Slow to Grow: Elephant Ears

Colocasia esculenta

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It has been agonizingly slow this spring, watching and waiting for our elephant ears to grow.  I blame the weather.  Wouldn’t you?

After all, we enjoyed 80F days in February, and then retreated back to wintery grey days through most of March.  We’ve been on a climatic roller-coaster since.

Gardeners, and our plants, appreciate a smooth transition from one season to another.  Let it be cold in winter, then warm gradually through early, mid and late spring until we enjoy a few weeks of perfect summer in late May and early June.  We know to expect heat in June, July and August, with moderating temperatures and humidity by mid-September.

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I started working on this new bed in March, bringing the still potted Colocasias in doors and back out with the weather. Although I planted them weeks ago, they are still sulking a bit in our cool, rainy weather this month.

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But lately, our seasons feel rather muddled.  That smooth crescendo from season to season has gone all rag-time on us.  We’ve already lost a potted Hydrangea Macrophylla teased into leaf too early, and then frozen a time too many.  Those early leaves dissolved in mush, but new growth started again from the crown.

I’ve watched the poor shrub try at least 3 times to grow this spring, and now it sits, bare, in its pot while I hold out hope for either a horticultural miracle, or a clone on sale; whichever comes first.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ loves our climate and spreads a bit each year. Its pink spot and pink stem inspired its name. This is the Colocasia I happily dig up to share with gardening friends. These will be a little more than 5′ tall by late summer.

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I hedged my bets last fall with the elephant ears.  I left some in situ in the garden, some in their pots, but pulled up close to the house on the patio, and I brought a few pots of Alocasia and Colocasia into our basement or garage.

I dug most of our Caladiums and dried them for several weeks in the garage, and then boxed and bagged them with rice hulls before storing them in a closet through the winter.  I left a few special ones in their pots and kept the pots in our sunny garage.

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Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ overwintered for us  dried and stored in a box with rice hulls. I planted the tuber again in early April.

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And I waited until April before trying to rouse any of them.  But by early April, while I was organizing a Caladium order for 2017, I also planted all of those stored Caladium tubers in fresh potting soil and set them in our guest room to grow.  Eventually, after our last frost date in mid-April, I also retrieved the pots from the basement and brought them out to the warmth of our patio.  They all got a drink of Neptune’s Harvest and a chance to awaken for summer.

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Caladium ‘Desert Sunset,’ didn’t survive winter in our garage. (This photo from summer 2016)  I left them in their pot, but it must have gotten too cold for them.  Happily, I ordered new tubers this spring.

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Around this time I gingerly began to feel around in those Caladium pots kept in the garage, for signs of life.  I thought I’d divide and replant the tubers and get them going again.  But, to my great disappointment, not a single tuber survived.   The Caladiums succumbed to the chill of our garage sometime during the winter, and I had three generous sized, empty pots to recycle with fresh plantings.

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C. ‘Desert Sunset’ didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ve recycled the pot for other plants. Calla lily has a form similar to some Alocasia, and is more tolerant of cold weather. These are hardy in Zone 7.

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By the time our new Caladium order arrived in mid- April, the tubers I’d dried, stored, and replanted were in growth.  I moved them to the garage to get more light and actually planted the first batch of Caladiums outside by the first week of May.

I planted most of the new Caladiums into potting soil filled boxes and sent them off to the guest room to awaken, but chanced planting a few bare tubers into pots outside.  Mistake.

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These saved Caladiums, started indoors in April, moved outside to their permanent bed in early May. Still a little slow to grow, they have weathered a few cool  nights this month.

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Because for all the promising balmy days we’ve had this spring, we’ve had our share of dreary cool ones, too.  We even had a few nights in the 40s earlier this month!  It’s generally safe here to plant out tomatoes, Basil and Caladiums by mid-May.  Sadly, this year, these heat lovers have been left stunted by the late cool weather.

The new Caladium tubers planted indoors are still mostly sulking, too, with little to show for themselves.  The ones I planted directly outside in pots remain invisible.  I just hope they didn’t rot in our cool, rainy weather.

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Colocasia ‘Black Coral,’ started in a greenhouse this spring, has been growing outdoors for nearly a month now. This one can get to more than 4′ tall in full sun to part shade.

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Of the saved Colocasias and Alocasias, C. ‘Mohito’ has done the best.   I brought a large pot of them into the basement last fall, and knocked the plant out of its pot when I brought it back outdoors in April.   I divided the tubers and ended up with several plants.  They are all growing nicely, though they are still rather small.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ has been in the family a few years now. It overwinters, dormant in its pot, in our basement. This is one of 5 divisions I made at re-potting time this spring.

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I dug up our large C. ‘Tea Cups’ in October and brought it indoors in a pot, leaving behind its runners.  The main plant began vigorous growth again by late April, but none of the runners seem to have made it through the winter outdoors.

