ou might think November at Monticello would be a quiet time of year in the garden, but far from it. In this episode, we look at planting -- and eating! -- spring-blooming bulbs, planting and harvesting fall and winter vegetables, and prepping beds for winter. Featuring Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens; Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants; Debbie Donley, Flower Gardener; and Robert Dowell, Senior Nursery Associate at the Thomas Jefferson Center Historic Plants.
Michael Tricomi: It's November at Monticello. We’ve had a beautiful sunny, dry autumn. The fall foliage on the mountaintop has been remarkable this year.
You might think it would be a quiet time of year in the garden -- but far from it. We're planting spring-blooming bulbs, harvesting winter vegetables, and prepping beds for winter. We’ll talk about all of that and more today.
Michael Tricomi: This is “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a podcast about gardening and the natural world. I’m Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia.
Michael Tricomi: Every fall, we plant about 10,000 spring-flowering bulbs at Monticello. It’s a major project for our gardens and grounds team. Our Flower Gardener Debbie Donley sat down with me and Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett to talk about the process.
Debbie Donley: The process starts late September. We pull the plants out of the bed, and then we put in compost, we dig the compost in, and then we start putting bulbs in.
I try to start with the fritillarias first because they're fragile, really. They really need to get in the ground as soon as possible. Even then, when you do everything right, they're not a guaranteed flower, but when they do flower, they're spectacular, so they're worth the effort.
Peggy Cornett: That bulb almost looks like a big onion, a loose onion, so you need to be careful because it can rot if you have a very wet winter. I think we often try to tip them a little bit on their side, so that water doesn't stand in the sections of the fritillaria.
Jefferson was fascinated by the fritillarias, and he kept trying and trying to order these different types from Bernard McMahon. He was trying to get the silver striped one, which are very rare today, these variegated fritillarias. He eventually got some, but that was a real choice bulb to have.
The smell of the fritillaria is described historically as having a foxy scent. It's a little bit more like a skunk. And it's not just the bulb, but the flower also has that fragrance. It's not a flower that you would put in a cut flower arrangement.
Debbie Donley: But the benefit is that the deer don't like it either, and the moles and voles, so it is resistant to all of those things.
Michael Tricomi: In Jefferson's time, tulips were also rare. But they shipped well, so Jefferson might have as many as 60 tulips in his garden in any given year.
Peggy Cornett: When they're dormant, when they're properly cured, they can last for a long time without rotting. It's almost like a seed.
Debbie Donley: If you have enough tulips, if you very carefully peel each layer away like an onion, that flower is already inside totally formed. You can find the leaves, the stem, the petals, and the stamen. It's just really fun. It's worth it to sacrifice one of your bulbs.
Peggy Cornett: Tulips are also edible to voles or chipmunks, or even squirrels will dig them up. You can protect them by... well, at least with voles, you can put like a grid or something below the bulb when you plant it, they don't like to dig through that, but if you have squirrels digging things up, that's a problem.
Debbie Donley: It's hard. And deer, they'll dig quite deep to get at it.
Peggy Cornett: I have a photo of the deer pawing the bulbs out of the ground. It was quite dramatic.
Debbie Donley: Can people eat tulips?
Peggy Cornett: Yes. A friend of mine, her mother was in the Hague during World War II and they were eating tulips to survive. My friend said she asked her mother what they taste like, and her mother closed her eyes and said they were delicious.
Debbie Donley: We'll have to have a potluck with tulip bulbs.
Michaelo Tricomi: Oh boy.
Debbie Donley: You can eat dahlia tubers, too. The dahlia man used to make flour out of the tuber and made bread.
Michaelo Tricomi: Sorry, we got a little off track there! But who knew you could eat flower bulbs? Here's Debbie again talking about planting bulbs.
Debbie Donley: We tend to plant in the quincunx, which is evenly spaced rows.
Peggy Cornett: The way you lay them out so that it gives the maximum space around each flower, you put a row, and then the next row is staggered. It's like a diamond pattern when you look down at it. You can eyeball it, but you can also just take a measuring line.
Michaelo Tricomi: That's commonly how we've used that pattern in the vegetable garden, is to use that quincunx pattern and to stagger the rows and measure in between. If you get it right, and you look at it from a certain angle, all the rows are lined up straight and then diagonally. There was one year where we got broccoli pretty spot on. It was almost perfect how they lined up.
Peggy Cornett: I remember visiting England in May many years ago and seeing the tulips in bloom, and they had been planted in that pattern, and it was just incredible. It's an ancient pattern of planting.
