Back to the Future Garden (Bulbs)

An important aspect of the art of gardening is working backwards, so let’s begin today by visualizing a stunning display of spring bulbs in your garden next April.

“Bulbs” include all plants that grow from bulbs, tubers, corms, or rhizomes. Plants with underground storage organs are correctly referred to as “geophytes.”

There are a great many plants in this category, with a stunning range of colors and forms. The large majority of geophytes are native to the world’s Mediterranean climate regions, which includes coastal California; they have evolved to thrive in climates like that of the Monterey Bay area.

For your spring vision to become real, you will need to plant your bulbs this year, in the early fall. You could plant as early as August, or as late as November, but a good time to target is September.

To have bulbs to plant in September, order them in July or August. You could buy bulbs later at a local garden center, but retailers necessarily stock mostly the very popular varieties.  Ordering by mail will let you choose from an enormous range of possibilities, and early orders are most likely to secure the largest, most productive bulbs.

If you acquire your bulbs before you are ready to plant, store them in a dry, well-ventilated place.

Before you buy bulbs, you should have a plan for planting. The easy part of planning for a display of spring bulbs is to identify space in your garden that receives—ideally—at least six hours of sunlight daily, and that drains well (no puddles!). There are also a good number of bulbs that will do quite well in partial shade, but if you intend to plant in a shadier area, select bulbs with that condition in mind.

Bulbs also can be grown successfully in containers, given sufficient sun exposure and very well-drained soil. Typical planting mixes are fine, but should be amended with horticultural sand, pumice, crushed lava rock, or other material to promote drainage.

Your design could mass your bulbs for a large display of one or several varieties, or place several small cluster displays among other plants in the landscape. The scale of your display will guide your decision on the number of bulbs to order. Growers usually recommend spacing for specific plants, but three times the width of bulb is generally OK. Wider spacing will provide room for increases.

The more popular species of bulbs that do not require winter chill to perform well include Daffodil, Crocus, Grape Hyacinth, Allium, Crown Imperial and Snowdrop (Galanthus). Others bloom their best after several days of chill: Tulip, Hyacinth, Siberian Squill, Anemone, Freesia (but some varieties will do fine without special handling).

Spring Bulbs

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 Good mail-order catalogs indicate which bulbs will grow well in Zone 9, which includes the Monterey Bay area, and offer pre-chilled bulbs.

To benefit from the full range of mail-order options, select some so-called “minor bulbs,” i.e., those not included among the most familiar species. Adventuresome gardeners leave the beaten path to discover the most interesting blossoms.

Yellow Foxtail Lily

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Caption: The Yellow Foxtail Lily (Eremurus stenophyllus) grows 4-5 feet high, with hundreds of star-shaped flowers. Photo: Brecks.com online catalog.

Good preparation of the planting area(s) involves removing weeds, loosening the soil, and digging in a three-inch layer of organic compost. If you have clay soil, dig in six inches of compost. This healthful exercise could be enjoyed after ordering the bulbs.

Bulbs are traditionally planted in random arrangements, following their natural spread. Planting bulbs in rows is so 19th Century.

The actual planting of bulbs in well-prepared beds can be quick and easy. The usual rule for planting depth is three times the height of the bulb. Stab a trowel into the ground, pull it toward you to open a planting hole, drop in the bulb, pointy side up, and cover.

If gophers or deer snack in your garden, put a handful of gravel at the bottom of the hole, and spray your bulbs in a bucket before planting with a repellent like Deer Off, Liquid Fence or Repel. You might need to plant in gopher baskets, which of course slows the process.

Start now to prepare for next spring’s pleasing display of bulb blossoms.