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Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ also overwintered in the basement.  New last year, this plant has really taken off in the last few weeks and is many times larger than our new C. ‘Tea Cups’ plants.  It catches rain in its concave leaves, thus its name.

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I brought one of our Alocasia ‘Stingray’ into the garage in its pot, where it continued to grow until after Christmas.  By then the last leaf withered, and it remained dormant until we brought it back out in April.  It has made tiny new leaves ever so slowly, and those new leaves remain less than 6″ tall.

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Alocasia ‘Sting Ray’ spent winter in our garage.  It has been very slow to grow this spring, but already has many more leaves than last year.  It will eventually grow to about 6′.  Zone 8-11

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But that is better than the potted A. ‘Stingray‘ that overwintered on the patio.  We’ve been watching and waiting all spring, and I finally gave up and dug through the potting soil last week looking for any sign of the tuber.  I found nothing.

But, fearing the worst, we already bought two new A. ‘Stingray’ from the bulb shop in Gloucester in early May, and those are growing vigorously.   They enjoyed the greenhouse treatment through our sulky spring, of course.

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Our new A. ‘Stingray’ grows in the blue pot in front of where another A. ‘Stingray’ grew last year. I left the black pot out on the patio over winter, and the Alocasia hasn’t returned. I finally planted some of our new Caladiums in the empty pot last week.

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I have two more pots of Alocasia in que:  A. ‘Plumbea’ has shown two tiny leaves thus far, so I know it is alive.  A. ‘Sarian’ has slept in the sun for weeks now, its tuber still visible and firm.  Finally, just over this weekend, the first tiny leaf has appeared.  I expect it to grow into an even more  beautiful plant than last summer since.  It came to us in a tiny 4″ pot, and ended summer at around 5′ tall.  I can’t wait to see how large it grows by August!

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Alocasia ‘Plumbea’ isn’t’ available for order from Brent and Becky’s bulbs this year. I am very happy this one survived winter, because it is a beautiful plant.  Hardy in zones 3-10, this will grow to 5′.

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But the pot of Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii,’ that overwintered on the patio, has shown nothing so far, either.  Hardy to Zone 8, I hoped the shelter of our patio might allow this two year old plant to survive.  Now, I’m about ready to refresh the soil and fill that pot with some of the Caladiums still growing in our garage.

C. ‘Blue Hawaii’ is marginal here.  A few have survived past winters planted in the ground; but thus far, I’m not recognizing any coming back in the garden this year.

I’ve planted a few C. ‘Mojito’ in the ground this spring, and plan to leave them in the fall to see whether they return next year.  But I will also hedge my bet and bring a potted C. ‘Mojito’ inside again so I’ll have plants to begin with next spring.

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C. ‘Mojito’ in our bog garden will soon get potted up to a larger container.  I planted a few of the smaller divisions of this plant directly into the ground to see if they will survive the winter coming. (Zone 8)

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Every year I learn a little more about growing elephant ears.  I know now that Colocasia ‘China Pink’ is vigorous and dependable in our garden.  There is no worry about them making it through winter, and I dig and spread those a bit each year.

The huge Colocasia esculenta I planted a few years ago with our Cannas dependably return.  These are the species, not a fancy cultivar.  But they seem to manage fine with nothing more than some fallen leaves for mulch.

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These gorgeous tropical elephant ears put on a great show for four to six months each year in our zone.  Deer and rabbits don’t touch them, and they rarely have any problem with insects or disease.   Our muggy, hot summers suit them fine.  They love, and need, heat to thrive.

Any temperate zone gardener who wants to grow them, needs to also plan for their winter dormancy.  And each plant’s needs are unique.  Some Colocasia might be hardy north to Zone 6.  A few Alocasia cultivars are hardy to zone 7b or 8, but most require zone 9 to remain outdoors in the winter.  Caladiums want a lot more warmth, and prefer Zone 10.  Caladiums can rot in wet soil below 60F.

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Hardy Begonias are naturalizing in this lively bed transitioning to summer.  I planted the Caladiums about a month ago, and they have slowly begun to grow.  See also fading daffodil leaves, Japanese painted ferns, Arum Italicum, and creeping Jenny.

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If you don’t have space to store elephant ears over winter, you can still grow them as annuals, of course.    That requires a bit of an investment if you like them a lot, and want to fill your garden!

My favorite source for Colocasia and Alocasia elephant ears, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs,  has put all of their summer bulbs, including Caladium tubers,  on clearance now through Monday, June 5.   This is a good time to try something new, if you’re curious about how these beautiful plants would perform in your own garden, because all these plants are half off their usual price.  The Colocasia and Alocasia plants they’re selling now come straight to you from their greenhouses.

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Alocasia ‘Sarian’ emerged over the weekend. This is a very welcome sight!