Michaelo Tricomi: It dates back to Roman times.
Debbie Donley: I plant 250 tulips in the pattern, and then I space the fritillarias in groups of five, seven, even 10 in separate groupings throughout the bed. It just divides it up nicely. But in your home garden, you can just get your bed ready and just throw them down, plant them where they land, and it looks more natural that way.
Peggy Cornett: Of course, you wanna get them very deep at least six to eight inches.
Michaelo Tricomi: And it's important to plant them the correct way up.
Peggy Cornett: Yeah. The tip up.
Michaelo Tricomi: Tip pointing up, ideally. If it's to the side, they can still make their way to the surface.
When to Plant
Michaelo Tricomi: If you haven't planted bulbs yet, don't worry, there's still time.
Debbie Donley: As long as the ground isn't frozen solid, it's okay to get them in. My theory is whenever you have time, you do it. It doesn't always work, but it's better than not getting getting around to it.
Peggy Cornett: But November is probably ideal, and December.
Debbie Donley: You do want the ground to be cooler. You don't want to plant them in hot soil.
Peggy Cornett: When you live in the deep south, Florida for example, they recommend that you put your tulips in the refrigerator for a few months and then plant them so that they get that cold period.
Debbie Donley: You can actually buy chilled bulbs.
Peggy Cornett: A lot of our historic varieties come from a nursery in Holland called the Hortus Bulborum. They're able to keep these historic varieties separated and curated so that we can get some varieties that date back to the 1500s and 1600s. So we try to have at least several display beds that reflect the type of tulip that people were drawn to in Jefferson's time.
Michaelo Tricomi: Now let's talk about vegetables. We've been harvesting late summer and fall crops. That includes a variety of pumpkins.
Michaelo Tricomi: Right now we grow the upper ground sweet potato pumpkin, we grow the long pie pumpkin, which is a cylindrical shaped orange pumpkin. They're a really great pumpkin to use in different recipes. We've grown a variety of Cucurbita Maximas, the Long Island Cheese pumpkin, the Musquee de Provence pumpkin, the Rouge Vif d'Etampes, that's a really, really deep red, lobed pumpkin. It's really beautiful. It's a French variety. Jefferson described growing warted pumpkins as well, so we've grown some different varieties there that have more of a warting pattern showing up on them.
Peggy Cornett: They can be really bizarre looking sometimes.
Michaelo Tricomi: We've done black pumpkins, really dark black pumpkins. We've done very pale white pumpkins as well. So there's a whole variety of colors and sizes that we've grown in the past.
Debbie Donley: The inside, all the colors, does that vary?
Michaelo Tricomi: It can, yeah. It can vary. The amount of seeds can vary too. Sometimes it is just absolutely loaded with seeds. Others have more of that flesh to them that you can use. They vary quite a bit.
The visitors, they love them. They often want to take a pumpkin home with them. No, visitors really remark on our pumpkin squares because we usually try to interplant some different varieties so that you'll get a whole mixture growing in one square and it just makes for a really nice colorful show, especially once the foliage dies back a little bit and you start to see the color a lot more.
Peggy Cornett: Is the seed affected by growing them together? Are they crossing, do you think?
Michaelo Tricomi: They are definitely crossing, yeah. You could still save the seeds from them, which we do. We just keep growing those varieties knowing that they will have crossed and we expect to see some variations in there, some different, oblong shapes and some differences in color. It really is an experiment to see what you'll get the following year if you do save seed.
Peggy Cornett: Jefferson knew that squashes would cross, and I think he intentionally planted them near each other to see what he might come up with.
Michaelo Tricomi: From my experience, if you've grown them together, the squashes and pumpkins, that's really one of the crops that you see the most variety in.
Prickly Seeded Spinach
Michaelo Tricomi: We also plant crops in the fall, like lettuce, carrots, turnips, and beets. One of the most unusual is the prickly seeded spinach.
Peggy Cornett: It used to be readily available just in any garden center, and all of a sudden it disappeared. That's what happens to some of these old varieties of vegetables.
Michaelo Tricomi: I'm not surprised, because it is hard to handle.
Peggy Cornett: The spinach leaf is like a big triangular shaped leaf, but the seed is like a sandspur.
Michaelo Tricomi: When you let the plant go to seed, it just forms a tall spike with seeds all along it. Cleaning them, you have to wear some thick gloves. They're very sharp. They almost look like they have a pair of horns on the top. And so you just have to crush them carefully and strip them off of that tall stalk and separate them all out because they all kind of cluster together.
