Midwest: My Garage Band

 Berrien Springs, Michigan, USDA Zone 5

A passion for plants is an insidious thing. When it expresses itself in the garden (as it inevitably does, given the chance), all sorts of anarchy can break loose. Shrubs can escape the regimented, coiffured repression of the foundation planting and hedge and assert their presence and personalities elsewhere. Flower borders can overflow their margins, engulfing swaths of once-sacred turf. Paperbark elm (Ulmus parvifolia), white fir (Abies concolor), Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), and other neglected treasures can supplant arboreal cliches such as ‘Crimson King’ maple (Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’), Colorado spruce (Picea pungens), and ‘Sunburst’ honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’). And even that most hallowed of domestic icons—the family automobile—can suffer dislocation. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: Most mortals see the garage and think “car sanctuary”; the plantaholic sees the garage and thinks “plant sanctuary.”

My garage bears ample witness to this. In late winter, as the garden slumbers and the household vehicles continue their lifelong exile to the Siberia of the lower driveway (the upper driveway having itself been appropriated by potted perennials), the garage teems with horticultural life. Pots of chilling seeds crowd the shelves that line its rear wall. On its floor, potted crocuses, narcissi, tulips, scillas, hyacinths, and other hardy bulbs plump their shoots (with the more-than-occasional pot visiting the house to brighten the late-winter gloom), and rank on rank of “tender” summer-growing bulbs (see “Worth Trying,” below) find refuge from the elements. Above these groundlings, plant benches (constructed of two-by-fours and hardware cloth and supported by cement blocks) host a farrago of potted seeds and seedlings, including several hundred perennials, shrubs, and trees—Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’, Calycanthus chinensis, and Platycarya strobilacea among them—considered too precious to risk wintering outside. It’s enough to warm any plantaholic’s heart.

With the changing of the seasons comes the changing of the guard. Once the bitter weather breaks, the seeds (their chilling requirements met) and hardy plants go forth from their ark to germinate, be fruitful, and multiply. But now other plants need the garage’s sanctuary. Lachenalias, oxalis, and scores of other winter growers arrive from the heated cold frame to begin their dry summer rest (thereby liberating cold frame space for some of the tender summer-growing bulbs that wintered inside). Later, after the last of the summer growers exits, many of the hardy bulbs return, primarily those (such as crocuses and Juno irises) requiring protection from summer moisture or marauding critters. Even the potted seeds, now germinated, make a cameo reappearance, for this is also where most of the transplanting occurs. In this season, as in all others, the garage is the hub of the garden. 

WORTH GROWING: Kalm’s St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum)
This Great Lakes native is undoubtedly one of the best shrubs for midwestern gardens. Its frilly, bright yellow flowers appear for several weeks in midsummer; its blue-green leaves are both handsome and pest resistant; its habit is neat and compact (three feet tall and wide); and its demands are few (most any sunny to partly shaded site in USDA Zone 4 or higher will do).

Many tender summer-growing bulbs will happily winter in the garage in their pots, provided that temperatures remain mostly in the 40 to 50°F range (subfreezing conditions can be deadly). Attached garages are ideal: mine stays warm enough through all but the coldest spells (at which time I employ an electric space heater). Watering requirements vary somewhat by species, but most bulbs will do well if kept minimally moist (water sparingly when the upper soil layer is dry). Among my successes have been rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.), summer hyacinth (Galtonia candicans; pictured), voodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum), Philippine lily (Lilium philippinense), agapanthus, calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), red star (Rhodohypoxis baurii). Natal squill (Scilla natalensis), pineapple lily (Eucomis spp.), scarlet dahlia (Dahlia coccinea), sea onion (Ornithogalum longibracteatum), society garlic (Tulbaghia spp.), orchid ginger (Roscoea spp.), Freesia laxa, and Powell’s crinum (Crinum xpowellii).

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