Is it spring or autumn? You might ask that if you've snoozed all year and have just awakened to see beautiful pink-purple flowers that closely resemble those of spring-blooming crocus. Don't bother checking the calendar; we are on the doorstep of autumn, which begins Tuesday.
The flower in question is commonly called autumn crocus, meadow saffron, or naked lady (Colchicum autumnale). It is not a true crocus and is not even related to true crocus (Crocus sp.). In fact, they are not even in the same plant family. Autumn crocus belongs to the lily family while the spring flowering crocus is in the iris family. Interestingly, the leaves of autumn crocus come up in spring and then die back by early summer. The flowers come up in mid-September. There are no accompanying leaves, hence the common name, naked lady. The blossoms persist for about three weeks.
The bulb-like corms of autumn crocus are usually planted in mid-to-late summer, but you might still find some at a local garden center. If so, get them in the ground ASAP. They are quite tolerant of light conditions as well as different soil types. Ours are planted beneath a deciduous shrub, but autumn crocus may also be planted in sunny location. Mixing them into a perennial flower border works especially well since the other plants would conceal the fading foliage of the autumn crocus in summer. One note of caution: all parts of an autumn crocus plant are poisonous.
If unfamiliar with autumn crocus, there is a colorful display in front of the Center House at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, but do see them soon as they will disappear by the end of the month.
These tasks will not disappear and will need your attention this week:
• Keep an eye or two on weather forecasts. The dip in temperatures this past week serves as a reminder that frost may occur at any time now. (In fact, I saw a little evaporative frost on grass clippings this past Tuesday morning despite an air temperature of 38 degrees F.) If there are houseplants that are still basking in the outdoors, bring them indoors. However, as mentioned a few weeks ago, unless this is done gradually, the plants are likely to experience some shock due to the sudden change in environment. Unless, the forecast calls for frost, place the potted plants in partial shade during the day for about a week before moving them indoors to a cool but well-lit room. Still, you might expect to see some leaf drop as the plants struggle to acclimate to the change. Also, examine these plants routinely for evidence of spider mites, aphids, scale insects, and other pests.
• Extend the color in flower beds and borders, window boxes and patio pots by planting hardy chrysanthemums. Garden centers should still have an assortment of these in a wide range of sizes and flower colors. Another colorful option is to plant flowering kale. Though this member of the cabbage family is not actually in flower, the open head or center of the plant is so colorful that it resembles a huge flower. Both of these plants will provide color well past the first frosts.
• Begin planting spring-flowering bulbs now that soil temperatures have dipped below 60 degrees F. Though spring-flowering bulbs may be planted well into fall, it is best to get an early start so that they have plenty of time to develop a strong root system before the ground freezes. For an attractive show of color, plant bulbs in groupings rather than in rows. Shop early as I have a feeling there will be a rush on these bulbs, just as there was for other plant materials during this pandemic year. If the bulbs cannot be planted soon after purchase, store them in the fridge if there is room.
• Leave the seed heads on calendula, love-in-a-mist, cornflower, and poppies. These plants reseed themselves and new plants will pop up next spring. This works great for the lazy gardener though the excessive number of seedlings coming up next spring may create a weed problem.
• Cook up and freeze pumpkins and winter squash that have been nibbled on by voles or damaged by insects. Such blemishes create opportunities for decay-causing fungi to infect these fruits and quickly shorten their storage life.
• Be alert for home invaders at this time of year. No, I'm not referring to the two-legged kind, though you should remain alert to that type at all times. The home invaders I am referring to are of the six-legged species, that is, insects. As temperatures cool, insects such as box elder bug, Asian ladybug beetle, crickets, and western conifer seed bug are seeking the warm comforts of your home if not the comforts of your companionship. A few invaders would not be much of a problem, but these insects often invade in large numbers and become a nuisance as some may snack on houseplants or your culinary creations, and leave their droppings. To prevent the invasion, inspect all doors, windows, and vents for small openings and seal these with caulk or weather stripping, as appropriate. If they do gain entry, get out the vacuum; "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."