Falling Forward

I never knew that the antonym of autumnal was vernal. Which makes sense, I guess as there is no word for springnal. With covid, I think many of us are embracing gardening more than we even have. Most garden centers and nurseries are reporting record sales (have you tried to order bulbs or garlic lately? Most everywhere is sold out!). So while the entire planet continues to deal with the nasty effects of Covid 19, I suppose we could say that for gardening – there’s been a bit of a silver lining.

Nerine sarniensis, a tender relative of the amaryllis bloom is fall and winter blooming species. Rarely seen outside of collector greenhouses, they are easy-as-pie if you can provide them with their dry winter rest and summer heat.

Not that I am happy about it. I’ve lost close friend, my Godmother passed away from Covid in June, and I even had a scare myself with the disease. So gardening has certainly been my primary escape. I heard the other day that there are something like 13 million new gardeners this year in the US (it might have even been 30 million, but I may have heard wrong), but clearly many more people are gardening than ever before. Many first-time gardeners too. I also heard that only 5% admitted that the probably wont garden next year, but still, those numbers are impressive to say the least. It’s safe to say that there are many new gardeners. This is thrilling to hear.

Cyclamen species are addictive to grow, and one or two quickly becomes a collection. Most of these are tender C. graecum subspecies but a few are hardier, perhaps even outdoors here (if I dared!). In the cool greenhouse they thrive in an elevated sand plunge bed.

I dont need to tell my fellow gardeners that Covid-19 has affected us gardeners. People who may have never gardened suddenly taking up a hoe or trowel is a global phenomenon. The Financial Times in London reported that in the first few days of the pandemic that 15 million people visited the RHS website. Even people without the space to garden outdoors have turned to houseplants, a trend that already was out of hand by the end of 2019 especially with young adults.

Disappearing for the summer, Cyclamen graecum from Greece revisits us every autumn with a few weeks of flowering. Some of these tubers are now 10″ across, and while they can’t stand a freeze, they grow effortlessly if just left alone in their sand bed.

By late March many of us found is difficult if not impossible to order seeds from not only our favorite sources, but from obscure ones as well. The sudden onslaught of new gardeners dreaming of new victory gardens and raised beds of fresh greens became so intense that many large seed suppiers couldnt keep up with the demand.

Cyclamen hederifolium is a hardy species that will survive outdoors here, the problem is autumn leaves and pine needle drop usually covers the flowers so I find that I can enjoy them more under glass. I withheld water in fall until flower buds emerge to hold back the foliage.

Now, in autumn as Covid continues to hold us hostage we are finding fall, winter and even spring supplies in demand. Dutch bulbs are virtually sold out at most websites and many seed companies are delaying or even not accepting new orders due to the demand.

every spring I save the seed pods that coil down on spring-like stems. Sown fresh in June, the seeds lie dormant until they are watered in September. These are seedlings with tiny tubers from seeds of C. persicum – the wild species that our florist cyclamen was developed from. They were sown in March as I didn’t want to wait any longer, but they still grew tiny tubers which went dormant in late June.

Of course, this is a double edged sword, especially for those who might have waited too late to order their garlic (me), while benefiting the retailers who finally can recoup some of the lost profits earlier in the year.

Tulip mixes are made in a wheel barrow and then tossed over the beds and planted to achieve a random display.

I think the point here is that even if 50% of those who experimented with some sort of gardening this past year continue, we’ve essentially doubled the number of gardeners. In the long run, that’s terrific. Right now? Im not that happy that I can’t buy a bulb planter, shovel or a dozen hyacinths. I mean really…rakes are sold out? True. At least at my Home Depot. I’m predicting the same for paperwhites, amaryllis and probably Holiday lights, right? (still, its all a good thing.).

Our driveway project is began with cutting 16 weed trees and old spruces along the west side of our yard, now the final phase of edging with cobblestone and then landscaping begins – it’s a race against the weather.

We’re pretty fortunate here though. I know that. I really don’t need to buy more bulbs or even to plant more greens for winter. We are so fotunate to have a greenhouse and to be healthy. There are those who have so much less. It;s been a difficult year for so many around the world and in our country.

My collection of Nerine sarniensis seems to bloom more and more with each year. Im learning to pot clumps of bulbs into larger pots rather than over-crowd them, which seems to produce at least 4-6 buds per pot.

If you follow me on Instagram you probably know that we undertook a few big outdoor projects this summer (a driveway resurfacing with gravel and cobbles keeps me up at night as we try to complete it before the ground freezes) and then there is how to landscape the 80 foot edge along the driveway where we cut 16 trees down earlier in the summer. I won’t be able to afford a fence for some time, but right now we can see all of the neighbors – something that we havent experienced as long as I have lived here (which is a very long time!).

