Celebrate the Bulbs of Fall!

All across Central Texas, Oxblood lilies (Rhodophialia bifida) are at the peak of their season.  For those of us that live in areas that were once part of Mr. Austin’s original colony, these red trumpet shaped flowers have announced the arrival of fall for generations.

Oxbloods in my front bed

Here in Central Texas, no other bulb is as loved or celebrated in the fall as these Argentinian imports.  Sometime in the 1870’s the German immigrant/botanist/horticulturist Peter Oberwetter introduced these bulbs to the German speaking areas of the Texas Hill Country.  These bulbs were so pretty and so reliable that they quickly spread throughout Texas.  Now, thanks to the work of people like Chris Wiesinger and Dr. Bill Welch, oxbloods (and other heirloom bulbs) are becoming hugely popular throughout the entire Southern part of the U.S.

A mass of oxbloods on an abandoned homesite. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

Even though oxbloods are the most common fall blooming bulb in Central Texas, they are not the only ones.  Two members of the of the Lycoris genus (Lycoris radiata and Lycoris aurea) also produce prolific blooms during the early days of the fall season.  Spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are my personal favorite of the fall blooming bulbs.  All Lycoris bloom on top of a single, unadorned stalk after the first fall rains.  Because of this they are often called “Naked Ladies” or the “Surprise Lily”.  How can you not love their big, red, exotic looking heads?  Their curly petals burst open and arch backward to release long, curved stamens that look like the most gorgeous eye lashes imaginable.  I truly love these flowers!

These exotic looking  Japanese beauties have also been popular here for a very long time.  While they do not reproduce as rapidly as the oxbloods, Lycoris are tough and reliable.  These flowers are beautiful in their own right, but a mass of them is truly stunning.  If you want to see some of the best pictures of spider lilies that I have ever seen, be sure and catch this month’s issue of Southern Living.  My friend Dr. Bill Welch has an excellent article about them and the supporting photography is exceptional.

A stunning mass of Spiderlilies. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

The blooms of the fall blooming bulbs of Central Texas last for only a couple of very short weeks.  Since they make terrible cut flowers and are almost impossible to dry, get outside in this amazing weather and enjoy them now.  These flowers make these fleeting early days of the Texas autumn truly special.

Since these flowers last for such a short time, be sure to give them ample water while they bloom.  This will extend their life by a few more precious hours. If you don’t currently have your own (or enough) fall blooming bulbs, contact my buddy Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company.  Chris knows more about these charming antiques than anyone I know.  His bulbs are truly the best available anywhere.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to check in on other homesteaders and organic gardeners!

P.S. Bulb blooms aren’t the only way I know fall has finally come to my garden.  Each year around this time I begin to see Green Tree Frogs all around the beds and borders of my property.  I don’t know where these guys hide the rest of the year, but the cool fall weather seems to erase their shyness.

This cute little fellow thought the cushion of one of our rocking chairs was a great place to hide.

Hymenocallis and The Girl's Tomato Clubs

A lovely hymenocallis border around an out building at the Milam County Museum.

This weekend, my wife and I were returning from my 30th class reunion in Waco.  On the way home we passed through Cameron, Texas .  Cameron is a charming little town full of friendly folks and beautiful Victorian homes. It is also the county seat of Milam County.   Since we love old homes and old courthouses, we decided to ride around and do a little exploring.  We quickly found our way to the courthouse and happened on two very fortuitous finds.

The Texas State Historical Marker honoring Edna Trigg and the Girl's Tomato Clubs

Girl’s Tomato Clubs – Our first “find” was a state historical sign that was erected to honor the accomplishments of Mrs. Edna Westbrook Trigg and the Girl’s Tomato Clubs of Texas (for more information check out my article in Hort Update).  Exactly one hundred years ago, Mrs. Trigg started the first all girl agricultural clubs in Texas.  These clubs were established as a way to introduce rural youth to the latest in agricultural practices.  There were several of these types of clubs throughout the south during this time and they were collectively called “canning clubs”.   According to Marie Comer (founder of the Girl’s Tomato Clubs in South Carolina) these clubs were established to “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.”

