Pride goeth before a fall.
Last January, I got a bit carried away with my extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi (aka torch lilies or red hot pokers). These little devils are supposed to bloom in September, but for as long as I've had them they have insisted on trying to bloom in December and January instead. Most years that spelled disaster, as the buds were inevitably decimated by a frost. More than once I was on the verge of digging them up. Then, for the last two years, something remarkable happened: the weather held up, and they bloomed.
If you have never seen Kniphofia rooperi blooming in the dead of winter, you don't know what you're missing. Although it's dramatic enough no matter when it blooms, when it's the only act in town it is stupendous. But was I satisfied? Could I just accept the blooms as a freak gift from the weather gods and leave it at that? Of course not. I wanted more.
What did I want? I wanted everyone in the neighborhood to know I had torch lilies blooming in January. I wanted everyone driving by to slam on the brakes and say, "What's that?" and "I must meet the gardener and get her autograph." Alas, my miraculous, mutant torch lilies were in my side garden, which is not visible from the street. So I hatched a scheme. The torch lilies would move up front. Never mind that they were safe and sheltered by the side of the house and would be unprotected and exposed to the elements up front; I had other fish to fry. Up front, in the company of my pyracantha and coral bark willow, they would be the eighth wonder of the world. Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Mid-November: so far, so good. My front-yard Kniphofia has tons of buds and, with a little help from contractor garbage bags and some spare bed sheets, has even survived two nights of temperatures in the 20s. Victory is mine. Fame and fortune are nigh.
Monday, November 25: the forecast calls for nighttime temperatures in the teens. I throw my homemade frost protectors over the plants and cross my fingers.
Tuesday, November 26: I learn many important life lessons. Leave well enough alone. Don't be greedy. Appreciate what you've got for as long as you've got it. Don't use garbage bags for frost cloth and expect it to work. And for heaven's sake, don't touch the extra-late blooming Kniphofia rooperi. They know what they're doing.
12/6/2013 11:33:53 am
Without that sheltered brick wall to keep them warm, they froze. :( But I'd keep them away from sharp objects the next time you walk by. Just dig them up in the spring and move them back. It's fixable. :)
12/7/2013 01:53:49 am
Yeah, really a stupid move on my part, but I couldn't resist trying. Maybe I should turn my side garden into a winter-interest garden, so there'll be something to keep the torch lilies company each year.
12/7/2013 01:56:22 am
You're right - I was counting on mild weather, or at least, mild weather until they bloom. But in North Carolina, it's always a wild ride. It was 74 yesterday, and it will be 30 and icy tomorrow. The roulette wheel didn't work out for me this year.
12/7/2013 01:59:04 am
And let's not forget the famous April frost a few years ago that killed off the peach buds. But are you also saying that even if I had wrapped up my torch lilies in a down coat, they would have frozen? I am new to the entire concept of frost protection. Usually I just let nature take its course.
I think once temps get down to the mid 20s it's pretty much futile to try to protect plants. Certainly down to 20 anyway, when the baptisia flowers bit it. After that incident I too let nature take its course. One year all of the bearded iris in this area got zapped by a freeze, which was quite sad. But in spring there is so much going on that much it much easier to shrug and say well, they'll be back next year!
12/7/2013 03:39:43 am
Sarah, how sad. But you did leave some in the side garden for next year, I hope?
12/7/2013 05:55:31 am
I wish I could say yes I did, but no I didn't. How is that for arrogance? I am going to have to take Tammy's advice above and move them back this spring.
12/7/2013 03:46:32 am
Oh dear! That's what happens when you meddle with Mother Nature - she doesn't like it one little bit !
12/7/2013 05:58:18 am
There was a television commercial they used to show here in the U.S. back in the 70s or 80s. It was for Parkay Margarine and the punchline was, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." I think of that a lot.
You only moved a few to the front and left a bunch at the side, right? You still have a few of those glorious unfrosted torch lilies in their original protected spot, even though the ones you moved are kaput? Tell me yes . . .
12/7/2013 06:06:00 am
Laurrie, I thought of you while I was writing this post AND while I was dividing and moving my torch lilies, since you had so wisely suggested that I keep a bunch where they were so I could compare performance. I thought it was great advice and I had every intention of following it, until I decided that I had bigger and better plans for the brick wall by the side of the house. So, no, I left none behind. But wait - there's more! My substitute for the torch lilies was supposed to be Karl Foerster feather reed grass. Those all turned out to be mis-labeled fountain grasses, if you remember. The garden gods are laughing at me. I guess I had it coming.
