GROWING VEGETABLES IN CONTAINERS

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My pictures show heirloom French cantaloupe ‘Prescott Fond Blanc’ and ‘Ananas D’Amerique a Chair Vert’.  The containers were too small to mature the fruit, so I repotted them into much larger 24″ by 24″ pots.  The frame helped ripen the fruit in the climate of cool western Oregon. 

Raising vegetables in containers is an excellent option for those of us who are living in a dwelling temporarily, are short of space, or have poor soil.  Containers are useful and versatile; pots can be moved around if a location is too hot, windy or shady.  Plants that enjoy heat, such as melons, squash, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant can be placed in front of a warm south or west wall to ripen faster.  Also, if spring cold weather threatens, pots may be moved inside overnight, or even a few days for protection.  The same advantage applies to the fall season; if weather turns cold and your crop is not yet ripe you can bring pots inside.    

Containers for vegetables should be at least 12 inches by 12 inches for a single tomato or eggplant, but much larger containers are needed for melons, squash and pumpkins—at least 24 inches by 24 inches for each plant.  Smaller crops, such as carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, etc. need a container at least 10 inches deep, and yields are better if the pots are 24 to 36 inches wide.  For peas and beans, some gardeners have good success with containers shaped like long rectangles, perhaps 12 inches wide by 48 inches long and 10 or more inches deep.   It is easier to move your containers around if you have them on rollers.  And if you build your own containers, use non-treated water-resistant wood such as cedar, redwood or cypress.  The new fabric containers are useful, reusable and inexpensive, but cannot be moved during the season. 

The soil mix for vegetables should be rich, moisture-retentive, but quick draining.  Plant roots need air to thrive.  I use a mix of two parts organic potting soil, one part rotted manure or compost, and one part perlite or sharp sand.  Consistent, frequent applications of manure tea, liquid seaweed or a complete organic fertilizer will keep your vegetables growing well. 

Watering is very important when growing in containers.  Check plants every day all season long.  If weather is hot and the plants are large, you might have to water two or three times a day.  Automatic drip watering systems are an option if you will be away for a few days. 

When planting seeds, follow directions on the package and read about how to care for each vegetable.  “Patio”, “bush” or dwarf varieties of vegetables are good choices for containers.  They tend to be compact, productive plants with normal size or slightly smaller fruit.  Vegetable seeds that can be planted now (July) include: lettuce, spinach, peas, radishes, carrots, corn salad, and Swiss chard.  Plant starts of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale can be planted now for late fall harvest.  Starts of tender vegetables that can be planted in containers now include: tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelon, eggplant and peppers.

SOME HARDY FLOWERING SHRUBS

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SOME HEIRLOOM AND NEWER HARDY SHRUBS

I wish I had more pictures to illustrate this article; but I include a few of hardy shrub roses.  All the shrubs described here grow well with organic gardening practices.

Flowering shrubs brighten our home gardens.  They bring beauty and fragrance while providing cover and nesting places for birds.  Listed below are a few shrubs well-adapted to the cold climates of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Some of the plants described will grow in the northern prairie states.

Lilacs, especially the common and French lilac hybrids (Syringa vulgaris) appreciate our climate.  The flowers of common lilacs are soft, pale purple.  The bushes are tall, up to 20 feet when aged.  Once established, lilacs can really take care of themselves, tolerating cold winters and dry summers without care.  They flower more heavily if old bloom spikes are trimmed off, and plants are fertilized in the fall with bone meal, wood ashes and a light dusting of compost or manure.  Lilacs make a great hedge and deer tend to leave them alone, as the leaves have a bitter taste.

Shrub roses are terrific, hardy plants for our area.  The relatively new Canadian hybrid shrub roses are excellent.  Two Canadian-bred climbers, growing 10 to 12 feet, are ‘Henry Kelsey; with double red flowers; and ‘Champlain’ with bright pink flowers.  Both of these will not winter kill here and are hardy to USDA zone 3, so can be grown all over Montana.  Another repeat-blooming Canadian rose, growing 3 to 4 feet tall is ‘John Davis’, with double red blooms.  It makes a good bedding rose and is hardy to zone 4.  ‘John Davis’ would not require protection in Western Montana.