From the start, these clubs paid special attention to improving the heart, head and hands of the members.  If you recognize that last phrase, you should.  It is the original motto of 4H.  I add this because these “canning clubs” were the precursors of the modern 4H organizations that we are all familiar with.

Lovely hymenocallis at the Milam County Museum

Hymenocallis – The other thing that I “discovered” in Cameron was an incredible hedge of hymenocallis growing around the perimeter of the Milam County Museum.  This museum is the old county jail.  During its operation, it housed both inmates and the family of the county sheriff.  Today it is furnished much like it was before it became a museum.  The museum had three incredibly beautiful borders filled with a very beautiful variety of hymenocallis.

Hymenocallis is a large scale plant.  Some varieties can reach four feet.  They have large, smooth, glossy, deep green foliage that looks great even when the plant is not blooming.  The flowers are large, white cups with long, “spidery” stamens.  Some people call hymenocallis spider lily or swamp lily.  However, they are not lilies at all.  Hymenocallis are members of the same plant family as amaryllis.  There are 63 varieties that are native to the tropical areas of the Americas.  One variety of interest to us in the Lone Star state is called the “Texan Spider Lily” (Hymenocallis liriosme).  The “Texan Spider Lily” has large white flowers with yellow centers and blooms throughout the summer.

A hymencallis border at the Milam County Museum. With foliage this lovely, who needs flowers?

You can plant Hymenocallis bulbs in the spring or the fall. They should be planted 4” to 6” deep with the neck of the bulb exposed.  Space the bulbs 1’ apart in full sun or partial shade.  They like well drained soil that has been deeply worked with organic material.  Water regularly but do not over water.  1” per week should be fine.  Hymencallis also do well as potted plants.

If you have never been to Cameron, you should make time to visit.  It is a lovely community that is close to Waco, Temple, Bryan-College Station and of course, Brenham.  In addition to the museum, Cameron hosts the annual Dewberry Festival in the spring.  It also has several antique bridges, a miniature model of the city, and many large scale murals on downtown buildings. It is also home to Ideal Poultry.  They are the largest producer of backyard poultry in the country.  So, if you are looking for something to do on one of these last hot summer weekends, load up the camera and head to Cameron.  Who knows what you will find!

One of the murals in downtown Cameron. This one honors the dairy industry and milk producing plant that was once there. Notice the shape of Texas in the cow's spots.

Eight Ways to Stretch Your Garden Dollars

Right now, times are tough and everyone is looking for ways to save money.  Gardeners are no exception.  Gardening is a lot of fun and almost 5 million Americans practice some sort of gardening at their homes.  However, if you are not careful, your little garden can wind up costing you a lot of money.  Whether you grow vegetables or ornamentals, these timely tips will allow you to get the most out of your garden without draining your bank account.

A bunch of narcissus and oxbloods given to me by a friend

Publicize – If you love to garden, tell people.  You will be surprised how much stuff people will give you once the word is out that you like to grow stuff.   I have a friend that inherited an old home.  The previous owners were avid gardeners and the abandoned yard is full of heirloom plants and bulbs.  When she found out that I love old fashioned plants, she told me I could have anything I could dig up.  So far I have harvested literally hundreds of daffodil, spider lily, oxblood lily and crinum bulbs.  I have also transplanted some yaupons.  I am going back this fall to get some flowering quince and crepe myrtles. 

