Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Wed, 25 Jun 2008 09:17:50 PDT
It’s always intriguing to me to hear other gardeners explain their successes
and failures. Most of us have one or two major circumstances which greatly
influence the bulbs we grow. For me, that major circumstance is too much
water during the period when summer dormant bulbs are ripening. When I was a
young gardener, I thought the major circumstance was winter hardiness. One
other circumstance for me is acid clay soil: it’s obvious that many bulbs
originate in areas with porous, high calcium soils, usually neutral or


As a result, when I try to explain my successes and failures, my
explanations are apt to be in terms of those three main issues: excess
moisture when the bulbs are ripening, winter hardiness and soil. 


For me, one of the real eye-openers which came with participation in this
forum is a new sense of the adaptability of most bulbs: many of the bulbs I
grow can withstand conditions never realized in my garden. 


One thing this has taught me is this: take with a generous grain of salt
reports based on experience in climates different than my own. And with that
in mind, I try to preface any suggestions I might make with a caveat about
“under my conditions” or something similar. For instance, Mary Sue has
Brodiaea, Triteleia, Dichelostemma and the like probably coming up in her
grass (do you have any grass, Mary Sue?). Yet she has problems with
Ixiolirion. I on the other hand am just able to squeek by with many of the
Californian plants, and for me they seem to respond best to the sort of
conditions I suspect Ixiolirion needs in my climate. It should surprise no
one that what works for me does not work for Mary Sue and visa versa: after
all, we’re in different worlds in terms of growing conditions. I mentioned
the uncertainty of Allium caeruleum in the garden in my climate, yet for
Jane McGary it‘s a reliable garden plant. I have to jump through hoops to
keep it going (hoops in this case being protection from summer rain). 


Reflecting on reports from other parts of the country often leads me to
speculation about the requirements of various plants. In particular, there
are circumstances each of us has, circumstances which influence our
successes and failures, yet circumstances we might not even realize. Soil
temperature is one I’m trying to focus on more and more now. Some plants
require high soil temperatures during dormancy: these are the ones which are
apt to be poor performers in cool summer areas. Others have certain chill
requirements. It’s interesting to me that horticulture and agriculture in
general seem to have recognized the importance of temperature during winter
dormancy long before the significance of temperature during summer dormancy
was recognized.   


Another neglected factor is day length. Martagon lilies are evidently
adapted to very long days during their period of above-ground growth. The
gross observation is that they flourish better far north of Maryland. From
that, most observers have concluded that they are cold adapted. But perhaps
the explanation for their halting growth here in Maryland has to do with our
comparatively short late-spring, early-summer days (compared, for instance,
to the day length in Sweden or comparable latitudes in Canada where martagon
lilies thrive).  The day length here begins to shorten after the spring
solstice; but if you go far enough north, days longer than any we ever
experience characterize the summers. 


Another thing I’m beginning to wonder about is this: will summer dormant
bulbs which have ripened properly and experienced the proper desiccation
withstand soil moisture in the period between proper ripening and initiation
of autumnal root growth? Bulbs when dug here are seeming heavy with
moisture. During the first week or two of storage, it’s important for the
storage conditions to allow free evaporation of moisture. Fat juicy summer
dormant bulbs taken from the ground and put directly into zip lock bags are
apt to turn into a stinking mushy soup before you know it. But once stored
under airy conditions and properly ripened, are they more tolerant of moist
warm conditions? That’s something I mean to find out. And has anyone noticed
that the largest bulbs of tulips are the ones most likely to rot? 


I’ve wandered far from the Ixiolirion issue, and have not mentioned one of
the cardinal rules I try to observe when puzzling out why things die: make a
point of determining exactly when the plant in question died. If we plant a
bulb in the autumn, see it bloom in the spring, and then don’t think about
it until it does not reappear the following year, that leaves a lot of time
and changing circumstances unaccounted for. 


The hypothesis I’m proposing is that Ixiolirion is dying in  June: it would
not surprise me to find that the bulbs are rotting as the plants bloom. I
dug some from my garden (in the garden, not in a raised or protected bed)  a
few weeks ago and found some rotters (and some sound bulbs). Next year they
are going into a raised bed under cover. And I think Mary Sue is on to
something with her speculation about a need for winter cold. Some bulbs
stored dry and  cool during the winter here grew when planted in the spring
but gave a very poor harvest.  


Jim McKenney


Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone

My Virtual Maryland Garden http://www.jimmckenney.com/

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