Texas Bird Pepper
Peggy Cornett: Now, are you harvesting any of the Texas bird pepper? I planted some plants in my garden and they're gorgeous.
Michaelo Tricomi: Yes, they're doing very well this year.
Peggy Cornett: I think they'll last all winter. Even when the plant gets frozen if you just leave the peppers on it, they'll last through the winter and birds love to eat it.
Michaelo Tricomi: They'll be absolutely loaded with peppers, too. We use some of them in our hot pepper sauce and hot pepper jelly, just a few. They take a while to pick because they are so small, but they definitely pack a punch. They're very spicy. I would say they're somewhere between a jalapeño and a habanero.
Debbie Donley: I'm not a fan of hot, spicy things, but I love to see the Texas bird pepper in the garden in the winter with snow covering. It was just beautiful with the red.
Peggy Cornett: It just stands right out.
Michaelo Tricomi: Let's hear from some recent Monticello visitors.
Michaelo Tricomi: Horticulturist Robert Dowell joined Peggy and Debbie to talk about woody plants. Here's Robert.
Robert Dowell: A woody plant, which includes trees, shrubs, woody vines, and even some herbs, like thyme and rosemary, is basically a perennial that has woody structures to it. Woody isn't necessarily a scientific term, but basically, woody plants have permanent above ground vegetative structures. That's probably the best way to think of it. Every year they maintain a scaffold of limbs that new foliage can emerge off of.
Peggy Cornett: Perennials usually are herbaceous and for the most part they die down almost completely over the wintertime and then they come back in the spring.
Debbie Donley: Annuals totally die and they just drop their seed and it's their seed that comes back, as opposed to the perennial where the actual plant is still alive throughout the winter, even though it may look dead.
Robert Dowell: Most woody plants that we know of in Virginia bloom in the spring and the summer, but a few do bloom in the fall. One of them is the Virginia witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana is the scientific name. Starting about mid-October running all the way to December, this shrub, which is a multi-stemmed, usually eight to ten foot tall shrub when you see it in the wild and about as wide, will have these tiny little yellow spider looking flowers on it, and they're very fragrant. I like to think that the fragrance is like lemon. If you travel in wooded areas this time of year, sometimes you get hit with the fragrance before you even see the plant, and it's always fun to try and pinpoint where it's coming from.
Peggy Cornett: Doesn't it have a fruit later, a little nutlet?
Robert Dowell: Yeah, another interesting thing about it is it has a little capsule that splits open and the seed is actually shot out like a little rocket. It takes two years for the witch hazel seed to mature, so in horticultural terms it's called doubly dormant. Whereas a typical seed will mature in autumn, go through the winter cold period, and then be ready to germinate in the spring, the witch hazel has to go through that cycle twice. It won't germinate until its second year.
Peggy Cornett: I've been enjoying the beautyberry. The Latin name is Callicarpa americana. It's a native shrub, and it has beautiful magenta colored clusters of berries all up and down the stem. I particularly like it because it's very dramatic in the landscape.
Robert Dowell: The berries are really, the purple is, they almost look fake.
Peggy Cornett: It's hard to believe they're native, too.
Debbie Donley: They're great in flower arrangements as well. If you cut stem a little bit to allow the water to go up they do really well.
Peggy Cornett: The fruits are edible, and mockingbirds and other birds enjoy eating them, but a lot of times they don't eat it until later in the winter.
Debbie Donley: A lot of those things, like persimmons, they don't acquire their better flavor until after the cold weather has hit, so I wonder if maybe that's why beautyberries aren't as attractive to them.
Peggy Cornett: The persimmons are ripening now, but you really want them to have several hard frosts on them so they don't turn your mouth inside out when you eat them. Jefferson, he was sending the beautyberry to his friend Madame de Tessé in France, and he was also sending her persimmon. He wrote in his notes that he thought that they would be best sent as the whole fruit rather than getting the seed out of that pulpy fruit. Just send the whole fruit, and then when it gets there, they can take the pulp off of it and germinate it.
Robert Dowell: It's a native tree. Diospyros virginiana is the scientific name. It's actually in the ebony family. The wood of the persimmon is very hard and historically was valued for using in tool implements, and any place where you'd want a good hard wood. The trees are dioecious, which in horticulture terms means, like hollies, you need a male and a female tree in order to get fruit. The female trees require the presence of a male, and one male can pollinate multiple female trees in a given area. I don't know how far-ranging the pollen travels.
Peggy Cornett: I planted a persimmon a number of years ago in my backyard and this year it's setting fruit, and I'm wondering where it's being pollinated, because I don't know of any persimmon in my neighborhood at all, so it must have a good range. The fruit really is dramatic in the landscape. Once the leaves drop, you really see that.
