Colorful, Sometimes Tasty, Ground

Lurid Ground

Lurid, violet flowers have sprouted in the wood chip mulch beneath my row of dwarf pear trees. The flowers are autumn crocuses, the first part of the two-part flowery show that takes place each autumn in that piece of ground.
The second part of that flowery show, soon to follow, will be autumn crocuses. “But,” you exclaim, “autumn crocuses were the first part of the show!” Let me explain.

This first show is from a flower called autumn crocus but which is botanically a Colchicum species. It’s not really a crocus, not even related. Colchicum flowers resemble true crocus flowers, on steroids. The second show will be from true crocuses (that is, Crocus species) that happen to bloom in autumn. The Crocus autumn crocuses are dainty and in colors like our spring crocuses.

What’s really unique about the colchicum flowers, and what makes them so striking, is that, first, they emerge from the soil this time of year, and second, that they do so without any leaves, making the contrast between the mulched ground and the flowers all the more dramatic. The color itself is dramatic, the row of bold-colored blossoms painting a wide swath along the ground.
Purple autumn crocuses, in a row
Cochicums, like every other plant, need to photosynthesize, and, like every other plant, need leaves to do so. Those leaves, which are wide, long, and fairly large, appear for awhile in spring and look nothing like true crocus leaves. Not only do the plants not need leaves in autumn, they also don’t need soil. Colchicum bulbs will sprout their lurid violet flowers even if just left sitting on a bench or table!

Green Tastes Good

Aside from spots of bright color, the dominant color in my garden is green. That verdure is especially evident in my vegetable garden, now in its autumn glory – lush and green – and becoming more so every day. I’ve been sowing and planting with almost the same fervor as in spring.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

A few weeks ago I made my last planting of outdoor lettuce, using transplants that had been growing in seed flats for about a month. The varying textures and colors of the different varieties make a pretty tapestry on the ground, so pretty that it seems almost a shame to pick any of the tender, tasty heads and ruin the picture. I’m not sure how large they’ll grow before stopped or turned to mush by really cold weather. Protection beneath a tunnel of clear plastic with, later, an additional covering of some spun-bonded row cover material, should keep them and me happy into December.

Other beds display yet more shades of green with varying textures. There’s a bed of kale, which has been pumping out deep green leaves for good eating since spring. Another bed has endive – Broad-Leaved Batavian — planted close enough so neighboring plants push each other’s leaves over the loosely forming heads. Shaded from sunlight, those inner leaves become tender and sweet, livened up with just a hint of bitterness.

Green, Not for Eating

Lushest green of all beds in my garden are those that are sprouting oats. Yes, that’s the same oats that we (and horses) eat, except that I didn’t plant these oats for eating. I plant oats as so-called cover crops, which are plants grown to improve and protect the soil.

I can only eat just so much lettuce, endive, kale, and other greens. If I’ve filled this quota for planting and no longer have further use for every bed this season, I plant it with oats. September 30th is my deadline because after this date — here in the lower Hudson Valley, at least — days are too short and weather becomes too cold to expect much growth.
Oat cover crop
Oats, just one of a number of potential cover crops, thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter. Their roots, pushing through the soil, crumble it and latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down below the root zone. After the roots die, they enrich the soil with humus and leave behind channels through which air and water can move within the soil. Above ground, the stems and leaves protect the soil surface from being washed around by pounding raindrops.

Most of all, I like the look of that green carpet of grassy oat leaves. Both I and Mother Nature abhor bare ground, which becomes subject to wind and water erosion, and large swings in temperatures through the year.


Zinnias In and Colchicum Outside

And the winner is  . . . Every year boxes of plants arrive at my doorstep, sent by nurseries and seed companies hoping to wow me with their products which I will then praise and induce you all to purchase. Most of the plants turn out to be ho-hum, perhaps new but not necessarily better than what’s been around for decades. Not so this season, for a charming yellow flower that’s been blooming nonstop all summer long and offers no indication as yet of expiring.Yellow blossoms of Zahara zinnia

That plant is  . . . unfortunately I lost the label so have been sleuthing for days now to give this winning plant a name. It looks much like a zinnia, a single flowered zinnia, that is, one with a single row of petals. The plants are compact, a little more that a foot high and wide, and — very un-zinnia-like — show no signs of powdery mildew.

