I imagine many gardens have some awkward little areas that are difficult to irrigate efficiently. Mine certainly does. Now that long, hot, dry summers are apparently here to stay, I’m thinking of letting some of those spots go dry in summer. I won’t mind if they are almost bare in summer, especially if I can make them come to life in fall, winter and spring.
Many parts of the world have long dry seasons, so there is a huge variety of plants available to gardeners that are adapted to such conditions. Some, such as manzanitas, yuccas and succulents like hens-and-chicks, tough it out above ground. Others shed both roots and top-growth, their life-force retreating to a variety of subterranean structures containing all they need to regenerate when it rains again.
I recently learned a handy collective term for plants that pass the summer as bulbs, corms or tubers: geophytes. So that’s what I’ll call them.
Most cold-hardy geophytes are pretty tolerant of being dug up, dried out and traded during dormancy. Fall is the easiest time to acquire those and also, with some exceptions, the best time to plant them. They can supply us with flowers in summer-dry areas from about mid-August through June. Most bulb companies suggest that fall-blooming geophytes such as colchicum, fall crocus and bright yellow sternbergia be ordered no later than mid- July or August. You may find some in local stores. If not, make a note to order some next year.
Most of us are familiar with the showy daffodils and tulips that show up in spring. Both tulips and daffs vary a lot in size and bloom time. Tulips are an excellent choice for areas that really get baked in the summer sun. But here are a few less obvious choices for enhancing dry areas of your garden, all of which can be purchased, shipped and planted in early fall. You can find them all in the catalog from McClure & Zimmerman (mzbulb.com), a company I have used for many years. They offer an unusually broad selection of geophytes, some of them hard to find anywhere else.
Ivy-leafed hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium). Miniature pink or white flowers spring from bare ground in August and September. The corms can grow very large, each producing dozens of flowers. Beautifully marked leaves follow in winter and spring — a winter groundcover! Cyclamen do best if acquired in active growth in pots, but corms are well worth a try.
Giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii). Giant for a snowdrop, that is. A robust species with long-lasting flowers appearing very early in the year. A good colonizer.
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Yellow flowers appear mid to late winter, about the same time as the common snowdrop.
Geranium tuberosum. A fleeting visitor. Both leaves and showy, prettily veined flowers in pink, lavender or purple emerge mid-spring. Dies down soon after flowering.
Erythronium ‘Pagoda.’ A vigorous, reliable hybrid between two California fawn lilies. Light yellow flowers in mid-spring on stems that can reach a foot. Makes nice clumps.
Dutch iris. At about 20 inches, among the tallest of the irises that grow from bulbs. Available in many shades including white, yellow and blue. A good choice for a site that’s baking hot. Late spring.
Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola.’ A robust selection from a West Coast native with violet-blue flowers. I don’t think it would be cheating to put it in the native garden. It may bloom as late as June.
Allium aflatunense var. ‘Purple Sensation.’ Globe-shaped heads of deep purple flowers on 2-3 foot stems. Early summer. One of the most reliably perennial of the ornamental onions.
Nectaroscordum siculum. A very distinctive relative of the onions, with 20-to-30-inch stems are topped with a bunch of slightly drooping flowers in a subtle blend of mauve, green and white. A real eye catcher in early summer.
Naked Ladies (Amaryllis belladonna). Large pink flowers on leafless, 20-inch stems appear suddenly in August. Foliage appears in spring.
What do you do with those empty-looking spaces after your geophytes die down? A gravel mulch is a good solution and looks a lot nicer than dry, bare soil. It is also practical. Fall rains (and even persistent irrigation) take a long time to penetrate dry organic mulches, and cats are less likely to poop in gravel. Plus, gravel complements the kind of plants you might choose to share a summer-dry space: a gold-striped yucca, perhaps, or a collection of hardy succulents. Use pea gravel or quarter-ten crushed rock.
Rachel Foster lives and gardens in Eugene. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.