Each January, in the dead of winter, gardeners need a reminder that there’s a new season just around the corner.
It comes by way of mailboxes overflowing with catalogs. There are more seeds and plants than we even knew existed (and now can’t live without) tempting us from those glossy, colorful pages. August is the month when bulb catalogs are stuffed in our mailboxes. I usually skip straight to the tulip sections.
It’s a shame that I’ve overlooked alliums as one of the best fall-planted bulbs for constant color throughout the seasons. Their globes of star-shaped flowers bloom easily in gorgeous colors atop tall stems. Stunning perennial garden designs are conjured from a mix of contrasting shapes, and alliums’ rounded blooms make them perfect players in a host of unforgettable garden combinations.
It just so happens that I enjoyed nothing but two weeks of unforgettable garden combinations last month. I hitched a ride with my sister-in-law Kit and her friends from the Oregon Hardy Plant Society on a garden tour of England’s Thames River Valley. I know, the term “society” is imposing and can be off-putting at first. It is true that most of the group’s members can rattle off, perfectly pronounced, the Latin name of any plant, and correctly identify the particular cultivar, which is even trickier.
But I can’t imagine a more fun and welcoming group of hearty, intrepid gardeners. Together, we followed miles and miles of garden paths through the small towns and villages of East Anglia, asking questions and snapping thousands of pictures.
If I had to name just one new plant I want to try in my Yakima garden, it would have to be one of the ornamental onions, the Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon). I expected England to wow me with something more exotic than this rather lowly bulb, but I wasn’t the first to fall for it. I found it blooming away in every single one of the 30 spectacular gardens we toured. Planted in the fall and hardy in Zones 4-9, I suspect I won’t be the only one from the trip to dig out their bulb catalogs and place an order.
A flower arranger’s dream, the dark violet-burgundy-green, egg-shaped flowers on not-too-tall stems will breezily naturalize around the garden after a few seasons. It was high summer in England, with sunny days that were unusually warm and dry. While other full-sun flowers were just beginning to fade, this beauty was maintaining its amazing color. Even better, all alliums are virtually pest-free, loved by pollinators, ignored by deer, voles and rabbits, and extremely drought-tolerant.
Most alliums come with fairly substantial foliage, and that can be a drawback. Once the flowers fade, you can deadhead the blooms, but the foliage should be left in place to naturally recede, gathering energy into the bulbs for next season’s growth. The leaves look downright shabby at this point. You can brilliantly disguise the mess by planting alliums in a bed with later-blooming perennials with emerging foliage that will hide the dying allium leaves. It’s a good thing that Drumstick allium foliage is fine and narrow; it doesn’t create much of an eyesore. It takes up very little room, even at ground level, and can be shoehorned into tight spaces.
Alliums can continue to grace the garden even after they bloom with just a can of waterproof spray paint. What? Apparently, painting the seed heads of perennial plants is nothing new. The first time I heard of it, a friend encouraged me to revive the fading blooms of my Purple Sensation alliums with a can of violet Krylon. She had done the very same thing, but chose glitzy metallic gold. The worst part of it is that I really liked the results. I shudder to think this could be a gateway to gardening with plastic flowers.
Alliums are planted in the fall in average garden soil. They need good drainage and full sun. Catalogs offer dozens of varieties besides the Drumstick that I’m so smitten with, and all are worth trying. You’ll find the usual spring-flowering varieties, as well as others that extend the bloom season through summer and even up to the first frost. Names like Goliath, Globemaster, Gladiator and Mt. Everest hint at the impact alliums can make. Don’t miss A. schubertii, which produces fireworks-shaped blooms the size of volleyballs.
In English gardens, alliums planted in large numbers made the biggest impact. I’ll order 100, and plant them in four groups of 25.
• Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Contact her at email@example.com.