Some heirloom roses that do well in cold climates are described here:  ‘Suzanne’ a hardy rose from the 1930s, shown in the first two pictures above.  ‘Suzanne’ blooms in late spring with a wonderful display of color.   The plant is hardy to USDA zone 2.  Two other old roses frequently seen in the dry Western States are ‘Harison’s Yellow’ from the 1830s and “Austrian Copper’ (Rosa foetida bicolor).  Both are winter hardy to zone 4, bloom in late spring and are drought tolerant once established.  One occasionally sees other related roses, such as white Pimpinellifolia roses.  The third picture above was taken in a roadside garden of a farm house on the foothills of the Mission Mountains in Western Montana, USDA zone 4.  The plant was covered with flowers in late May-early June.  Pimpinellifolia roses  are very hardy, their ancestors originated in northern Scotland.  If you grow any of these once-blooming, drought tolerant, hardy shrub roses remember to place them in full sun and water well until established.

Our beautiful, ubiquitous wild rose, (Rosa woodsii) is shown in the last picture.  It makes a broad, suckering shrub useful for the edges of your garden.  It is drought and cold tolerant, but blooms only once a year, in mid spring.  Plants are sun-loving, but tolerate shade well, where they will grow taller.  Their foliage is healthy and the fragrance of the flowers is delightful.  The only other rose with a similar fragrance is the true ‘American Beauty’ a very rare hybrid perpetual rose.  I grew it once, and when cuttings were taken they failed to strike.  ‘American Beauty’ has infrastipular prickles, little thorns below the leave stipules, just like Rosa woodsii, which makes me surmise that ‘American Beauty’ may be descended in part from Rosa woodsii.  Keep in mind that roses often sold as ‘American Beauty’ are usually ‘Ulrich Brunner Fils’, a similar hybrid perpetual with no infrastipular prickles.

Silver Buffalo Berry (Sheperdia argentea) is a tough, drought tolerant native shrub growing 6 to 12 feet tall and wide.  It can spread by suckers, so give it room.  This sun-loving shrub is a good food plant for wildlife, providing red berries and protective cover for birds.  Buffalo Berry makes a sturdy hedge or windbreak requiring no care once established.  It is also very winter hardy, to USDA zone 2.

The shrubby Potentillas (Potentilla species) are drought tolerant, colorful shrubs frequently seen in public landscapes.  They are hardy native shrubs, growing 3 to 4 feet tall, available in several colors.  Potentillas tolerate drought and heat, but best of all, bloom all summer.  Full sun is best for them.  It is easy to shape your plants in the fall, trimming off the oldest stems.

Two native shrubs that prefer moisture and part shade are mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) and Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum).  Mock orange grows 8 to10 feet tall and produces deliciously scented flowers in late spring.  Rocky Mountain maple is a beautiful, small maple growing 6 to 10 feet tall, with dark red wood and golden fall color.  Both of these plants could be placed on the north side of a building where their roots would be in shade and tops in sun.  Be sure to leave 3 to 4 feet or more between the shrubs and the building.

 

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES

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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.

 

Photographs of Historic Florist Pansies

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This week I thought I would show pictures of the Historic Florist pansies I grew from seed.  The top photo is of my pansy bed; the others show the diversity of blooms and colors of antique pansies.  The flowers are fragrant and almost all of the blooms have a “face”.  More information is available in my first blog on this WordPress site, which describes the origin of pansies in England during the 1830s.

This week I am moving to Montana from Oregon, so this blog is one day late and quite brief.  I will manage a new organic nursery and greenhouse—a new division of Westland Seed, Inc., Ronan, Montana.

Happy growing!

April Gardening Calendar

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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Growing Asparagus

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Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis) is a popular vegetable today and was quite popular in the nineteenth century.  The photograph above is of an antique variety, ‘Giant Asparagus’ an engraving from The Illustrated London News, dated 1851.  An asparagus knife is shown alongside the plant.  This year, I grew another old variety of asparagus from seed, ‘Connover’s Collosal’, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century.   It is difficult to find plants of heirloom varieties of asparagus, so one has to start them from seed.  However, the process is slow, as the plants take three to four years to reach the size for harvesting.  (If too many shoots are cut from very young plants, productivity may be reduced, or the plants may die.  But if the plants are allowed to become established, an asparagus bed will last twenty years or more, even up to fifty years!)

