Saturday, February 23, 2008

The first of the fritillaries

Fritillaria stenanthera is blooming today in one of the unprotected cold frames. It’s the first of the frits to bloom this year. Others above ground now include F. bucharica, F. raddeana, F. verticillata, F. biflora 'grayana', F. liliacea and F. striata. Although all of these will probably survive repeated freezing and thawing in the open garden, it’s hard to believe that it’s good for them. For now I’m playing it safe and keeping them in the frames.

I’m really happy about the way things are turning out in the frames. For one thing, the frames provide keen interest at a time of year when there is little of comparable interest in the open garden. For another, it makes it possible to grow plants which have never become a part of the local garden scene.

And then there is this: sometimes a familiar plant when grown in the frames reveals qualities I never suspected in the past. Here’s a good example. This year 'Ziva', one of the modern Israeli paper white narcissus, is showing me just what these plants can do under good conditions. When they are grown indoors in bowls of wet gravel, they come into bloom quickly and don’t last long. Out in the frame, they have been blooming for weeks – and show no sign of stopping. The huge clusters of bloom are the size of a big orange. And every time I open the cold frame, there is the intense scent to greet my fragrance-starved winter nose. To think that I used to dismiss these plants as a sort of gimmick suitable only for kids: I know better now, and I envy those who can grow them by the hundreds under garden conditions.

Other common plants can be just as exciting in the frames. Crocus are a good example. There are plenty of uncommon crocus in the frames, but even the commonest sorts give huge pleasure at this time of year. The intensity of the orange-yellow and violet tints is a real marvel early in the year. And again, unlike forced plants in the house, they last in the frames.

And then there are the plants such as Tecophilaea cyanocrocus which are too scarce and expensive to risk in the open garden. This is the third year for the oldest plant: I’m doing something right here. These are not in bloom yet, but they are another of those plants which seem to have been made possible by the cold frames. Although in their Chilean haunts they go through the winter under snow, I doubt that they will ever be common garden plants in our climate. I have a hunch that they need the snow cover. The cold frame provides a good substitute.

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