Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Ode to Alliums

It has been incredibly mild over the last couple weeks.  And this soft, slightly wispy weather is fueling my always-too-ambitious plans to add additional bulbs to my garden beds.  As long as I can work the soil, there is still time to plant.  And I find myself tempted by bags and baskets and bins of lovely little bulbs at local nurseries, especially Alliums.

First, I must admit that most of the Alliums in my yard are Allium tuberosum or Garlic Chives.  These are essentially perennial herbs.  Instead of traditional onion-shaped bulbs, Garlic Chives are tough little tubers or rhizomes that can spread like Daylilies or reseed like Poppies.  The foliage emerges in late spring and is often described as strappy, reminiscent of chunky, flat chives or very thin leeks.  It smells oniony.  The leaves, flowers and even the black, black seeds are edible.  Allium tuberosum is similar to other ornamental onions in that each “flower” is an almost dome-shaped umbel… made up of many little stars on many little stems… in this case, white with green centers and miniature antennae.  Very pretty.  And like other Alliums, Garlic Chives prefer a sunny location with well-drained soil.  They can all handle drought-ridden summers.
Garlic Chives bloom through late summer into early fall.  The flowers are sweetly fragrant; and their nectar attracts bees, butterflies, skippers and other insects.  So my patch, planted among Rose shrubs, a Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’, Lamb’s Ears and two kinds of Sedums, literally hums with activity.  I’ve even seen a hummingbird hover nearby.
Now in November, the skeletons of former blooms provide architectural interest in the faded garden and protection for small birds.  These dried starbursts often last through the winter or until a thick snow.

Garlic Chives are vigorous… some may say aggressive.  My original quart-size plant has multiplied and filled in all the little spaces around the Roses and other perennials.  But it has taken years.  And when the clump becomes too dense or I want a little variety, I just pluck some plants.  This summer, I pulled up a 2-foot swath near the edge of the border and sprinkled seeds from my frilly Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) ‘Nora Barlow’.  I’m hopeful.
Traditional ornamental onions, basically Allium bulbs you plant in the fall, can provide several months of ethereal blooms from late spring until early summer.  They bridge the gap between Daffodils and mid-summer perennials.  Rosemary Verey famously paired incredibly tall and vibrantly purple Alliums, ‘Globemaster’ I think, with Laburnum x watereri in her gardens at Barnsley House.
My garden is a lot messier and just less perfect, and I like Alliums, such as A. sphaerocephalon;

A. moly;

and A. unifolium,
which are less round than ‘Globemaster’, blue ‘Gladiator’ or white ‘Mount Everest’, but still provide height and/or an airiness to my sometimes dense perennial arrangements.

I’m always drawn to ones like A. bulgaricum

and A. thunbergii
with their charming, bi-colored stars that seem to nod and fall.  But I’ve had mixed results with these two particular bulbs.  As I mentioned, all Alliums need excellent drainage.  Although I’ve amended our soil substantially, it is still basically clay, and I believe the tiny bulbs sometimes rot during a wet winter.  Also, I’m not convinced that any bulb is rodent-proof.  Our squirrels seem willing to dig up just about anything!

You can still purchase some bulbs from major catalog suppliers like Dutch Gardens, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs or White Flower Farm.  But you might want to check close to home first.  I found these pretty, pinky A. ‘Graceful’ bulbs at one of my local garden centers.
And they seem to be sold out everywhere else.

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