My row garden with hay mulch

Mulch – If you have read much of my blog, you know I am a big fan of mulch.  Mulch reduces the amount of water you use, so lower water bills.  It also suppresses weeds, so less is spent on herbicides.  Mulch can be expensive if you buy it in bags.  That’s why I never do that.  I buy my mulch in bulk.  Each year I buy three different types of mulch.  I get hardwood mulch from my local landfill.  I drive up in my truck and they load me up.  I pay a very modest 1 cent per pound for this mulch.  I use this hardwood mulch in my flower beds in the early spring.  I buy it then because the “mulch” that is in the landfill has generally been sitting there composting since fall.  So, if you buy in early spring, you get mulch that already has a good percentage of it that has already turned to compost.

I also buy mushroom compost in bulk.  I get mine delivered from a local firm.  While it is a little pricey initially, it is the best money I spend all year.  My last load of mushroom compost cost me $320 for a ten cubic yard dump truck load.  While it is technically compost, I use it much like you would use mulch.  I practice no till gardening in my kitchen garden.  I simply put several inches of this on top of my beds either right before or after planting.  Even though it is pre-composted, it continues to break down in the garden and supply vital nitrogen and other essential nutrients to the plants.  It also suppresses weeds and conserves moisture. 

I also use a lot of hay as mulch in my vegetable gardens.  Hay can be expensive if you buy the little square bales.  However, you can usually find round bales for anywhere from $50 to $80 and the farmer will usually deliver.  A round bale contains as much hay as 10-12 square bales.  When you buy hay or straw to use as mulch, be sure to ask the farmer if it has been treated with any herbicides.  Some of the herbicides sprayed today can linger in the hay and will kill your vegetables if used as mulch.

Several trays of azelia cuttings that I helped a friend of mine prepare

Propagate – Propagation is by far the cheapest way to increase your plant material outside of someone giving you plants.  Propagation is generally pretty easy.  A quick Google search will provide you with very good instructions and very good videos to watch so you can see exactly how it is done.  Some plants are incredibly easy to propagate.  Roses are one of these.  Other plants that are very easy are coleus, sweet potato vine, lantana, coral honeysuckle and many more.  Also, all of the bulbs that naturalize here can be divided every two or three years.  Simply dig them up in the fall, pull them apart and replant.

An old "cowboy bathtub" repurposed as a planter

Reuse – My wife and I are “junkers”.  We love going to garage and estate sales.  We find a lot of very useful things for the garden at very cheap prices at these sales.  Almost all of my gardening tools came from estate sales.  So did my big tiller.  Another thing that we are always on the lookout for are old galvanized buckets.  We use these as planters.  We also buy almost every terra cota pot that we find.

Compost – If you don’t have a compost pile, start one.  Compost is truly an amazing gift to your garden.  It is easy to make and it does so much for your plants and your soil.  There are a million ways to compost, so pick one and just do it.  I make my own compost.  However, I just don’t generate enough to meet all of my needs.  However, I garden on a fairly large scale.  If you have a small garden or if you only grow in containers, you can probably make enough free fertilizer and soil conditioner from your kitchen and yard waste to meet your needs.

Be creative – I love to tackle little landscaping projects around my house.  I would do a lot more if landscaping materials weren’t so expensive.  Since I don’t have a large budget to support my hobby, I am always looking at magazines and other landscapes to find cheap alternatives for my landscaping designs.  A perfect example of this happened the other day.  While at a garage sale, my wife found a HUGE box full of those old glass insulators from electric lines.  We bought the whole lot for $20.  There were well over 100 insulators in the box.  We are going put Christmas lights inside them and use them to line one of our paths.  We will have a very cute and cool night light set up in the garden and all it will wind up costing us less than $50.

My wife enjoying a Framer's Market in Tulsa, Ok

Buy off season – Right now is the best time to buy perennials.  Nurseries that have not sold all of their spring stock now have whatever is left DRAMATICALLY marked down.  You will find sales of up 75% off at most nurseries and garden centers right now in the hottest part of the year.  Sure the plants you buy will need a little extra TLC to get them safely into the fall, but for 75% off, the extra TLC is worth it.

