You keep saying “winter is coming” but…

It’s the first official day of winter, Christmas is a scant three days away, and it’s over 50 degrees out.  Granted, we’ve had at least one round of snow that “stuck” (although no longer than a day) and did freeze some of my flower pots before I’d brought all of them into the garage, but the unseasonably mild weather so far is actually being a bit worrisome for me on several fronts.

For instance, some things have actually been starting to bud out new growth, which is troubling before any future return to a normal winter weather in northwestern Ohio.

This is not what I would typically think to find foxglove looking like three days before Christmas, with a new flower stalk.

Most of those things are annuals; a few are shrubs that are still young but hopefully established enough to take a hit.  It may have been a bad year to try “winter sowing” for the first time.

I have a few plants I inherited with the house that I’ve been wanting to propagate, and have had to resort to seed.  One is a white penstemon that I hit the jackpot with this summer — I was home for lunch one day and the seedpods had not opened, and by the time I came home for the evening four hours later they had just started to split.  I managed to get nearly all of the seeds before they fell.  The “mother plant” I have is hopelessly entwined and entangled with spiderwort (tradescantia) and coneflowers (echinacea), so if I ever hope to separate it and spread the plant, seed is the best bet.  I’m also not sure it’s actually a true perennial, given that it’s in the digitalis family.  My foxglove nearby is also digitalis and is actually a self-seeding biennial.  I suspect the penstemon might actually just be reseeding itself every year in the same general spot.

I also have a pink/purple delphinium that I love that I would love to separate in greater quantities, so even though establishing from seed is a slow process, it’s still probably faster than waiting for the one I currently have to get large enough to divide and a lot cheaper than buying more of these at the nursery.

That being said, I haven’t had a lot of luck germinating seed from these plants.  Delphiniums are notoriously difficult to start; I’ve read the thick seed shells require a cycle of freezing and thawing to actually break open, which is why I decided to try winter sowing.  The idea here being that you start them in a closed container but leave it outside all winter – letting it experience a more natural cycle of temperatures and weather, keeping humidity in and that it will start naturally when it’s ready to.  A lot of people recommend starting winter sowing in adapted milk jugs, except that we largely drink almond milk which comes in cartons… so I decided to try disposable foil brownie trays from the grocery store with clear lids based on a recommendation in a gardening forum.

The problem is — this year, it keeps getting just warm enough that I think the seeds are actually periodically germinating, and then dying. For instance, today I noticed one or two trays had some very small, sad looking sprouts, even though they’re currently located in the garage against an outside wall.


All this warm weather makes me a bit nervous when I look at the plants, and a bit sad when I think of all the things I dug up and brought inside in the fall that I might have been better off to have left where they were for a while longer.  Halloween is about when I typically do the Great Purge — cutting back and hauling out everything in the garden before the city stops running green waste pickup.  (The perils of living in the city limits.)

All of which is leading to today’s check-in- my gladiolus and lily projects.

I grew gladiolus for the first time this year, and have been trying the last few years to turn a few stargazer lilies into a nice big row.  I had experimented with stargazer lily propagation over last winter and it seems fairly simple and easy.

The lily bulbs look like large cloves of garlic – you can safely peel off a few of the large outer scales from each bulb without really damaging the growing power of the bulb for the next year too seriously.  Once you separate the scales, rinse them in an anti-fungal (if all else fails, use the trusty diluted peroxide — I’ve even successfully used a 10-1 bleach dilution for a brief dip) and then put those into a ziploc with a few handfuls of peat or sphagnum moss, dampen it with some water, seal the bag, and leave it for a few months in a warm, dark place.  Eventually those scales will start to grow new bulbs and roots, which can be planted in the spring, and will grow to flowering size within 2-3 years.

I figured I’d try the same process with gladiolus, since they propagate by corms — and form small “cormlets” around the base when dug up that easily break up and can supposedly be planted to grow into separate plants within 2-3 years.  They look remarkably like someone took a bunch of shelled peanuts and tried to make some sort of barnacle sculpture.  My gladiolus had formed nice big healthy bulbs with a ridiculous number of cormlets.  The recommendation is to pull them up – and then let them dry out in the sun for 2-3 days before breaking off the cormlets.  Let those dry for another 2-3 days before planting.

Shelled peanuts in a barnacle sculpture.

Being my first year growing these, I didn’t know all of this in November.  I had no idea how many cormlets to expect, I just knew they wouldn’t survive a typical winter here if left in the ground.  As you’ll see in the picture below, the main corms were very large and were loaded with tons of baby cormlets.  Many of them were breaking or falling off on their own just from the process of being moved — they seemed ready to separate of their own volition, so I figured nature knew what was up and went directly from digging them up to breaking off the rest of the cormlets, rinsing them in diluted anti-fungal solution, and throwing them into a bag.

So today I thought I’d check in and see how this was going, since everything was growing when it shouldn’t be anyway.  It’s had a month a half or so to show some activity.

Now I’ll confess my “warm dark humid place” is a cabinet in my half bath.  So if you ever visit and go rummaging through cabinets in my bathroom, you’re going to find a few large baggies full of dirt.  Now you now why.

Above you see three of the gladiolus corms from November, along with a preview of the baggie method.  The lily scales are showing some remarkable process, most of them already showing signs of sprouting (below, right).  The cormlets might be going slower… or they might not be working.  It took some digging around in the bag to find one that showed signs of activity (below, left) and that activity was basically a very small root protrubance coming off the top – barely visible in this picture but that’s the best I could manage to get today.  Very slow progress compared to the bunny-eared lily scale.

So this method may be working for the glads… I didn’t do a control group to compare to the normal “throw them in the ground” to see if it was any better.  As long as I have a bit of slight progress, it’s hard to say if they are succeeding despite my futile efforts, or if I just have a lot of “duds” because I rushed the separation and planting.  Or they may need some step I’ve failed to accomodate for that the lilies don’t… (like most “forced” bulbs would, with a period of cold to trick them into thinking it’s spring and time to activate growing).

Short story though: this is still a pretty tried and true method for getting lilies.



2 thoughts on “You keep saying “winter is coming” but…

    1. This is where my impatience grabs a hold and I’m dying to find out myself. It works so well for lilies – and is so easy – I figured it theoretically seemed like it should work for the glads also. I’ve been reading more about these though and the very small ones can be “immature” – so they might really be duds.

      I’m likely to give them another week or two before sifting through and looking for signs of activity, and migrating those to small pots. Since the corms themselves don’t actually grow like bulbs do — rather, they start a plant and then grow a new corm off the old corm – the bag method might not be good for doing more than providing a consistently dark humid spot to get them going. Again, if I have enough I’ll do some both ways to compare. But we shall see. I maybe shouldn’t have broken off all the tiny little cormlets either if they were immature to see if they’d increase more in the spring when replanted.

      We live, we learn! Given how huge my main corms were, I expect next year that the offsprings will be huge, hopefully.

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