More

Visit Cindi’s Catalog of Garden Catalogs for many mail-order suppliers of bulbs.
The good ones include the following:

  • Breck’s Bulbs: click on “Spring Bulbs” and “Other Spring Bulbs” for minor bulbs;
  • Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, well-established grower, with a good search tool;
  • Bill the Bulb Baron, a local grower, with fields in Moss Landing;
  • Far West Bulb Farm, specializing in California native bulbs;
  • McClure & Zimmerman, offering a variety of uncommon bulbs;
  • Telos Rare Bulbs, species bulbs from exotic places;
  • Van Bourgondien Bros., good prices for larger volume orders.

Finally, visit the website of the Pacific Bulb Society for non-commercial information. Click on the link to “Pacific Bulb Society Wiki” for photos and descriptions by avid growers of geophytes.

Gardening in July

During this hot and dry month, the avid gardener should pursue seasonal tasks to keep the garden looking good and prepare for the change of seasons.

Irrigation should be a high priority to sustain plants that must have a ration of water during the drought. Pass by Mediterranean climate plants, which are accustomed to dry summers. A little moisture will perk up even these rugged individuals and extend their best days, but a better use of scarce water resources would target the garden’s thirstier specimens.

Roses, for example, could produce another bloom cycle during July if treated to a balanced fertilizer and watered deeply. Other candidates for regular watering are plants in containers, which can dry out fast.  First confirm that your water usage is within current restrictions.

If your garden consists mostly of Mediterranean climate and succulent plants, this year’s drought should not cause alarm. On the other hand, if you have a thirsty lawn, consider replacing it with plants of the summer-dry persuasion. The same strategy would be appropriate for plants from tropical, riparian or boggy areas.

Blossoms to enjoy in July include gladiolus, agapanthus and fuchsia, and fragrant Oriental hybrid lilies, e.g., pure white ‘Casablanca’.

Casablanca Lily

I am also enjoying blossoms of Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’ trees, which are crosses of catalpa and desert willow. They put on a show reliably around Independence Day, but opened a little earlier this year.

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The Corsican hellebores (H. argutifolius) have finished their winter-to-spring display, and leaned down their bloom stalks to drop seeds all around. The seasonal task is to cut stalks to their bases to make room for the new growth, which has already started.

The tall bearded irises also have finished blooming for this year. They will look best after the flower stalks are cut down, the leaves fade, and the rhizomes enter dormancy. Every four years, during the period from mid-July to mid-September, dig and divide the rhizomes to promote blooming for net spring.

In July and August, plant autumn-blooming blubs, e.g., autumn crocus (C. speciosus and C. sativus), meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), and spider lilies: Lycoris squamigera with lilac or rose pink blooms and L. radiata with orange-red blooms.

Control cool-season annual weeds, currently going to seed: bindweed, chickweed, crab grass, knotweed, lambs-quarters, mallow, pigweed, purple deadnettle, groundsel, nettle, purslane, speedwell and spurge, as well as field grasses. Dispose of seeds in the green waste not in the compost bin! The invasive cheery yellow Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae) has already faded, leaving clusters of bulbs to sprout next spring.

Tulips

Garden centers have tons of tulips available for planting in the fall. There are countless hybrids on the market, including a seemingly endless parade of new introductions.

Tulips provide undeniably gorgeous blossoms, but they also present gardeners with the chill requirement, called vernalization. To set blooms, tulip bulbs must be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for six-to-eight weeks.

Tulips originate around the Mediterranean Basin and in central China, particularly in mountainous areas with climates like that of the Monterey Bay area, but with cooler winters that provide sufficient chill during the plant’s dormant period.

For gardening in climates with soil temperatures that provide a sufficient chill period, tulips are reliable perennials that grow, multiply and bloom with little difficulty.

For climates with more moderate winter weather, such as the Monterey Bay area, vernalization requires refrigeration. This can be provided by the supplier, or by the individual gardener, usually in the family refrigerator or second unit.

Apples and other fruit releases ethylene gas, which is harmful to tulip bulbs, so keep fruits away from the tulips.

After tulips have bloomed, and their leaves have yellowed, the gardener must lift the bubs and chill them again to promote blooms in the following season.