My first guess for the plant was creeping zinnia, which actually can be one of two different plants. The first is a true zinnia, Zinnia angustifolia, and the second is not really a zinnia; it’s Sanvitalia procumbens. After getting out my botany books (books!) and magnifying glass and staring at the peduncle, receptacle, and disk and ray flowers of a flower from my plant and comparing it with written descriptions, I was still scratching my head to give my plant a name.

In frustration, I went to the garage to my “miscellaneous” bucket into which I sometimes toss plant labels that I might need to reference again at a later date. Digging down deep amongst all shapes and sizes of labels, I came upon one printed “Zahara Yellow Improved Zinnia.” Back inside, on the web, comparing descriptions and photos verified that — yes — that’s the plant.

The botanical name listed for Zahara zinnias, which also come in other colors, is Zinnia Marylandica.  That species name looks and is fake. Zaharas are interspecies hybrids, with some creeping zinnia (the Z. angustifolia c.z.) in their blood. So my guess at their being creeping zinnia was not far off.

Looking over at my conventional zinnias (Zinnia elegans) for comparison, they appear gawky witI their large flowers, both new and faded ones, prominently perched atop long stalks. Their many petalled blossoms look too full of themselves. Zahara buries its spent blossoms out of sight amongst new flowers and foliage of the compact plants.

Next year, I’m planting Zahara Yellow Improved Zinnias again.

A Vegetable Factory Functionally, But Not Visually

Those Zahara zinnias, planted along the main path of the vegetable garden joining arbored gates at either end, create two golden ribbons to draw you along the path. As I walk the path and glance left, north, I see, just outside the garden fence, another ribbon, this one a broad brush stroke of purple with not a hint of green. (More on that later.)

Yellow zinnias line the main path in the vegetable garden

Yellow zinnias line the main path in the vegetable garden

A vegetable garden need not be a vegetable factory. Too many look as if dropped from the sky, plopped down in the middle or far corner of lawn and enclosed with a strictly functional fence. Why not make the vegetable garden pretty and cozy it up near the house? Beds paint a two-dimensional design on the ground. A nice fence helps; even better if it integrates with the style of the home.

Vegetable gardens often look stark because of the abrupt transition between the vertical fence and adjacent, horizontal lawn. Decades ago, I regularly rototilled around the outside of my fence to keep weeds away from the fence line. I decided that was wasted space, so planted it with shrubs, flowers, and vegetables that didn’t need fencing. It was a good decision, softening the transition from garden to lawn.

So gussy up your vegetable garden with ornamental plants inside and out, with decorative fencing and arbors, perhaps an herb-lined path drawing you within, or perhaps with a bench, bird bath, or gazing globe as a draw.

And A Stripe of Purple to Gussy Up the North

That purple brush stroke north of my vegetable garden are the petals of autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale. In contrast to the Zahara zinnias, autumn crocus has been cultivated hundreds of years, and my plants are run-of-the-mill species rather than any hifalutin variety.

Purple autumn crocuses, in a row

Purple autumn crocuses, in a row

Like Zahara zinnias, autumn crocus has nomenclature issues. To whit, it is not a crocus. Further complicating things, there are true crocuses that bloom in autumn, sometimes called autumn-blooming crocuses, among them the saffron crocus, Crocus sativa. Colchicum autumn crocus, my purple brush-stroke, is poisonous.

The purple of my autumn crocuses is so bold because leaves don’t accompany the flowers (again, in contrast to autumn-flowering crocuses, whose leaves appear with the flowers). Autumn crocus leaves are big and bold, appearing in spring and looking something like ramps, the edible wild onion species. In Europe, where both autumn crocus and a ramp-like relative, grow, people have been poisoned for mistaking one plant for the other.

But toxicity isn’t what keeps more people from planting autumn crocus. Daffodils, after all, also are toxic. The problem is timing: Autumn crocus bulbs are ready for planting in late summer, before daffodils, tulips, and other fall planted bulbs are ready. It’s hard for nurseries to get people excited about yet another bulb planting season, and only for this single species. If not planted soon enough, autumn crocus bulbs grow, even without soil. The bulbs multiply quickly and when I divided and replanted them last summer, I kept a few out, three of which now sit naked in a bowl on the dining table, blooming.