Sell your harvest – Finally, if you do so well in your frugal garden that you can’t use all that you grow, sell it!  That’s right.  Sell the bounty from your garden and actually make a little on your hobby.  Right now, the demand for locally grown, organic produce and flowers has never been higher.  Just about every city and town in America now has a Farmer’s Market of some kind.  Booth rent at these markets is usually very low and you will be surprised at how much you can sell.

Spider Lilies in Heaven

Spider lilies outside the home of the Graceless Gaijin in Totsukawa this past October

A young friend of ours is currently doing one of the coolest things that I can imagine a tall, blonde, 22-year-old American ever doing after graduating from college.  She is teaching English to Japanese elementary students in remote, rural Japanese village named Totsukawa.  While she is away, she is keeping a blog so all of us who are stuck in our mundane, state side lives can live vicariously through her.  She is an excellent writer.  When I was reading her latest post, I came upon a little gem that really caught my eye: “Spider lilies are called “higanbana” in Japanese.  According to Buddhist beliefs there is a river that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead, and higanbana grow on the opposite bank to guide the spirits across the river.”   Now how cool is that?  Spider lilies leading the way to Buddhist heaven.  This pleases me greatly since spider lilies are probably my favorite bulb.  I don’t know if I will go to Buddhist heaven (or Christian heaven for that matter), but if I do get to go I really like the thought of spider lilies leading the way!

My spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) were a gift from the previous homeowner.  The first fall that we were there, we noticed these odd, single stems beginning to shot up in our front yard.  We had no idea what they were but we decided to mow around them and see what they would become.  Well we were pleasantly surprised when the flowers burst open!  I instantly fell in love with these bright red, exotic looking beauties.  When I found out that one of their common names is “Naked Ladies”, I decided I loved them even more!

Until I read her post, I did not realize that spider lilies are native to Japan.  These rather unique looking bulbs rise up out of the ground on a single stalk and produce a single, red flower.  They usually bloom here in late September or early October.  Thanks to the graceless gaijin, I now know that they bloom at the same time in their native Japan. 

The spider lilies that surprised me again this October

Spider lilies have a relatively short bloom time, generally two weeks or less.  When they are in bloom you can extend their life by providing adequate water.  Once the flower dies, the foliage appears a couple of weeks later.  The foliage is a dark green clump that is reminiscent of lariope.  This clump will last until spring.

Luckily for us, these bulbs naturalize very readily in Texas.  If you buy bulbs (The Southern Bulb Co. is a great place to look: http://www.southernbulbs.com/catalog/index.php), you can plant them in full sun or partial shade.  The bulbs should be buried to a depth of three or four inches in good soil that has been amended with lots of organic material.  Provide normal water through the spring and summer and then wait for the fall show.  Since they naturalize so readily, you can also divide the bulbs you already have.  It is best to do this in the spring after foliage has died back.

Since the blooms and the foliage of the spider lilies eventually all die and disappear, I always seem to forget they are there.  Each fall, the appearance of those single “naked” stalks always lifts my spirits and informs me that once again, it is time to slow down and pay attention to what nature is about to share with me.  I don’t know if Spider lilies will line the path to my heaven, but I certainly hope they do!

MiMi's flowers

An arrangement from our fall garden

Right now the weather is so nice that I want to be outside all of the time.  So far this fall I have planted the potager and the row garden.  I have divided and moved perennials and I have also divided and moved my spring bulbs.  I have started stem cuttings of my coleus, begonias and geraniums.  I have been so busy preparing things that I almost failed to step back and enjoy what was already there.  This Saturday, my wife asked me to go outside and pick a few roses for her mother.  As I went out to cut the roses I noticed all of the really lovely things that were still growing in our garden.  I decided that MiMi would get more than just a few roses.  The arrangement you see is composed of a spider lilly, salvia, turk’s cap, zinnias, roses, rosemary and okra.  I am so glad that I took the time to look around and enjoy what was right under my nose.  I really enjoyed putting this together and sharing a little of what we love with someone we dearly love.