The easier alternative for many gardeners is to purchase already-chilled tulip bulbs, and treat them like annuals. Many mail-order nurseries will chill tulip bulbs and ship them to customers at planting time.

There are a couple other choices for creating a early spring display in the garden.

First, some species tulips require less chilling during their dormant period. Tulip species in this category include Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’, Tulipa clusiana (Lady Tulips), T. saxatilis (Candia Tulips) and T. sylvestris (Florentine Tulips). Species tulips have smaller blooms and shorter stalks than hybridized tulips, but they produce demure, colorful blooms. The plants are still great garden perennials that do not need lifting and chilling every dormant period. I will plant a few species tulip bulbs this year to learn more about this option.

The other choice is to plant spring-blooming bulbs that do not require vernalization. There are many bulbs in this category, starting with the narcissus, which is most popular. Others include allium, colchicum, crinum, crocus, gloriosa lily, hyacinth, kaffir lily, muscari, snowflake, spider lily, and watsonia. Most of these are members of the large lily family (Liliaceae), which also includes the tulip.

Now is the time to produce a display of color for your spring garden.

More

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs – species tulips

John Scheepers – species tulips

Willow Creek Gardens – species tulips

Pacific Bulb Society – information on species tulips (not sales)

Old Farmer’s Almanac – planting and growing tulips

 

Gardening Ideas for Fall

Recently, we have considered seasonal projects: harvesting annual seeds for planting and planting bulbs. Here are more timely garden projects.

More about bulbs: gophers avoid daffodils, which are toxic to them, so encircle a favored bed with daffodils to produce both a gopher barrier and a pleasing display for the spring. This project works best with island beds and costs least with wholesale prices (as little as 30¢ per bulb). A good source for daffodils by the hundred: Van Engelen, Inc., at www.vanengelen.com or (860) 567-8734.

Renovating Garden Beds

The fall is the ideal time to renovate a bed that has become neglected, overgrown or plain boring. First, clean out everything unwanted, reserving plants small enough to be relocated or given to friends.

Every three years, divide plants with rhizomes, tubers or bulbs. Divide overgrown plants by cutting their root balls into two or more segments, and replant.

Then, add compost, cultivate, and add fertilizer.

If the bed is larger than four feet in any dimension, install narrow paths to provide access to the plants without compressing the soil or stepping on plants.

Then, select plants that are right for your climate and the bed’s sun exposure, and that will grow to appropriate sizes. Also, choose plants that will combine well and please your eye.

Finally, plant, mulch and water. Keep watering until the rains take over.

Controlling Weeds

The early fall is also time to control both annual and perennial weeds.

Annual weeds include bindweed, chickweed, crab grass, knotweed, lambs-quarters, mallow, pigweed, purple deadnettle, groundsel, nettle (common), purslane, speedwell, spurge and yellow oxalis.

Perennial weeds include bindweed, burdock, dandelion, dock, ground ivy, horsetail, Japanese knotweed, plantain, poison ivy, purslane, quackgrass, thistle, ragweed and anything else you might have.

The primary strategy for organic weed control is to remove weed seeds before they mature and are dispersed. Hoeing weeds before they set seed can be effective with annual weeds.

This method certainly helps to reduce the spread of perennial weeds, but it leaves behind root segments that could re-grow. For this reason, perennial weed control includes removing the entire root system by pulling or digging. Persistence is the gardener’s friend!

Other organic approaches to weed control include providing a three-to-four inch layer of mulch between plants, to deny weed seeds the light and air they need to grow. Dense spacing of desirable plants also can crowd out weeds.

Finally, drip irrigation systems deliver water to desired plants and deny water to weeds.

Enjoy gardening in the fall!

More

A helpful resource for organic weed control is the website, Pests in Gardens and Landscapes: Weeds, maintained by the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program. This site includes weed photos, articles and fact sheets in individual weeds that are common in California gardens and landscapes.

