Round Robin: Sober Planting

DENVER, Colorado–I feel most useful in the garden when I’m planting. With trowel in hand, it’s never the end of the season, just the beginning of the next, no matter what the calendar says. Some people lose all their enthusiasm by the end of the season. A common refrain is, “I just wish it would freeze and end it all.” These are not spunky people. Sure, things go awry during the course of the summer–it’s been too hot, too cool, too wet, too dry, too buggy, too sluggy.

When the going gets tough, the tough get planting. I use my trowel like a shoehorn. My borders may be full and overflowing, but that doesn’t stop me. I sow seeds of perennials (herbal and otherwise) in pots outside in winter, and they germinate in spring; in June, I move the seedlings into individual 21/4-inch pots. By now, the husky young plants are ready to face life in the ground.

I prefer autumn to spring planting for several reasons. The soil is warm: it holds heat well into November, so young plants can spread their roots deeply into the soil.

With the existing perennials at full height and spread, it’s easier for me to gauge how the youngsters will look among them next season. If I wait until spring, when everything is a few inches tall, I really have to draw on my powers of imagination. I’m so giddy in spring that my imagination runs away with me. Bizarre combinations result, sometimes too much even for me.

I’m more horticulturally sober this time of year, and I can take my time setting the pots around. I study the effect they’ll make, confirm that I’m giving them the right exposure, and imagine how they’ll interact with their new neighbors.

Autumn is traditionally bulb-planting season, but a select group of bulbs need to go in the ground in late August and early September here. These are the fall-blooming crocuses. They’re easy to plant: the corms need only be set 3 to 4 inches deep in well-drained soil in a sun-drenched spot, and they bloom the very first year.

The best-known of the bunch is saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Its pale lavender petals are feathered with darker purple veins, and its goblet-shaped flowers are held on slender stems above the thin, dark green leaves. The effect is altogether more graceful than the stubby crocuses of spring and all the more welcome at this time of the year.

I would grow saffron crocus for the distinctive beauty of its flowers alone, but an added bonus is its crimson stamens, three in each flower. I pluck them carefully as each blossom opens, smug in the knowledge that I’m harvesting the world’s most expensive food.

I let the stamens dry in a bowl on the kitchen counter. The harvest from my thirty or forty flowers withers to a tiny, nearly invisible heap. No wonder that saffron commands such a high price. I store my supply in a small glass jar and use it sparingly (I don’t have much choice) throughout the winter. Saffron is a favorite flavoring in Spanish chicken and rice dishes.

Friends of mine moved last year into a house with an existing garden. They called me in October and wanted to know what the little purple flower was poking up in their beds. They’d never heard of saffron crocus, but I showed them how to pick the stamens. I told them how highly prized the spice is and how thrilled they should be to have their own source for it.

They confessed later that they’d sprinkled the saffron on sour cream intended for baked potatoes, in the hope that it would impress their dinner guests. The sour cream turned orange, and they threw the whole mess out, thinking there was something wrong with it. Christmas shopping for these friends will be a little easier this year: a Spanish cookbook is the obvious choice.

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