Late March into early April is an excellent time to start asparagus from seed.  Use a sterile medium, cover the seed about 1/4 inch deep and place the pots in a warm location (77 degrees is optimum).  The seeds should come up in about ten days.  You may direct seed into a bed if soil temperatures are above 50 degrees, it will just take a little longer for the seeds to germinate.  Asparagus plants begin to grow slowly and will not be ready to transplant out for about three or four months.  Meanwhile you can prepare a bed for them.  An ideal spot is in full sun with a bed large enough to accommodate the number of plants you need.  It is usually recommended to plant five to six plants per person.  Since the plants are perennial (USDA climate zones 4-9) they benefit from a well-prepared bed.  Peter Henderson, in his book Gardening for Profit published in 1867, recommended planting transplants nine inches apart in rows three feet wide for commercial growers, or two feet wide for home gardeners.

Once you have established how many plants you need, you can make the planting bed.  Henderson recommended trenching the bed two to three feet deep with about three inches of rotted manure mixed into the soil.  A deep sandy loam is best for them as they are native to alluvial soils.  Bernard Mc Mahon, in Mc Mahon’s American Gardener, published in 1857, recommended double digging two spades deep and placing several inches of rotted manure in the trench, then spreading another layer of rotted manure over the surface.  He directed gardeners to mix this second layer of manure with the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches.  My young plants, now a year old, have spears a little larger in diameter than a toothpick.  The young plants may be grown in a temporary (sunny) rich bed for another year, then moved to their permanent location.  Place the crowns of the plants two inches below the soil surface.  Keep the beds weeded to ensure quick, even growth.  Mc Mahon recommends three years from planting (which would be four years from sowing seed) before cutting can begin.  Dress the bed every spring with rotted manure, bone meal and wood ashes.

If your family really enjoys asparagus, plant more than five plants per person; I plant twelve per person.  If you plant two-year transplants, spread the roots out like the spokes of a wheel and cover with about one inch of prepared soil.  Water well.  As the plants grow, cover them with more soil until you have them two inches under.  Do not use fresh manure as it will burn them and (heaven forbid) do not use chemical fertilizers, especially on newly planted asparagus.  Wait two years to begin cutting.  A summer mulch of three inches of straw is excellent, will protect the plants in winter and the spears will come up earlier in the spring if the ground is not frozen too deeply.

When you cut asparagus spears get them into the refrigerator right away or cook them immediately because they lose flavor as quickly as sweet corn does.   Considering how expensive asparagus is, I find the start up work well worth while.  Enjoy!

March Gardening Calendar

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This photo is of a double blue primrose seedling, blooming now in Corvallis, Oregon.

March is a very busy month for gardeners.  Root crops stored from the previous year and planned to produce seed can be planted out late in the month after the soil thaws (cabbages, celery, lettuce, leeks, onions, parsnips).  Planting time will arrive soon, or has already arrived for those of you in mild climates.  Weed and clean borders and vegetable beds, plant perennials, sow seeds of hardy annuals, plant rhubarb, asparagus, sea kale and artichokes.   Plant and/or prune cane fruits and fruit trees (cherries, apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, currants, gooseberries, etc.).  Check cold frames on a regular basis, venting as needed and closing the glazing panels at night.  Watch temperatures in the greenhouse also, as March is a month of ups and downs in temperature.  Manure and other organic soil amendments (epsom salts, seaweed meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, bone meal, compost and wood ashes) can be spread over vegetable, fruit, flower and rose beds.  Grape vines can be manured now, leaving space around the stem; treat roses in the same manner.

Many vegetables can be sown indoors now for transplanting out later: cole crops (brassicas), onions, lettuce, peppers, eggplant and leeks.  Some vegetables can be direct sown outside if weather permits and if your soil is not too wet to work: arugula, carrots, corn salad, fava beans, cress, mustard and turnip greens, onions, peas, radishes and spinach.  Celery and lettuce can be direct sown into frames.  Several vegetables and fruits can be transplanted now: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, asparagus, horseradish, head lettuce, onion sets and plants and perennial herbs.  Make sure your mushroom beds do not get too wet; replace straw if wet.

Potted auricula primroses should be protected from rain and frosts; they will begin to bud soon.  Sow any remaining auricula and primrose seeds.  Herbaceous perennials can be divided and planted now.  Many hardy annual flowers may be sown during March: larkspur, sweet peas, lychnis, nigella, lavatera, poppies, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and sweet alyssum.  Inside the greenhouse sow: petunias, impatiens, pansies, alyssum, chrysanthemums, iceplants, portulacas, salvias, snapdragons, sweet Williams, ten-week stocks, mignonette, hesperis, Shasta daisies, hibiscus, lupine and Salvia x superba.

