When good plants love bad soil 

  • Natallia Yaumenenka—Getty Images/iStockphoto Natallia Yaumenenka—Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 7/5/2019 3:04:28 PM
Modified: 7/5/2019 3:04:09 PM

My mother-in-law, Rachel Benfey, loved to give my sons books when they were very young. I think she secretly frowned upon their interest in trucks and dinosaurs and tried to broaden their interests with books about flora and fauna. But unless the flora were Venus fly-traps, and the fauna had sharp teeth, the boys weren’t interested. One year, she arrived with a picture book called “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney about an old lady living in Maine who secretly planted lupine seeds as she walked along the roadsides, spreading beauty everywhere she went. “What was she thinking?” I asked my husband when we were alone in the kitchen.

The book began, “The Lupine Lady, lives in a small house overlooking the sea. In between the rocks around her house grow blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.” The boys were already rolling their eyes. As far as they were concerned, the book was a dud extraordinaire. I, on the other hand, was enchanted. Having grown up in Virginia, I was unfamiliar with the lovely lupine. But as I read the book, I realized that I had seen lupines, tall stalks of closely bunched blossoms, growing wild in Maine. When I saw lupines in pots at the plant nursery, I couldn’t resist buying some. I was seduced by their incredible colors, ranging from deep lavender to periwinkle to rose to white.

I planted them in my perennial bed, but they bombed. I tried a few more times without success and eventually gave up. I was talking recently with some gardening friends — during a tennis hard break, actually — and the subject of lupines came up. One person lamented that she had never had any luck with lupines despite her repeated efforts with plants and seeds. I shared my own unhappy experience. But a third friend, Greg, chimed in that he had found the secret to lupine success. “They don’t like good soil,” he said. “I grow them in sandy, rocky soil and they do great.” It was one of those Eureka moments. But kind of obvious, if you think about where Miss Rumphius’s seeds were so happy.

When I got home, I did some research. Greg was surely on the right track. Lupines have long tap roots and they do not like to be disturbed once they’re settled. So if you buy them in containers, chances are their tap roots have already been compromised and they will not do well. It’s best to start from seed, either nicked or soaked overnight to soften their hard shells. Sandy, even rocky, soil provides the ideal growing conditions for lupine because tap roots can easily find space to grow downwards. Don’t even try to plant lupines in heavy, clay soil. And lupines do best in average, slightly acidic soil. So don’t waste your compost or other soil embellishments on them. Picture a tough old cookie in Maine saying, “Why would I need crème fraiche?”

Lupines are members of the pea family. They were apparently named lupinus, the Latin word for wolf, because they were thought to rob the soil of nutrients. Actually, lupines are nitrogen-fixing plants and therefore are beneficial to the soil. If you want to fertilize them, give them phosphorus. But they’re probably best left alone.

An aside: “nitrogen-fixing” is one of those gardening terms that many of us have only a vague understanding of. Here’s what it means: Nitrogen-fixing plants such as legumes (peas, beans, etc.) have roots that are colonized by a certain kind of bacteria that draws nitrogen out of the air and “fixes” it into a form the bacteria requires for its own growth. After the bacteria has used the nitrogen, it becomes available to the plants themselves. In this way, nitrogen gets into the soil. Nitrogen helps plants photosynthesize. Plants with adequate nitrogen are lush and green. Nitrogen-deficient plants are yellowish and weak.

There’s another reason besides the rocky soil why lupines thrive in Maine and other parts of northern New England. Lupines like sun, but they don’t like heat and humidity. So areas that have cooler summer climates are more likely to produce healthy lupines. Here in the Pioneer Valley, where summers bring heat and humidity, lupines appreciate some shade, especially in the afternoon.

Lupines distribute their seeds by exploding their seed pods. This naturally occurring explosion ejects the seeds and spreads them around. But if you’re not in a position to harvest lupine seed in the wild, you can buy them at nurseries. I have never tried to grow them from seed. But it’s supposed to be easy if you have the right conditions. It’s refreshing once in a while to find a plant that’s happiest with the least amount of fuss.

By the way, Miss Rumphius was based on an actual person named Hilda Hamlin who was born in England in 1889. Hamlin first came to Maine in 1904 to visit her uncle, a Smith professor named Harry Norman Gardiner, at his summer cottage at Christmas Cove in Maine. The story has it that every summer Hamlin brought stalks of dried lupine from England and shook the seeds out at Christmas Cove. The lupine thrived, and she continued to sow more seeds every year. She did not tell anyone what she was doing, preferring to keep it her own delightful secret. But eventually, her private pastime was discovered. She became known as “Hilda Lupina” or “Lupine Lady.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden events Farmers markets

Summer Farmers Markets are in full swing.

The Amherst Market, located in the center of Amherst, runs every Sat. from 7:30 a.m. till 1:30 p.m.

The Northampton Market runs Sat. from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Gothic Street, and Tues. from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. behind the parking garage. Have fun and support your local farmers. Thank them for all thework they put in so you don’t have to!




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