secret garden awaiting discovery by a hapless me, forgetting that I had planted in a particular area of Hiddenfield farm. I love that, to be surprised by something I planted to surprise a stranger or friend taking a spring-time walk.

As we would work outdoors, my Dad Jack would take deep breaths and sing an old Irish song, "The Last Rose of Summer"- now he had a decent voice, but rarely sang, so I can still hear him in a clear tenor voice, bringing attention the the start of fall, and of course, those precious last blooms.

Now as many of you know, even in the autumn, life goes on as well as starts anew. I had always read about fall blooming Cyclamen, but had never planted any until I moved to my farm. Two types do especially well here, favoring the ground beneath deciduous Oak trees, nestling themselves and their big corms with the surface roots of the ancient trees.Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum are special woodland plants that help a weary gardener rejoice in this crisp season. Silvered leaves contrast to the dull browns of the fallen leaves, and pale pink and white blossoms hover over the ground like butterflies that just escaped their cocoon.

I'm rather fond of other fall blooming genera, The Autumn Crocus, not a true Crocus but Colchicums instead, dazzle me with their purple and violet bloom. There are fantastic cultivars out there, but my frugality has me search out the unsold bulbs at a favorite garden center, when they go on sale! "Lilac Wonder" is an old stand by, but so much fun to watch it bloom with no soil or water, brightening a fall window sill. After this quiet miracle is over, a spot is selected beneath a deserving tree, where it will settle in and bloom for generations.Look for a variety called "Waterlily" a more apt name could not be found!

Bittersweet berries make their show, as do the many kinds of Aster and the Sages make a final splash of color in blue, violet and reds.  Grasses show that texture is the new reining king of the garden, just awaiting the first frost to sparkle and sway with the colder air pooling around. Sunflowers, just finishing their show, offer abundant food for all the birds.

I am ready to put the outdoor garden to bed, but it's nice that, even when it seems barren outside, if you look more closely,it never really ends...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Early Summer Bloom

click any image to enlarge...
I'm finally sitting down to review so many events in the garden, with the temperature at 100 degrees +. After I've watered the pots and the big shade bed, I'm indoors for the rest of the day, to re emerge after the sun sets.

My mother Marie, always did her garden work early in the morning, when all good teenagers are still fast asleep. Her favorite time to weed, was just after a good storm, the soil soaked and soft. The Midwest of the U.S.  can have amazingly strong thunder storms, the electricity and wind energy swirl around you, then can be gone before you know it.Now, the older I get, I find myself going about my garden work as my mother did, getting up when it's cool and quiet, having my time with the morning's humming bird battles, a good cup of coffee in my hands.

I was at a party the other night, and a fellow gardener asked how my garden was, referring the the vegetable garden. My first thought was to say "land of the lost"...because although there are vegetables lurking below the weeds, it is clearly the weeds domain. I get tomatoes, Asian green beans kale, squash,pumpkins and a few other things, but the over all feeling is GARDEN of GIANT WEEDS....

I had beautiful Iris this year, they give so much beauty for a small amount of effort. My brother Kevin has bred many beautiful Siberian Iris, I'm partial to tall bearded sorts, and the beautiful Japanese Iris for sheer luxury of bloom.

I replanted most of these Tall Bearded Iris in to new color block beds, starting with the whites, then proceeding with the blues and purples and finally, all the reds, pinks, oranges and hot color combinations in the last group of beds.
Many of these Iris have lost their names, or were gifts from friends, they're no less beautiful, just more mysterious.

Iris Virginica "Iatan Titan"

Iris along the shore, a mix of species and hybrids...this is a hybrid psudacorus Iris, "Moonlight"

The backbone of my gardens are always perennial, old fashioned favorites like herbaceous Peonies, Baptistas, Alliums, Amsonias give a year of interest from first emergence to the winter seed heads.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Cool Look at Mid May

High summer is here, and with it, high temperatures in the nineties with a blanket of humidity pooling all around we lucky inhabitants.I'm doing the required watering and tending, but no new planting is taking place right now.

