It's not quite time to plant bulbs for spring blooms, but it's the right time to get a jump on ordering them.
Many new and rare varieties are available only in limited quantities that sell out quickly.
Here are some sources for discovering unusual, new, heirloom or simply over-the-top gorgeous bulbs, and for learning some botany and the history of these garden treasures.
A quick caution: Be sure to check out the USDA hardiness zone for each selection, as many of the bulbs require warmer weather than Kentucky's mostly Zone 6 climate.
Old House Gardens, Oldhousegardens.com: "A thousand years of beauty can be yours for the planting," reads the introductory material for this well-researched heirloom bulb supplier.
You can take that literally. Reading the expert description for each bulb, you'll learn its provenance and importance in botanical history. It's amazing that the genetic material of each bulb has been passed down for so long.
I love the sylvestris tulip called Florentine, which can be traced to an early herbal from 1597; rich almond-shaped petals carry the scent of violets.
A more recent, wild-looking rusty red and gold stiletto-petaled tulip, acuminata, was first recorded in 1816.
It is also great to find a nursery-grown source for the white wildflower Trillium grandiflorum.
Easy to Grow Bulbs, Easytogrowbulbs.com: This supplier combines a wide assortment of large, healthy bulbs, and other root-oriented plants such as rhizomes and corms, with caring and knowledgeable customer service and support to ensure you'll succeed in growing great garden plants.
One favorite: bearded iris, which flowers about Derbytime each year. My pick this year is the reblooming bicolor Best Bet, a substantial combination of periwinkle blue standards and ruffled, indigo falls. Other reblooming favorites are Autumn Circus and Jurassic Park.
The delicate-looking checkered lily Fritillaria meleagris is another eye-catching choice. Its petals are actually checkered in maroon and white. A bonus: The bulbs are deer- and rodent-resistant.
Other choices not to miss are Giant Starflower, which can spike up to 3 feet high, and the brightly hued Little Beauty tulip, which is just 4 inches tall but has a knockout vibrating color combination of fuchsia and cornflower blue.
Some non-native plants grow so well that they overrun and dominate the local landscape. In the process, they often crowd out less aggressive, more delicate native species.
Since 2000, the Kentucky Exotic Pest Plant Council has worked to raise public awareness about this growing threat to Kentucky's natural heritage. Last month, after a yearlong review in consultation with leading weed experts, university professors and managers of natural areas, the group released a revised list of 180 non-native invasive plants that have a negative effect on Kentucky's environment.
The list has four rankings that describe the degree of threat of a plant's invasiveness: severe, significant, moderate and watch.
There are now 41 species in the severe category; they are most likely to cause environmental degradation and increase costs for control or eradication for landscape workers, public preserves and highways, and landowners. The severe category includes the infamous kudzu vine, common privet hedging, Japanese and bush honeysuckle, winter creeper vine, garlic mustard, and burning bush, still popular in garden shops for its bright red fall leaf color.
Some invasive species were introduced as ornamental or functional landscape enhancements, but others arrived by chance, as packing materials. Many — like paulownia, with its gorgeous purple blossoms, and mimosa trees, with filigree leaves and pink powder puff flowers — are beautiful; others, like mints, are edible herbs.
Even Kentucky bluegrass is on the invasive list.
But these plants, now growing in areas without the controls present in their native environments, eliminate habitats for rare plants and animals, reduce the production potential of forests and grasslands, choke lakes and other aquatic habitats, grow over recreational trails and cause safety concerns along highways. Together, these effects cost millions of dollars in management.
You can download the full list at Kentucky.com/living or find it and learn more about what's being done to remedy the situation at Se-eppc.org/ky.
Homeowners can help a couple of ways: by taking a survey of what's planted in their yard and choosing to cultivate native plants, which support a higher diversity of pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
There are also natural areas and parks throughout the state that need volunteers to help eradicate invasive plants. The exotic pest council can help connect people to volunteer opportunities. For more information, contact the group's president, Beverly James, at email@example.com.
Professionals and citizen scientists also can report and review observations of invasive plants online or by downloading a free smartphone app from the Southeast Early Detection Network at Eddmaps.org/southeast.
Paint a sunflower
The Academy of Botanical Art will have its annual four-day summer workshop Thursday through Aug. 25. The subject this year is sunflowers.
Artist and academy founder Olivia Marie Braida-Chiusano and certified academy instructor Leslie Ramsey will lead the classes, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, in the Phoenix Suite at Park Plaza, 120 East Main Street. Tuition is $530. To register, call Ramsey, (606) 434-4280. The academy's website is Academyofbotanicalart.com.
This workshop is for experienced and beginning artists. Braida's lessons emphasize the development of strong drawing skills, with an understanding of watercolor and pen and ink. She and Ramsey create a friendly, supportive atmosphere while students produce works of art based in the botanical illustration style of the French Court tradition.
I took these classes a few years ago and went from thinking I had no artistic ability to finding joy in the relaxed focus and surprisingly beautiful art I produced.
Ramsey said, "Anyone can learn to draw and paint using Olivia's 10-step method. The joy of taking a blank piece of paper and seeing the results is amazing and transforming."
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: gardening.bloginky.com.