Creative Landscaping with Bulbs

If you will plant spring bulbs this fall, there is time for design. Brent and Becky Bulbs says the ideal planting time is after the first frost and before the ground freezes. It will be a long time before Monterey Bay gardens freeze over, so you need not rush to planting. They also recommend ordering early and planting when the shipment arrives.

Disclosure: I met Brent and Becky Heath at meetings of the Garden Writers Association, which has named them to its Hall of Fame for their many good works.

Landscaping Ideas

Tentative vs. Bold. Sprinkle bulbs here and there in your garden to good effect, or create large swaths for dramatic impact.

Captive vs. Free. Bulbs are good in containers because they can be moved in and out of the spotlight as needed, but they grow best and look most natural in the ground.

Clones vs. Communities. Both large and small displays of a single cultivar are charming, while mixtures of cultivars of the same plant can offer interesting comparisons and complementary colors and forms.

Big Event vs. Extended Display. Mail-order sources often list the flowering times of spring bulbs, e.g., very early, early, mid, late, and very late. You could plan your display for a garden party or other special event, or orchestrate an extended-season display in a prominent bed.

Monochrome vs. Polychrome. Mass planting of different bulbs that flower in the same color or analogous colors can please; designing color combinations can be challenging but satisfying when the design succeeds. Search the web for “color theory” for color wheels and ideas. The website “Color Matters” is terrific. The web also has demonstrations of many color combinations, which might mix bulbous plants with other types.  For example, see the Better Homes & Gardens website:

http://www.bhg.com/gardening/flowers/bulbs/beautiful-bulb-combinations.

Botanical Garden. For an intriguing, educational and satisfying approach, group bulbs by their geographic origin.. There are bulbs from throughout the world, and very good choices from Mediterranean climate regions. South Africa is the home of a large number of bulbs, the Mediterranean Basin has many, and California’s native bulbs include Brodiaea, Calochortus, Triteleia and others.

Many mail order bulb nurseries indicate the origins of their bulbs, and some specialize in exotic choices. Good sources include Telosrarebulbs.com (international), californianative bulbs,com (California), thebulbman.com (South Africa), and www.bulbmania.com (international). Also visit the website of the Pacific Bulb Society (www.pacific bulbsociety.org ) and search for “species bulbs” for a list of suppliers of seeds and bulbs.

Enjoy your spring bulbs!

Bulbs for Next Spring

Now that the spring-blooming bulbs have enriched our gardens and faded away, it is time to prepare next spring’s display.

Spring-blooming bulbs should be lifted, divided and replanted every three or four years, so if your existing bulbs could stay in place for another year or two, you can take time off—or attend to other garden priorities that are waiting for attention.

If your garden is still a Spring Bulb Free Zone, or if you wish to bring new or additional bulbs into the picture, now is the time. Let’s review.

The Daffodil (Narcissus) is the most popular spring-blooming bulb. A multitude of great choices is available. The American Daffodil Society advises that there are between 40 and 200 different Daffodil species, subspecies or varieties of species and over 25,000 registered cultivars (named hybrids). These are divided among the thirteen divisions of the official classification system. Visit the ADS website, http://daffodilusa.org/, for full information on the divisions, which are the many delightful forms of the blossom. That website also has good advice on growing this garden favorite.

Visit Wikipedia (search for Narcissus) for fascinating (I think) information on sixteen selected species of Narcissus.

Another very popular spring-blooming bulb is the Tulip, which needs a chill period to grow well. The Monterey Bay area has insufficient cold days for Tulips, so plant pre-chilled bulbs. Most mail-order suppliers offer pre-chilled bulbs, and will ship them at planting time. Order early to be sure to get pre-chilled bulbs of the cultivars you prefer.

There are many beautiful spring-blooming bulbs beyond these favorites, so try other popular choices: Hyacinth, Crocus, Grape Hyacinth, Allium, Siberian Squill, Crown Imperial, Snowdrop, Anemone, and Freesia.