I'm sorry that happened, but try not to let it get you down too much. I think one of the big Life Lessons I have learned is: don't worry too much about past mistakes, just start planning for the next ones. Actually, if you're doing anything meaningful mistakes cannot be avoided. Even the things that seem to be done right may turn out to be mistakes given a little time. Am I cheering you up yet? Also, I have to confess that Kniphofia don't really appeal to me. Maybe it's that common name Red Hot Poker which I find disconcerting. Start thinking about some other fabulous plant, a hardy one, that will bloom in front of your house late in the year and bring passing traffic to a halt.
12/7/2013 09:37:29 am
Thanks for trying to cheer me up. I remember your saying before that you were not a fan of Kniphofia. It's funny - I just can't seem to let go of this plant, even though I know it's just not practical in my garden and is taking up valuable space. But neither can I think of anything else that might bloom at the same time of year that would have an equally traffic-stopping effect. Can you? Maybe I will just have to accept not stopping traffic with my garden. What a horrifying thought.
This is such a well thought out, suspenseful post! I really enjoy your writing.
12/8/2013 02:58:50 am
Thanks very much, Kathryn. I did indeed remove the garbage bags at daybreak. It hadn't even occurred to me that they could trap too much heat. I just assumed they didn't do the job and the buds froze because it was just too cold. Have the sheets always worked for you?
We gardeners always think we know best when it comes to our gardens, but nature has a way of humbling us and reminding us who really knows best. I have never grown Kniphofia rooperi because they are a bit tricky this far north, but I have seen them in a couple of Ontario gardens blooming as early as mid-August. I wonder if there is some gardening trick involved in getting them to bloom earlier?
12/11/2013 12:57:01 am
I have wondered about that too. I thought about cutting off all the buds when they show up - basically not letting it bloom when it wants to - and then seeing if it bloomed at the proper time next year. But I don't know if that's any different from having the frost kill the buds, which happens most years and which doesn't prevent them from trying to bloom at the wrong time again next year.
12/16/2013 12:56:22 am
Hi Patrick. I have thought about idea too. It's tempting to think about putting all sorts of borderline hardy plants on the side garden, just as an experiment to see what will work and what won't. Between the full, blazing sun, the protective side wall of the house, and the concrete paver pathway that edges the bed, this is one hot spot!
12/14/2013 05:13:03 am
A great post for Garden Lessons Learned (http://bit.ly/1k1p4kf)! Do link in! I'm amazed that you could have blooms in November or December in any year! I remember seeing these at botanical gardens and being envious--definitely not something I can grow in my cold climate!
12/14/2013 08:28:04 am
Thanks, Beth. I will certainly link in - I love your Lessons Learned posts, but thought the time had passed. No, these are not cold climate plants. I always associate these with English royal gardens, for some reason. I think they were shown in the movie "The Queen," or something along those lines.
12/21/2013 02:28:50 am
I'm glad you see it my way! I confess I was a little embarrassed at being so shamelessly self-promoting, but I just couldn't help myself. And now I've had my comeuppance.
12/24/2013 10:56:26 am
First, thank you so much for visiting and commenting. Second, I can't tell you how thrilled I was to hear that you, too, have Christmas- blooming torch lilies! I am not alone! Maybe they aren't mutant after all! But in New Orleans, they probably don't get decimated by frost, right? Here in the Raleigh area, they rarely make it past Thanksgiving.
You asked about the flowering apricot -- I don't remember exactly how old the tree was when it started blooming, but I know that it grew fast and was blooming by year 3. My tree hasn't bore any fruit, unfortunately. It probably needs another one for cross pollination.
1/8/2014 07:56:59 am
Oh, Sarah! I hope you didn't transplant all of them, and left a few to bloom on the side of the house. I would have done the same thing, though - all the while thinking I would have my photo in some gardening magazine. Sorry your scheme - I mean plan - didn't work out as well as you had hoped. This is a very strange year for weather. (Yes, I know every year is a strange year for weather.) Perhaps next year they will have acclimated themselves and will bloom happily and cheerfully in the front. You know, after seeing you post photos of these before, I planted some in my garden. But mine never even came up, much less bloomed! At least you've got that going for you!
1/9/2014 12:40:58 am
I'm surprised yours didn't come up. Would you like mine? I am thoroughly fed up with them! And no, I didn't leave some by the side of the house. I suppose I can move them back there, but I am not sure it's worth it since there's nothing else going on there. Decisions, decisions.
1/8/2014 08:51:43 am
Isn't gardening so often trial and error? Your torch lilies were gorgeous, and now you know to plant them in a protected area. We have had several very mild winters that lulled me into complacency, and I have planted some marginally hardy plants. It's been too cold to get out to check them, so I am holding my breath. I am glad my winter daphne is in a pot, so I was able to bring it with its winter buds inside.
1/9/2014 12:44:16 am
Indeed. I have to keep reminding myself not to get too invested in anything, but it's very hard to maintain such a philosophical attitude.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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