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It’s been many years since Monty Python’s famous highwayman Dennis Moore uttered the immortal words “Your life or your lupines.” Gardeners and naturalists everywhere can perhaps understand his enthusiasm. Hybrid lupines are an exotic, stunning plant; and those species that we are lucky enough to call native can take your breath away on a spring morning when viewed en masse.
In addition, the soft, touchable qualities of lupine foliage make it a beautiful textural element in the garden. Large palmate leaves are covered in a microscopic coating of hairs, which give the foliage a powdery quality and trap drops of dew for early morning photo shoots.
They’re a sun-loving favorite for both temperate, cool season gardens and for dry grassy meadows – the only difficulty lies in figuring out how you want to grow them!
Lupines are remarkably hardy (Z3-8), but in climates south of zone 6 the perennial hybrids work best used as annuals or biennials as they do not tolerate hot, humid summers well. Many gardeners choose to plant them like they would foxgloves – sowing them in flats in late spring, transplanting to pots in summer and setting out in fall for a spring bloom. In other climates, they are considered a shorter-lived perennial.
Seeds are protected by a very tough seed coat, which means that your results will improve if you first scarify with a file or sandpaper – or soak them for 24-48 hours. It’s an extra step for the gardener, but it’s a very clever way for nature to ensure that there are seeds in the soil for future seasons. Seeds must also make good soil/seed contact, so once they have been scattered and lightly covered with compost or soil (1/8”), it is important to tamp the soil down with a board or your feet. Seeds should germinate within 10 days.
Wherever they are sited, lupines require a sunny position and well-draining soil on the acid side if possible. They are calcifuge, which is a fancy way of saying they’re lime-haters, and will simply not tolerate alkaline soils or wet, boggy conditions. This is particularly true in the winter, when wet, cold conditions will rot the roots and kill the plant. If you have heavy clay soil, build it up with grit and sandy loam mixed with well shredded organic material, and then plant your lupines, taking care not to overwater.
Through the life’s work of a simple estate gardener in the early part of the 20th century, gardeners have incredible color choices when growing garden lupines. On his allotment in the north of England, George Russell intensively bred hybrids from the North American parent L. polyphyllum and other species over several decades.
Absolute parentage is lost in the mists of history, but the resulting hybrids well-deserve the many awards they have received by a gardening community smitten with show-stopping shades of red, pink, orange, purple, cream, yellow & white. In many cases, the spires of tightly clustered flowers treat us to two colors on each spire.
Garden lupines do not need to be staked as a rule, but if your garden suffers from occasional bouts of high winds, it’s a good idea to lightly stake the spires as they appear. Lupines that have blown over will very quickly assume a curve to their flower spires as they try to grow back towards the sun (which makes for tricky staking later).
After flowering, the foliage should be allowed to die back naturally (though flower spikes can be removed). With the Russell hybrids, powdery mildew can often disfigure the foliage in hot, humid summers, and for this reason, many gardeners choose to remove the plants completely in those climates and replant new stock for the next season.
If you’re having problems with growing lupines from seed, you may live in a climate where excess moisture is causing the seedlings to dampen off with fungal disease, or you may not be scarifying the seeds adequately. You may also be dealing with a soil that is too heavy and needs building up with plenty of sandy loam before planting. Remember, lupines need good drainage, plenty of sun, and a cool spring to flower well.
If you’re having difficulty with getting your seeds started because of the ravages of birds and/or pill bugs (two of the worst pests for lupines), consider starting them in trays outdoors and transplanting when the plants are larger. As long as you haven’t let them grow too root-bound, you should be able to transplant them into a small hole filled with similar soil to the growing medium to lessen transplant shock.
Once up and growing strongly, lupines are deer-resistant, and so are a good choice for gardens without fencing. Children love them, as they attract scores of pollinators in the late spring and early summer and are plants that invite the touch of little hands – both on foliage and flower.
Whether you’re growing lupines in a field or in a simple raised bed, you are sure to be delighted with the many qualities that they can offer to your garden. Take your time, understand the conditions they need for successful germination and growth, and you’ll be a lifetime lupine lover – and grower!
About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at www.smalltowngardener.com.
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