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I order our Caladiums direct from the grower at Classic Caladiums in Avon Park, Florida (see below).  There is still plenty of time for you to grow these from tubers this summer, as long as your summer nights will be mostly above 60F for a couple of months.  Potted Caladiums make nice houseplants, too, when autumn chills return.  (Brent and Becky’s Bulbs buy their Caladiums from Classic Caladiums, too.  You will find a much larger selection when you buy direct from the grower.  Classic Caladiums sells to both wholesale and retail customers.)

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Slow to grow, this year, but so worth the wait.  We are always fascinated while watching our elephant ears grow each year, filling our garden with their huge, luscious leaves.  Once they get growing, they grow so fast you can see the difference sometimes from morning to afternoon!

Our summer officially begins today.  Now we can settle in to watch the annual spectacle unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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Is your region too cool for tropical Elephant Ears? Get a similar effect with rhubarb. This rhubarb ‘Victoria,’ in its second year, emerges in early spring. Leaves have the same basic size and shape as Alocasia leaves without the shiny texture. There are a number of ornamental rhubarbs available, some of them quite large.  These are easy to grow,  perennial north into Canada, and grow into a beautiful focal point in the garden.

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Winter Gardening

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

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Yes, it’s January, but there is still plenty to do in the garden.  When we get a fairly nice day, like today, you might feel the itch to get outside and get gardening again.  Even when the weather isn’t fine, there are still preps for the season ahead that can be done indoors, while the pace remains decidedly unhurried.

The most important winter gardening work can be accomplished from an armchair:  planning ahead.  Every year we tweak and revise; opening new ground, moving plants, refining the design.  This is a good time of year to photograph every part of the garden with an eye to its bones.  Study those photos for inspiration and instruction.  Look with fresh eyes to see new possibilities in your familiar turf.

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I also spend quite a bit of time studying plant catalogs as they come in.  I read about newly introduced cultivars of familiar plants.   I consider what perennials or shrubs I might want to add, and  plan designs for our  pots and baskets.

I try to keep notes and drawings from these winter musings.  Ideally, a binder proves helpful over time to track the evolution of one’s garden.  Include photos, receipts, tags, a site plan and notes of what is planted, and when.

January through early March prove the best months for pruning woody plants here in Williamsburg.  There is less shock when a tree is dormant, and spring growth, when it breaks, will prove more vigorous.

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Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

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Some shrubs, like Beautyberry, Callipcarpa,  respond well to very hard pruning.  Cut these back by 30% or more and they will reward you with abundant growth and heavy fruiting the following year.    I make the rounds of our Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus; Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia; Buddleia, roses, fruit trees and small ornamental trees like Japanese Maples in winter when it is easiest to see their structure.  All of these bloom on new wood.

Remove crossed or crowded branches.  Thin and direct growth.  Remove suckers growing straight up from a mostly horizontal branch, and cut back long branches to encourage bushier growth.  Thinning, to allow sunlight and air to circulate through the plant both controls diseases before they can take hold, but also produces a stronger plant.

Wait to prune shrubs like Hydrangea and Lilac, which bloom on old wood, until after they bloom each summer.  If you remove old Hydrangea blossoms before spring, carefully cut above the first dormant bud.

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Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring's growth.

Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring’s growth.  Any serious pruning can remove next season’s flowers.

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Remove any perennial stems still standing in the garden before new growth begins in early spring.  Emerging growth, especially spring  bulbs, looks neater after last year’s perennial remains have been cut and composted.

Some of us leave our Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Lantana and other late flowering seed heads to feed the birds over winter.  These will be mostly picked clean by early February and their time has passed.  Remove old leaves from Hellebores as new ones emerge to rejuvenate the plant.

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January 15, 2015 ice garden 115

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Building the soil can be done year round.  Adding organic matter, especially when working with heavy clay, brings the soil, and the garden, to life.   Whether you keep a compost pile, add mulch,  or simply sheet compost fallen and shredded leaves; do something each season to improve the soil in some part of the garden.  We save our coffee grounds and spread them on beds or around shrubs every few weeks.   Feeding the soil pays dividends much longer than does spreading any chemical fertilizer.

If you are starting a new planting area, consider building a raised bed with cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, or even fallen wood as a base.  “Sheet compost” the area over the winter months by adding coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, shredded leaves, and fruit and vegetable trimmings as they come available.  Keep adding layers of materials, topping the bed with straw or even bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.  There are many, many ways to do this.

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March 31, 2015 shamrock 015

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Earthworms, drawn to the organic matter on the soil, begin to work their way through the pile, speeding the process and enriching the ground with their castings.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly crumbled into humus before you plant in spring.  If necessary, pile a few inches of bagged soil on top of your pile and plant directly into this finished soil, confident that the composting layers will break down in the weeks ahead.