I just had to share this gorgeous Tricytis macrantha – the Yellow Toad Lily from my friend Bruce Lockhart’s garden. I’ve tried it many times but just can’t seem to find the right spot for the autumn blooming perennial. It likes to tumble over rocks.

I have two Tupelo trees going in and a Nyssa, along with 4 American Holly cultivars (that will grow quickly to 30′ or more). Many small Blue Prince and Blue Princess holly will fill in gaps as they will top out to about 7-10 feet around here, but the truth is we are getting old and the time has arrived when expecting to see a tree mature to full size is unrealistic. My plan is to have quick growing shade trees but also broadleaf evergreens along with wildlife-friendly berries, understory trees and shrubs and then mixed perennials underneath. My priority is focused on native species, or at least, North American natives first.

The Hairy Balls Milkweed (Gomphocarpus physocarpus) is just fun to grow as it always gets a few laughs. This year it matured much later than normal, but is just as entertaining. It’s a tropical milkweed from Africa. It’s easy to grow from seed every year but be prepared for a plant that can grow 6 feet tall.

I suppose that the good news is that they are forecasting a mild winter here in the Northeast. I love snow, but not the cold, yet meteorologists are adding that mostly here, it should be a rainy winter. I can’t have it all – deep snow, temperatures just below freezing…totally unrealistic.

Bulbs are arriving in boxes most every day now. Lilies are the last to arrive, not too many this year, just a few from my favorite sources. I’ve learned to order early for the real choice bulbs like the giant alliums and the most stylish colors in tulips. Also, since I force a lot of bulbs, the earlier I plant them in October, the sooner I can force them in January.

Of all the new toad lilies, this Tricyrtis formosans ‘Autumn Glow’ puts on a sensational show all summer because it’s foliage is variegated and showy all summer long.

It’s funny how little time I have now, now that I am not working a full-time job. Not only can I not seem to find time to update this blog, I seem to never catch up with gardening chores. OK, I’m sure I ‘have the time’, but I am surely more lazy or distracted. I neglected much of our garden this year – mulch piles are still in the driveway, vegetable beds have tall weeds and as anyone who visited here knows – most of the garden was just neglected. I just didn’t feel like doing it all. (note: We don’t have garden help).

There are hornbeam hedges that are half-way cut this year, boxwoods that have yet to be trimmed, and many projects half done or not even started. I have no idea why. I’m probably watching more TV and cooking more (which doesn’t help my waist or health) but I guess more of us are baking bread or making kimchi than we might have before. Sure, I did make a new garden that was large, and then there were projects like refinishing the hardwood floors in our house downstairs and that aforementioned driveway re-do, but still.

In our new border many new plant combinations are beginning to take shape. Here, red ligularia cultivars contrast nicely with the dark green of Lirope and yellow Japanese Forest Grass, but the surprise is the golden fall foliage on the Roscoea – an Asian bulb in the Ginger family. I’ll need to note this.

The Garden Conservancy is pushing me to host an Open Days tour next year again, and I just don’t know if we could do it (and if we can do it, will it even be exciting or worth people’s time to come here? I mean, we are no estate or fancy garden, and that is our competition. I mean – our garden doesn’t even have a name (should it?).

Fall color is everywhere, even in our woodland. Surprises appear in every nook. Medeola Virginians or Indian Cucumber is an eastern North American woodland plant that has a lovely nodding flower in spring, but also stunning fall foliage.

While photos of it certainly look pretty on-line, in real life…well, let’s just say it’s just a regular back yard with all that comes with suburban life. Dumpsters, sheds, trashy areas where there shouldn’t be. I don’t know. I’m torn, and I’m not sure that I need the added pressure of a garden tour. I am watching other garden hosts with orders of thousands of bulbs to plant, and then I look at our measly 300 bulbs. Some narcissus arrive only in packs of 6 or 10. We are more realistic, I know, but is that something people want to pay to see?

In the Asiatic border, and equally effective show is going on as well led by Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ and backed up by some hosta.

It’s mid-October now, and while we’ve only experienced a few light touches of frost, the morning glories are still blooming (just the tips are nipped), and the cold-hardy greenhouse plants are all still outdoors. Camellias and bay laurels won’t get moved under glass until next week or even later if the weather remains above freezing during the day. I know so many people who are complaining about senescence outside and using terms like “everything is dying as winter arrives,” but I see it differently


Anemonopsis plants are so expensive that I’m trying to propagate more via seed. Now is the tine to harvest the pods that look like Columbine seed pods. I pick the stems and keep them indoors in a vase of water until they mature. One needs to sow fresh, even green seed immediately in the fall like this.