Roses and other shrubs may be layered now, and cuttings may be made of geraniums, myrtles and hydrangeas.  If you want to plant a hedge from seed, now is the time to sow seeds of hawthorns, stone fruits, roses and other hardy shrubs you might like to use.  The young plants can be transplanted out to their permanent positions later.

Happy Spring!

 

Some More Heirloom Early Spring Flowers

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I have several more wonderful heirloom flowers blooming here in Oregon in late February.  Tulipa schrenkii is shown in the first photograph.  It was introduced into Europe in 1608 from Turkey and is rare today.  The rather pointed petals are a warm red, margined with golden orange.  John Parkinson described and illustrated this tulip (though botanists have changed its name) in his great work A Garden of Pleasant Flowers, published in 1629.  He calls it “Tulipa pracox rubra oris luteia.  The early red tulipa with yellow edges, or the Duke.”  This species was an ancestor to the ‘Duc van Tol’ tulips, which were developed to be forced into bloom and sold, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Tulipa schrenkii is hardy in USDA zones 3-9.

Tulips are fairly easy to grow.  they prefer sandy or light soil, full sun, and a dry summer.  If you live in an area with rainfall in summer, you can dig them and store them in in netted bags or open boxes until October, then plant them again.  The bulbs will increase under such treatment.  I cover my bulbs with poultry netting to discourage cats from scratching the bed and squirrels from digging the bulbs.

The beautiful. fragrant Narcissus orientalis known in the nursery trade as ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ is illustrated I’m the second picture above.  This plant is illustrated in Parkinson as well, labeled ‘Narcissus Africanus aureus major.’  He compares it in size to the beautiful ‘Primrose Peerless’, and mentions that it is of “…exceeding sweet a sent”  (I have used the modern “s” instead of the antique “f” used in 1629).  Parkinson also mentions the “blackish brown coate or skinne” covering the bulbs.  This narcissus is forced in great quantities today and has a delicious scent.  Out of doors, it is hardy in USDA zones 8-10 and needs a dry summer as well, being native to northern Africa and Asia Minor.  I have grown this variety inside the house; in the low desert in California, and now here in Oregon (in the warmest, sunniest spot available).  It is beautiful and indispensable in my garden.

The third photograph depicts Vinca minor or periwinkle, just beginning to bloom here.  It has been grown since Roman times and Pliny refers to it as Pervinca.  Chaucer used the spelling “Pervinke”.  The plant is a vining groundcover with evergreen leaves and lovely blue flowers.  Periwinkle loves part shade and a moderate amount of water.  A white form exists, as  well as a double blue and a plum-colored single.  Vinca minor is hardy in USDA zones 4-10.

An important feature of these three plants is that they can be grown with moderate water, an important factor in the increasingly dry climate of the U.S.

Some of the First Flowering Bulbs of Spring

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The three flowers above are the first to bloom in my garden this year.  The first photo shows blooms (from left to right) of: Galanthus nivalis flore pleno, the double snowdrop; Iris reticulata; and Muscari botryoides, the grape hyacinth.  The snowdrop and the iris were planted last fall (2015) and the grape hyacinths were here in the garden from times past.

The double snowdrop is a beautiful flower, having rows of green and white petals that resemble the old-fashioned layered petticoats worn in the nineteenth century and before.  The single form was known in ancient times and is described by Theophrastus.  It is illustrated in Gerard’s The Herball of 1596 and was considered a type “bulbous violet” at that time.  The double form, illustrated above, occurred in  the eighteenth century.  It blooms slightly later than the single form, but is quite unusual and uncommon today.  G. nivalis is native to Europe and likes cool, rather moist conditions and cold winters (USDA zones 3-8).  I have mine planted in part shade under a Pieris tree.   Snowdrops have a faint, earthy fragrance and will begin to bloom as soon as the snow melts.

Iris reticulata, which does not seem to have a common or folk name, is native to Turkey, Iran and the Caucuses Mountains.  Bulbs reached Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century; nowadays several forms and colors are available.  The flowers have an unusual violet-like fragrance.  The plant is beautiful and undemanding, preferring full sun, rather alkaline, gritty soil and dry conditions in summer.   I. reticulata thrives in USDA zones 4-9 and multiplies well.