This is a better way to begin a new bed than tilling or digging because it leaves the organisms already living in the soil intact.  The roots of your newly planted garden will stretch and grow, loosening the soil as they expand.  Earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures will also loosen its structure over time.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of broken limbs will rot into good compost over time.  We built this raised Hugelkulture bed in July of 2013, and it has been productive ever since.

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Winter is also a good time for building new garden structures.  Whether you are adding walls, steps, raised beds, pergolas, paths or a patio, consider beginning in late winter before the trees leaf out.  You can see the structure of things better, and your construction mess won’t detract from the beauty of your spring or summer garden.

Finally, begin planting for the coming season.  Although autumn is the best time for planting new trees and perennials in our area so they can establish during the cool and wet winter months; we find our best selection at local garden centers in the spring.  The selection of shrubs, fruiting vines, annuals, perennials trees and summer bulbs at local garden centers can feel dizzying by late March.  Ride the crest of this wave, seeking out small perennial starts and bare root nursery stock in late February or March.

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Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by may.

Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by May.

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Many garden centers will offer popular perennials in 2″-3″ pots at very low prices in early spring.  These will establish and grow to full sized plants by summer.  Planting early on will give your new plants a chance to establish and expand their root system before summer’s heat and drought.

If you’ve ordered bulbs, tubers, or bare root stock from catalogs, you can plant these up in nursery pots and keep them in a garage or basement for a few weeks until it is warm enough to set them out.   For example, many tropical tubers,  ordered in early spring, can be gotten at much lower prices than you’ll find for the leafed out plants in early summer.  Order Caladiums, Colocasia, Canna, Alocasia, Dahlias and many other beautiful plants early for the best selection of cultivars.  You can easily pot these up yourself in soil and have them ready to plant out when it warms enough for them in May.

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Caladium

Caladium

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Seedling trees from mail order nurseries may also be potted up and allowed to grow in a protected area of your garden for the summer, and then planted into their permanent spot in the garden next autumn.

As our summers grow hotter each year, I’ve come to appreciate the winter months even more.   A lot can be accomplished in relative comfort, without the distraction of biting insects or broiling sun, on warmish winter days.  It feels good to get out of doors and work in the garden.

Whether you are cleaning up, building up, planting up, or pruning; enjoy the time you spend preparing for spring’s beauty to unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Be Cautious With Plants Through The Post- Update

April 19 2014 shipment 001

When I shared with you the pathetic dry little plants which Michigan Bulb Company shipped to us last week, I promised to publish an update if they attempted to remedy the problem.

Plants received from Michigan Bulb Company on April 11, 2014.

Two of the three plants received from Michigan Bulb Company on April 11, 2014.

The customer service department responded to the email I sent last Friday evening on Monday morning, with an apology and a promise to re-ship the order with replacement plants.   Sam wrote:

Thank you for your email. We guarantee all of our plants to reach you in healthy condition. If you’re not happy with any item you order from us, you can notify us anytime within 30 days after receipt of merchandise. We will immediately send you a merchandise certificate which you may use for any purchase through our catalog or website. Your complete satisfaction is guaranteed!

If we can be of further assistance, feel free to contact us.

Sincerely,

Sam
Customer Service

They did re-ship, apparently on Monday, and the package arrived today, five days later.

Package from Michigan Bulb Company received on Saturday, April 19, 2014 to replace the earlier shipment.

Package from Michigan Bulb Company received on Saturday, April 19, 2014 to replace the earlier shipment.

At least all three of the tiny pots were still slightly moist when the package arrived.  This little fig cutting still has some green leaves, and I’m sure it will grow well.  It has roots trailing out of the pot.  I’m off to pot it up into something larger after I post this update.

April 19 2014 shipment 004

The little Colocasias are still very tiny and sad looking.  At least these are a little greener.  Still no bulbs in stock to send, apparently, so I’ll just grow these seedlings  on and expect the best.

April 19 2014 shipment 006

So, the moral of the story, for me at least, is this:  Order from a discount company only if you’re prepared to accept small, inferior “project” plants in order to get something at a great price.  Know, when you order, that it may take several years before the plant will grow into the beautiful  plant in your imagination.

April 19 2014 shipment 003

I appreciate Michigan Bulb Company standing behind their guarantee and immediately replacing the earlier shipment .

Now, off to the potting bench….

 

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

These Brugmansia, Angel's Trumpet, arrived fromPark Seed yesterday.  These came moist in green.  Several leaves came off in shipping, but there is plenty of time for new ones to grow in.  These plants should be 6' tall by July.

These Brugmansia, Angel’s Trumpet, arrived from Park Seed yesterday. These came moist and green.   Several leaves came off in shipping, but there is plenty of time for new ones to grow in.    These plants should be 6′ tall by July.

 

Be Cautious With Plants Through the Post

 

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