Debbie Donley: It's beautiful. It's kind of like an apricot or something.
Robert Dowell: It's the size of a—the wild ones—I'd say, a ping pong ball, maybe two inches across or so.
Peggy Cornett: After it's been hit by frost, the color of the fruit changes and it gets more of a dull color and it's soft, and that's when you know that you can eat it.
Michael Tricomi: Like the Persimmon, you have to plant male and female hollies together to get those beautiful red berries.
Peggy Cornett: When I plant a deciduous holly, the Ilex verticillata, they often call it sparkleberry holly and winterberry holly, when I planted it in my yard, I planted the female and the male just right next to each other so they're almost like one plant. That way they're assured of pollinating each other. Of course, that's another shrub that we like the berries for winter decoration and Christmas decorations, but the birds really like the berries as well, the red berries of the holly. Apparently George Washington scouted the woodlands around Mount Vernon looking for shrubs to plant in his nursery and around his house. Apparently he was looking for that red berried shrub, so they think that he was looking for holly shrubs in the woods.
Michaelo Tricomi: Another woody shrub with berries is the spicebush.
Robert Dowell: Lindera benzoin is the scientific name. Great native shrub. It grows along woodland edges and generally in moister spots, riparian areas. The berries, they're as bright red as any holly berry, and they really pair nicely with the yellow foliage which the spicebush also produces.
Peggy Cornett: The flowers bloom early in the spring and one of its common names is forsythia of the forest, because you'll see this kind of whole mass of yellow flowers in the early spring. The deer don't eat it, so it's a good shrub for people who are worried about deer. Also, it's the host for the spicebush swallowtail. Jefferson called it, in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he called it the wild pimento, which is funny. But it looks like a little pimento, I guess. It's edible to people, right?
Robert Dowell: I'm not entirely sure. It definitely has a spicy, peppery aroma if you crush the leaves or if you scrape the flesh on the berries.
Peggy Cornett: The stem was supposed to be, apparently it could be used as a toothbrush. When you break the stem and peel it a little bit, and then rub it on your teeth, it can clean your teeth. Has a very nice, fresh fragrance.
Robert Dowell: When it's not flowering or in fruit, it's a nondescript shrub. It's easy to miss it if you're in the woods. There's nothing too distinguishing about it when it's just doing its green thing, but in the autumn and in the spring is when you really notice it.
Debbie Donley: They're beautiful. Especially if it's an area where there's deer pressure because they've eaten everything else and then there'll be these large areas of spicebush.
Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper
Michaelo Tricomi: Robert mentioned woody vines. Two that grow here in Virginia are poison ivy and Virginia creeper.
Debbie Donley: Poison ivy, didn't he bring that into the garden?
Peggy Cornett: No, but he included it in Notes on the State of Virginia as an ornamental, I think. It was exported to England where it was grown in botanic gardens, but they realized that people were getting rashes from this thing, so it was being planted with a little fence around it. The color right now is really gorgeous, and it has an edible fruit that birds eat, and that's how it gets spread around, too. It's not a showy fruit, though. It's native.
Debbie Donley: It's interesting because it has so many different looks to it. It can be a ground cover with little leaves of three. It can climb up a tree with a stem that's five inches thick, a hairy stem, and like Peggy said, the color is absolutely beautiful. can be reddish, yellow, orange. It's very striking, just don't rake it, don't burn it. Admire from a distance.
Peggy Cornett: Some people think they're not allergic and then they find out the hard way that are.
Robert Dowell: Almost always, whenever I see poison ivy, I see Virginia creeper alongside growing in it, and it's very easy to confuse the two.
Peggy Cornett: That has a five part leaflet. The Virginia creeper is also gorgeous right now. It has fruit clusters of blue berries. Again, more food for the wildlife. I like the Virginia creeper, I have it, but it gets a bit aggressive.
Debbie Donley: It can get under your siding of your house as well.
Peggy Cornett: It's growing over my back shed in the backyard.
Robert Dowell: It loves to climb gutters, too, and hang out at the bottom of your roof.
Debbie Donley: But remember leaves of three, leave them be. Virginia Creeper is five, so touch it all you want.
Peggy Cornett: Five is friend.
Michaelo Tricomi: Another Poison Ivy saying is, “Hairy Vine, No Friend of Mine.” That’s important to remember this time of year when the leaves have died down.
That’s it for November. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next month to talk about wreaths and other holiday topics. In the meantime, happy gardening!