The Fall GuyPosted on : September 4, 2019
I’m been gardening for as long as I can remember and it’s pretty much always been like this, and probably always will be, perhaps even worse. After all, summer in Texas is the equivalent of a Minnesota winter: a blistering hell that seems like it will never end.
Nobody describes it better than my friend Scott Ogden in his “Rain Lily Day” chapter of his classic Garden Bulbs for the South.
“In most years, though, the meadows parch to tawny brown, and gaping cracks appear in the hardened clay. It’s often mid-September before relief arrives. As the first norther of the season approaches, a great wall of thunderstorms moves in and drenches the earth. The soaking rains initiate a floral miracle peculiar to this region. Northerners search longingly for the first crocus in the melting snow. Here it’s rain lilies thrusting from crusted earth which bring special joy.”
After living and gardening in Houston, Center, College Station, Dallas, and San Antonio, I’ve experienced varying degrees of summer burnout, but the hopeless feeling is always the same: desperation and despair. What true gardener can watch everything they planted in the spring sizzle and snap without wondering why do we do it and if so, why here? Thank goodness for resilient nature, native wildflowers, and fall bulbs.
By fall bulbs I mean those that bloom in the fall not those that we plant in the fall. I say “fall” but actually the show starts in the late summer, following a typical Texas drought. It didn’t take me many years of gardening to realize that nature works on a wet-dry cycle here much like the tropics and the Mediterranean. This is extremely important information if you are a bulb lover like me, for most of the Dutch bulbs sold commercially work on a warm-cold cycle, hence the need for chilling tulips and hyacinths.
The spring and fall bulbs that thrive here, all work on a wet-dry cycle which fits me perfectly since I’ve never had a sprinkler system and probably never will. Ever since my Xeriscape (from the Greek, xeros, meaning dry) days from my formative San Antonio years I’ve been an advocate of planting those plants that survived on local rainfall alone. With the Texas population continuing to boom and aquifer and groundwater supplies continuing to diminish, this just makes good ecological and economic sense. Water ain’t cheap folks.
So imagine my delight when I found out that there were bulbs that actually performed better after parched summer droughts! Drought is the reason bulbs evolved to store water and conserve energy. Spring and fall bulbs like jonquils, narcissus, oxblood lilies, rain lilies, and spider lilies, actually need to dry out during the summer and are harmed by too much (if any) irrigation. Literally you can dig them in June, put them in a brown paper bag in the trunk of your car and drive them around the country until planting them back into the ground when our cool air and moisture returns in October. The moisture triggers root growth, then shoot growth. The primary difference between our spring and fall bloomers is that the fall bulbs bloom before the foliage appears and the spring bulbs bloom after it appears. I’m sure there are other factors involved including day length and magic pixies, but I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery.
So every year just when I think I can’t tolerate it anymore and have grown tired of dragging hoses and lugging jugs of water to plants that are mostly likely dead or dying, the first cool fronts start to tease and then gradually sneaks in like cats to tuna (yes I live with cats now…).
First it’s the rain lilies, then the assorted late summer spider lilies like Lycoris x squamigera, Lycoris x incarnata, and Lycoris x caldwellii. Then a heavier rain coaxes out my beloved oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) including the traditional red and my cherished pinks. And then more assorted spider lilies like Lycoris longituba, Lycoris sprengeri, and the dramatic pink Lycoris x rosea hybrids. And with more rain and cooler temps the spider lilies keep coming…the traditional Lycoris radiata, and the various creams and whites; Lycoris x albiflora, Lycoris x houdyshellii, and Lycoris x straminea.
And the delights just keep showing up with garden perennials like Mexican mint marigold, fall aster, cigar plant, and garden mums. And though it may not be New England, who doesn’t look forward to our various maples and other fall foliage follies?
There is a God! Who has time to look? Why am I at the computer? There are a million things to do now. It’s time to seed larkspur, poppies, and bluebonnets. It’s time to plant cool season vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage. It’s time to plant woody trees and shrubs so they can take advantage of our upcoming wet season. And it’s time to plant truly adapted spring and fall bulbs. And if you can find the thyme, it’s also time to attend a myriad of seminars and plant sales including the Smith County Master Gardeners award winning From Bulbs to Blooms conference and sale at Harvey Hall in Tyler, Saturday, October 12 where yes we’ll have oxblood lilies, spider lilies, rain lilies, lent lilies, crinum lilies, and other heirloom, hardy, and hard-to-find bulbs of both spring, summer, and fall.
Written by Greg Grant
Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a flock of laying hens, four terriers, one German shepherd, and three cats.