Planting spring-blooming bulbs begins with choosing a location that has full exposure to the sun and is well drained. Build a berm or raised bed to ensure good drainage. If your soil is heavy with clay content, dig in a generous, three or four inch deep layer of organic compost. Bulbs that will remain in place for the next bloom season also will benefit from a top dressing of a good compost material.

Plant the bulbs deeply: three times the height of the bulb. This works out to four-to-six inches to the bottom of the hole for a typical daffodil. Water them in and place mulch on the surface to retain moisture and discourage weeds.

Garden centers are beginning stock spring-blooming bulbs now. As always, the selection is broader when ordering from a catalog or on the Internet.

In next week’s column, we’ll consider opportunities for creative landscaping with spring bulbs.

More – Mail order sources for bulbs

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs – Spring/Fall 2013 Catalog

John Scheepers, Inc. – Beauty from Bulbs

Van Engelen, Inc. – Wholesale Price List

White Flower Farm – Fall 2013 Garden Book

Growing Gorgeous Geophytes

The fall season invites gardeners to plant bulbs to blossom in the spring and create bright swaths of color for the new gardening year.

Right now is an excellent time to design bulb bed(s) and select spring bulbs for the garden. There is a lot to consider.

One strategy is to favor the most familiar bulbs, choosing either old favorites or recent introductions. The most popular bulbs include Daffodils (Narcissus), Tulips (Tulipa), Hyacinths (Hyacinthus) and Dutch Crocuses (Crocus vernus). Garden centers offer many varieties of these plants: the long popularity of daffodils and tulips in particular has motivated hybridizers to develop a range of colors and interesting forms.

The next most familiar bulbous plants include Lilies of the Valley (Convallaria, from rhizomes), Spanish Bluebells (Scillas), Grecian Windflowers (Anemones, from tubers), Snowdrops (Galanthus), Dwarf Irises (Iris reticulata, from bulbs), and Grape Hyacinths (Muscari). There are many appealing options within these genera, as well.

Adventuresome gardeners can explore a long list of less familiar bulbs, each of which brings unique characteristics. Visit my website, ongardening.com, for links to additional options.

A different group of geophytes are summer-bloomers. This group includes Gladioli, Calla Lilies, Dahlias, Tuberous Begonias, and Crocosmias. They are planted in the early spring about the same time we plant tomato seedlings.

Other geophytes we enjoy are fall-bloomers, which are planted in the late summer: Autumn Crocus, Winter Daffodil, Guernsey Lily, Saffron Crocus, and some species of Snowdrops.

With planning, you could enjoy glamorous geophytes during much of the gardening year.

Some spring-blooming bulbs need a chilling period to bloom their best. Winter in the Monterey Bay area rarely provides a chill that is long enough and cold enough for these plants, so schedule six weeks of cold storage. The kitchen refrigerator will suffice except for larger projects, when gardeners will appreciate the luxury of a second refrigerator. Consider organizing a chilling co-op with gardening friends.

Many mail order bulb sellers offer pre-chilled bulbs to be shipped at the right time for local planting. A welcome service!

Here are the basics of planting bulbs. Choose a site that receives all-day sun, and drains well. Select larger bulbs of the preferred genus. Plant the bulbs at a depth that is about three times the bulb’s diameter, and take care to position them with the pointed end up.

Bulbs can be planted very close together and may be arranged in either formal or informal patterns. Fertilizers are not required, but a small amount of bone meal in the planting hole could help. For clay soil, add compost to improve drainage. Water to settle the soil then let the seasonal rains take over.

Prepare now for a spectacular spring.

More.

Information About Uncommon Geophytes

North Carolina State University

The Plant Expert

Pacific Bulb Society Wiki

Mail-order Suppliers of Uncommon Geophytes

Brent and Beck’s Bulbs

Odyssey Bulbs

Telos Rare Bulbs

African Bulbs

The Bulb Man