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GARDENING : Wandering Lilies Are Resilient--and Great Little Colonizers : If you dig bulbs up by accident, just plant them back. And some are good for interesting children in the natural world.

November 17, 1990|HENRY MITCHELL | WASHINGTON POST

I speared a superb lily bulb the other day, which I mention for no other reason than to remind gardeners prone to distress that everybody does it sooner or later.

Unless the garden is a forest of labels and unless plants stay exactly where planted (and some lilies wander considerably), accidents will happen. I dug up the bulb, which had turned into three very large bulbs, and planted them elsewhere.

One notable gardener once wrote of his collection of small bulbs-- chionodoxas, crocuses, anemones, snowdrops, etc.--that of course he was forever digging them up by accident. Just plant them back, he said.

This advice is so obvious, it never occurred to me. Since reading that article, however, I now dig up all kinds of crocuses and scillas and much else and just stick them back. No harm seems to be done.

A thing I noticed some years ago was that patches of crocuses like Ladykiller and the other early, quite-small varieties kept wandering about, through seeding as well as accidental digging.

One of the great colonizers through self-sown seed is Crocus tomassinianus, an early-light lavender sort. It becomes rather a weed in light sandy soils but spreads far less rapidly in heavy clay loams.

This year I again planted two garden varieties of it called Ruby Gem and Whitewell Purple, which have never multiplied with me. This time they are given a spot with more sun, and lighter and better soil.

The soil is now cool enough to plant tulip bulbs. The second week of November was always my target date for planting, but a little earlier or later (until Christmas) works well.

They are good bulbs, by the way, for interesting children in the natural world. Help the kid dig but let him do the planting, covering the top of the bulb with 4 inches of earth. Label the planting, so when leaves emerge the child knows which tulip is which.

Even a single bulb of several varieties will give great pleasure next April and May (some varieties bloom earlier than others). Let the youngster cut the flowers or do whatever he wants with them.

In the garden, tulips last surprisingly long--a clump may be in bloom for three weeks. Farther south they do not last so long.

A few years ago I planted a bush of the single (five-petaled, not the double multi-petaled kind) Kerria japonica. For some reason I gave it a handsomely prepared site, with leaf mold, rotted manure, almost full sun. What a mistake! Its stems have spread to a little thicket perhaps 8 feet wide, and have encroached on all kinds of things.

Recently I dug up some to give away, a backbreaking operation. This shrub, which does surprisingly well in the kind of shade that azaleas grow in, does not need coddling, but produces its long wands of small, strong-yellow blooms almost anywhere.

One of the important things to learn is to leave things alone when they are doing well. This is especially true of plants that are touchy to begin with.

Once I had the rich red wild Clematis texensis growing in such luxuriance that I moved it in early spring to a "better" spot. It began to die within weeks and at the end of two months was gone forever. It is far more beautiful and exciting than its hybrids such as "Sir Trevor Lawrence" and "Etoile Rose," and for some reason almost impossible to find.

Again, I have moved lilies to my sorrow. When they are flourishing, let nothing persuade you to touch them. Even those tough old workhorses, the hostas, can resent being divided and moved.

Having learned nothing in my years of gardening, I have just moved a flourishing, waist-high fan palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix . It is reckless to move one that has settled down and had pups (small offsets).

I should have bought another one if I had to have this palm in a new place. Or at least I should have done the moving in mid-April. My pigheadedness, however, will not prevent my public moans and complaints if I now lose this specimen.

The palm is called the needle palm for reasons that will be clear to anybody who ever transplants one. Some damage was done by compressing the soil over daffodils; one lily or two were speared.

On the other hand, a nice plant of the rose Pink Parfait was uncovered in the general whacking-back process of building.

Things even out.

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