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Next year's garden

August 31, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Even though fall is officially three weeks away, Labor Day seems to herald the end of summer. We may be bidding goodbye to summer - but certainly not to the garden. Fall gardening is glorious. No need to get out in the yard at the crack of dawn to avoid the heat, no disappointments to face over winter damage and the flowers still in bloom are mind-bogglingly colorful.

September is the perfect time to install bulbs and corms. They settle happily in the warm ground and establish good root growth as the days cool.

Garlic - The herb of the year for 2004 is garlic (Allium sativum) - the charm against evil - and now is the time to plant it. If your goal is pretty garlands of garlic bulbs, then softneck garlic should be your choice. However, gourmet cooks consider the hardneck garlic, with its easy to peel cloves, the better choice for flavor. Plant both now for an early July harvest.

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The first step in planting garlic is to spade up a plot of ground and work in some compost. Garlic is a heavy feeder so it's good to add a source nitrogen to encourage root growth. Blood meal and cottonseed meal are good organic sources of nitrogen.

Divide your bulbs gently into separate cloves but don't remove the skin. Plant them three to four inches deep and four inches apart, with the pointy end of the clove up. Your garlic should sprout this fall.

Saffron - These delicate purple flowers centered with long red sepals are among autumn's most beautiful flowers. The plants themselves symbolize marriage, joy and laughter but the flowers carry the more dire message "excess is dangerous," a warning to which anyone who has tasted a dish over-seasoned with saffron would concur.

Some nurseries already have saffron corms in stock. They may be labeled either Crocus sativa or C. sativum. Do NOT buy the autumn crocus (Colichicum autumnale) for the herb garden, as they are poisonous.

Saffron crocus need a sunny well-drained spot; they thrive in slightly sandy soil. Dappled shade will suffice as long as the soil doesn't get soggy. Plant your corms six inches apart and three to four inches deep. Planted now, your plants will send up leaves in the spring then die back and make a surprise blooming visit early next fall.

Cyclamen - Have you ever admired the marbled leaves and delicate flowers of the cyclamen sold by florists in the spring? Those beauties aren't winter hardy in our climate but a minature version, Cyclamen hederifolium (sometimes sold as C. neapolitanum), is. In the garden this showy little beauty announces its presence each fall with a display of blossoms reminiscent of a clutch of exotic, reddish-pink butterflies. Soon mottled green, heart-shaped leaves appear. They last through the winter and disappear in the spring.

Some suggest this cyclamen as the "lilies of the field" referred to in the Bible; others reserve that title for the iris. Once you see this little treasure shyly bursting into bloom you'll understand why it has always been considered to be a symbol of diffidence.

Ground cover - Both cyclamen and saffron are small plants that are best planted near the front of the garden. They disappear from sight just when you're planting other things so, too often, I have been horrified to dig up these vanished beauties by mistake. Labels shift around or get lost so I usually plant a shallow rooted ground cover over them as a reminder.

A patch of low-growing thyme that enjoys the sun is perfect over the saffron crocus. It marks the spot and doesn't seem to interfere with the bulbs' growth. The spring thyme blooms are a bonus. Pink-flowered caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona), and pale-pink Thymus serpyllum "Annie Hall" are good choices.

To mark the spot of the shade-loving cyclamen, I surround them with mounds of lawn chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile "Trenague") that prefer sun but manage nicely in light shade where cyclamen thrives.

Look ahead to next year's garden and let the late summer work begin.

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