The true inhabitants of the land are showing their true colors...I speak of the weeds, many of which are just the wild rightful denizens of this place. Some of them are friends with me, such as the wild bergamot that became part of my "corporate" identity. The native milkweeds are also very welcome here, as I add more species all the time.Got to love the Asclepias! But the crab grass and weedy asters crash the party and give the garden a blurry look. I am not a fussy gardener,it's the over all look and feel that is important to me.

I was feeling a little wilted today, maybe par boiled is more like it, so I thought I'd show some images of the garden in cooler days, not long soon we forget!
I love this native Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedantum.
Horsetail and variegated Japanese butter burr in with the Hostas...and Centaurea-I'm feeling cooler!

Exbury Azealeas with Royal Frost Birch as a back drop, this one has a great fragrance...

  Victorian iron urn planted with pastels, including Viola "Etain", a tufted violet/pansy
Alpine inspiration of Sedum and a Swiss Giant pansy with natural quartz formations...

a Phlox subulata selection-I love the plum eye...

Friday, June 18, 2010

20th Dinning By Design for Diffa, Kansas City

For the past twenty years, an event that was started in Kansas City, Dinning by Design has been highlighting the area's premier designers and artists, as an extraordinary fundraiser.I've been fortunate to have designed a table every year of this event. Diffa is the design industry foundation fighting Aids, this supports individuals and families with HIV,giving a wide range of support and care in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Every year, I look foreword to the amazing environments that our talented designers create for this great event. I wish I had photos of all my tables...but this was started long before digital cameras were the norm, and snap shots get lost over time. My initial goal is to design an environment that is beautiful and fun to be at, conversation is a must, so I don't usually block the center with a too large arrangement for the event. Some designers don't care about actually EATING at the table; they go for drama only, and these are ridiculous to try and sit at, especially when you paid a tidy sum to do so! This year I again teamed up with the great contemporary design firm, Museo, and decided we would go chic picnic, and designed our environment to be enjoyed on the floor! Horsetail reed, custom planters, custom cushions and a woodland lily of the valley focus, gave us just the right vibe. This event has spread to other major cities, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Atlanta...all of which showcase their region's fine design. If one of these cities is close to you, you can attend as a guest for the main evening, or enjoy a preview- cocktail event the night before.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Native As It Gets, Baby

I'm always searching the by ways for beautiful native plants, it could be Milkweeds (Asclepias),Blue Stars (Amsonia)or in this case-Verbenas, V. canadensis.

I have about a thirty minuet drive back and forth every day, and my eye gets used to the same landscape changing through the seasons. This Spring, I caught a glimpse of a lavender pink flower as I sped by on the highway, and made note to myself of the exact location. The next day, I pulled the car over at a highway maintenance pull-off, and hiked up a steep grassy hill, bordering a beautiful wooded valley. The scope of the land was much grander than it could appear driving so fast. I had to hike farther than I had anticipated due to a very lethal barbed wire fence that protected the property. At a drainage culvert I made my way across in to such a lovely valley, almost like an English pastoral painting from the Eighteenth century.

Backtracking to the spot I'd seen from the road, I worked my way up a hill covered in native grasses and rock. At the top of this wind swept place, there where hundreds of pink Verbenas,blooming like crazy-scenting the air with a candy sweetness. I'd seen native Verbenas before, but only in isolated pockets in gravel areas in the western part of the state. These plants were colonizing this sunny spot with abandon!

I took pictures and then gathered cuttings to take back with me. This is the pure species- many people have recently grown the natural hybrid "Homestead Purple", a great garden plant. I wasn't aware of the strong scent of this species- the cuttings I took perfumed the house for a week, overshadowing the last of the Lilacs! I have to site my new charges in a dry, well drained spot, maybe the Golden Garden, which is built on a berm.