I’ve been sowing seeds of Anemonopsis that I harvested fresh and sowed today in two flats. These will take some time to grow, but after a winter outdoors, they will germinate readily in the spring but will do little growth above ground in their first year – just forming two leaves and some root growth. Next spring, they will be transplanted into pots and later in summer 2022 into the garden somewhere or distributed to friends.

I cover the Anemonopsis seed with sand and keep them outdoors all winter. In spring, I bring them into the greenhouse to begin growing but anyone can grow them on either under lights starting around March or just keep the flats outdoors. They will only produce cotyledons during their first year, but will start to take off in year two.
Bulbs that will be forced are being potted up now. Mid October is prime time if one wants to begin forcing in late January. I missed forcing hyacinths last year so this year I’m focusing on these and miniature narcissus. These will be covered in soil and kept outdoors until a hard freeze threatens when they’ll be moved into a dark, cold space just above freezing under my back bench on the floor of the greenhouse. The goal is to keep pots dark and cold – just above freezing for 12-16 weeks.

Maybe it’s the fact that I have the greenhouse, but so many plants are just starting to emerge or start another season. Camellias are all budded up and ready to bloom in a few months, the fall-blooming species are already blooming. South African and South American bulbs are magically emerging -most bloom before their foliage but many bloom throughout the winter. Cyclamen species from the Mediterranean are in full bloom now, and Asiatic tender shrubs scent the greenhouse as an entirely new season begins.

I am most excited about winter birds this year. An irruption of winter finches is predicted for some of my most beloved of winter feeder birds. Birch and other seed sources in the north are poor, and already we’ve seen 9 red-breasted nuthatches visiting our feeders (there were none last winter). I am most hopeful that we may see Evening Grosbeaks – a bird that we haven’t seen here at our feeders since the early 1980’s. I may be overhopeful, but there is a good chance that we will see some.

I laugh every time I see this hedge on the border of Massachusetts and Vermont.

It’s hard to imagine that anything is genuinely senescent around here.

About the author

Author, plantsman, and horticulturist living in central Massachusetts.


    1. Maybe next year – The Garden Conservancy has us scheduled for June, but I have not committed yet – so afraid that it won’t measure up to the fancy gardens (i.e. those that have gardeners). Stay tuned. Thanks!

  1. Recently bought both of your Mastering books. They are excellent and I am enjoying both of them. I’ve started, among other things, some Hakurei turnips after reading your book.
    Can you tell me what is meant by horticultural grit? The Brits use it with abandon, but when I ask for it at a nursery I get a blank stare. The picture of the tray of filled with Anemonopsis seed seems to be covered in something like horticultural grit. Is it? What do you call it, and where do you buy it?
    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley, CA

    1. My ‘horticultural grit’ is coarse sand from Home Depot last year – that for some reason was very coarse, and then I sifted it. I too don’t know what horticultural grit is other than coarse sand which is a vague description. In the past I’ve used Turface (baseball sand), horse stall sand (forgot what it’s called, but I have a 50 lb bag in the greenhouse – I think Stall Dry or something like that, I’ve used canary grit but it is too loose, but most gardeners in the US use chicken or turkey grit from the farm supply store.

  2. Lovely informative post as usual. I only found your blog recently and it has been really inspirational. I am reading backwards through it which is very interesting (you are getting younger!). I also bought your books and they were perfect 2 to 4 am reading for an insomniac who has accepted that this is his reading time. Thanks for normalizing what I always thought was my over-the-top obsession with plants and gardening.

    1. Thanks John. I think you will notice that my editing and writing skills get worse as I get younger! I too am now a 2-4 am imsoniac (semi retired – laid off), it happens. I am writing this at 1:30 am…time for some tea! Thanks for the kind words.

      1. It’s election night Matt and I choose to continue to read your blog backwards tonight. Much more peace in your garden and greenhouse than elsewhere. I’m in 2015 now. A good year if you ignore all the damn snow we had.

  3. Matt, you didn’t ask my opinion, but I think gardeners also like to see real people’s gardens. Estate gardens are okay too, but I’ve seen a lot of those. If I ever head up your way, maybe Bill and I can stop by and visit. I’d love that.

    About help and the garden. I finally had to ask for help here. I just can’t do it all by myself anymore. I mean I could I guess, but that would be all I would do. My body also doesn’t like working that hard anymore. I do think time goes by more quickly than it once did. I find my days are very short. Hugs from Oklahoma.~~Dee

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