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Ask the Master Gardener: Spring-blooming crocus flowers can be planted now

Crocus plants bloom best in full to part sun and have lovely flowers.

Colorful crocus flowers.
Crocus flowers multiply quickly — as long as squirrels don't eat their bulbs first.
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service
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Dear Master Gardener: I am designing a memorial garden at our church and was wondering about planting crocus bulbs this fall. There is a verse in the Bible that says, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,” (Isaiah 35:1) so I thought it would be meaningful to plant crocus bulbs. Would they be a good plant to add and what do I need to know about planting them?

Answer: Yes, they are lovely flowers and usually the first to bloom in spring. They are excellent for naturalizing and multiply quickly, as long as the squirrels don’t eat the bulbs first. Plant them 3 inches deep and 3 inches apart in groups of three to nine. They look beautiful planted in drifts. Crocus plants bloom best in full to part sun. The stores are selling crocus bulbs now because this is a good month to plant them. Make sure to purchase bulbs that are hardy to zone 3.

On an interesting cultural note — there are several varieties of crocus used to produce saffron. In Biblical times saffron crocus grew in the gardens of King Solomon and the saffron was used as a condiment and perfume. Today the rich orange-yellow stigmas of these varieties are used to produce saffron, which is used in dishes such as Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse Milanese risotto and Indian curries. Estimates are it takes the stigmas of about 4,300 flowers to make an ounce of saffron, making it the world’s most expensive spice. One ounce of Persian premium grade saffron sells for about $130. The saffron crocus is hardy to zone 6, but like other tender bulbs (canna, gladiola, dahlia, calla lily) you can dig up the corms and store them over the winter and plant them again in spring.

Allium flowers.
Allium flowers also can be planted in the fall.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Another bulb mentioned in the Bible that you can plant this fall is Allium. Most alliums bloom in late spring/early summer. They are rarely troubled by pests or diseases, are deer resistant, and make an excellent cut flower. Some cultivars keep their flowers for almost one month. Expect lots of pollinators! Alliums attract bees and butterflies. Azure, hardy to zone 3, is a native of Siberia and sports 1-1/2-inch globes of cornflower blue blooms. Purchase bulbs hardy to zone 3 or 4, depending on which zone you are in.

Dear Master Gardener: To save money, I would like to try saving some flower seeds this year. How should they be stored?

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Answer: Store different kinds of seeds in individual envelopes, label the envelope with the name, variety and date you collected them. Then, place them together in a container. Keep the seeds dry and cool — a temperature between 32 and 41 degrees is ideal, so your refrigerator is a good place. Use saved seeds within one year as the germination rate and vigor of seeds decline with age.

Dear Master Gardener: My brother in Illinois has zigzag iris in his garden. Can we grow them in Minnesota?

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Answer: Zigzag iris (Iris brevicaulis) is an Illinois native wildflower, commonly found growing in wet meadows and swamps. It is hardy in zones 4-8, so gardeners in zone 4 should be able to successfully grow it and those in zone 3 could give it a try. It blooms in late spring, goes dormant through mid-summer, then reappears in fall. The flowers are blue-purple with yellow flares on the falls and quite beautiful. This plant is an excellent addition to a rain garden.

Dear Master Gardener: I would like to add a maple tree to my yard this fall. Is a red maple a good choice and does it have beautiful fall color?

Answer: Red maple (Acer rubrum), a Minnesota native, is a great choice! It establishes easily and has a medium to fast growth rate. It is adaptable to many soil types, but grows best in soil with a pH of 4.5 to 6.5. The tree will suffer in soils with a higher pH. Red maple trees grow 40 to 100 feet tall, depending on the cultivar. In early spring, red or magenta flowers appear before the leaves emerge and are a good source of nectar and pollen for early pollinators. The helicopter seeds on female trees, called samaras, can be seen twirling to the ground in May and June, so you may eventually find little maple trees popping up all over. The autumn leaves turn brilliant red, orange, and yellow. Maples are very sensitive to salt, so don’t plant one near a road, driveway, or sidewalk where salt is used in the winter. Another thing to keep in mind is young trees have thin bark and will need winter protection with tree guards to prevent frost cracks and sunscald. The U of M recommends the following cultivated varieties that have been selected for fall color, plant form and size, pest and stress tolerances, and are hardy to zone 3:

  • Autumn Spire: 50 feet tall by 25 feet wide, red foliage in fall, broadly columnar shape
  • Northfire: 50 feet tall by 40 feet wide, red foliage in early fall, oval shape
  • Northwood: 50 feet tall by 35 feet wide, orange-red foliage in fall, rounded oval shape
  • Scarlet Jewel: 70 feet tall by 30 feet wide, crimson foliage in early fall, upright shape, resists frost cracking

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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