Muscari botryoides is the original “grape hyacinth” known since at least 1596 and is illustrated in Gerard’s Herball.  It resembles the commonly grown Muscari armeniacum, but blooms earlier.  It is hardier as well, growing in USDA zones 2-8.  M. botryoides has sterile upper flowers which are lighter in color than those below.  The flowers have a fragrance of honey.   M. botryoides has almost disappeared from modern bulb catalogs, but if you search, you may fnd it growing in old established gardens, or around abandoned home sites.  I am lucky that it was planted in the garden of my house, built in the 1920s.  The flowers are just opening here in mid-February.

SCENTED GERANIUMS (PELARGONIUMS)

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Scented plants were extremely popular in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.  People grew them in their gardens and on windowsills.  Today, bright colorful flowers hold the public’s interest and we do not often see plants grown primarily for their fragrance.  Scented geraniums (botanically classified as Pelargoniums), while not as showy as their modern hybrid cousins, the zonal (P. x hortorum) and Martha Washington (P. x domesticum) geraniums, are delightful and charming.  The scented varietes are attractive, easy to grow plants that release their fragrance when touched.

Scented geraniums are native to coastal South Africa.  The first plants to arrive in Europe were brought by Dutch traders in the sixteenth century.  Several species exist in the wild and hybridization has taken place over the long time since they were brought into cultivation.  The second picture from the top, above, is of P. graveolens, known as ‘True Rose’.   It dates to 1787 and is one of the oldest still grown today.  It has a healthy, robust habit and delightful rose scent.  ‘Grey Lady Plymouth’ is illustrated in the third photo from the top.  It dates from 1802 and is a P. graveolens hybrid with a rose, fruit and spice scent.  Its leaves are beautifully cut and margined with a thin white line. The very rare ‘Skeleton Rose’, also known as ‘Dr. Livingston’ is another old P. graveolens hybrid from the nineteenth century or earlier, with beautiful, deeply cut lemon and rose-scented foliage.  This variety seems to prefer soil with a lower pH (more acidic) than the others.  The top photo shows foliage and flowers of ‘Fair Ellen’ an old hybrid of P. quercifolium  and has, as you would expect from the Latin name, oak-shaped leaves, scented of rich fruit and spice.  The bottom photo shows potted scented geraniums wintering on a cool porch.  The plant on the right is ‘Skeleton Rose’.  On the left is the rather large velvet-leaved P. tomentosum known as ‘Peppermint’.  It has a true mint scent.  This variety is the most sensitive to heat and is the first to curl its leaves and wilt if it is in too hot a location.  Many more species and old hybrid scented geraniums exist, but they are hard to find.  I am collecting them as I come across them (and when I have the cash to buy them).  Many scents and hybrids were once available, including: apricot-scented, nutmeg-scented, filbert-scented, spice-scented, lemon-scented, apple-scented, almond-scented and orange-scented.  Louse Beebe Wilder, in her wonderful book ‘The Fragrant Path’, reprinted as ‘The Fragrant Garden’, mentions a person she knew as a child who owned a collection of over 100 varieties of scented geraniums.  In her book, she lists 18 species and hybrids still available years later— in 1932.  She complained that many had disappeared or were very hard to find.  This seems true today, though plants are available from two sources that I can recommend: Logee’s Greenhouses http://www.logees.com and Select Seeds http://www.selectseeds.com.  Both of these sources are in the eastern U.S.  Seed for scented species can sometimes be sourced; this season I have started seeds of P. grassularioides, the coconut-scented geranium.  Seed came from Terroir Seeds htpp://www.UnderwoodGardens.com.

Scented geraniums are not difficult to grow. They prefer a somewhat cool, sunny atmosphere and a medium level of humidity.  A sunny south facing window on a cool porch is very much to their liking in winter.  That season is a rest period for the plants.  Do not water them very much in winter, but let them almost wilt; then water.  I make an organic soil mix with compost, bone meal, greensand, wood ashes and sharp sand or perlite (1/4 to 1/3 part of the potting mix, for excellent drainage).  My plants really like this mix and I never need to fertilize.  In early spring growth begins and picks up speed into summer, so watering is increased.  It is best to let the plants become nearly dry— avoid overwatering.  During the heat and bright sun in summer, some of the plants may begin to flag, so it is best to put them in an east window or provide light shade and a cooler location.  I repot my scented geraniums once a year, unless growth warrants additional repotting.  Otherwise, it is best to do so in summer.  Softwood cuttings can be made anytime from April through July.  If a plant is repotted in early autumn, cuttings may be taken then also.