Adventuresome Gardening

Regular readers of this column know of my interest in plants from the world’s summer-dry climates, also called the Mediterranean Basin regions. Many plants from these exotic regions will thrive in the Monterey Bay area, and provide attractive and exciting alternatives to the garden center’s humdrum horticulture. Cultivating such plants is the enterprise of adventuresome gardeners and seekers of botanical thrills.

There are countless examples of such plants to be discovered among the selections of mail-order nurseries, either in published catalogs or online. To be fair, local garden centers also might have a few offbeat offerings; it’s worth asking the staff to mention any unusual plants.

One candidate for a featured position in the landscape is the Puya, which is one of about fifty-seven genera in the Bromeliad family. Just about all bromeliads are native to the tropical Americas. About half of the species are epiphytes (growing on air and rain), some are lithophytes (growing on rocks), and the rest are terrestrial (growing on earth). The most familiar of the terrestrial bromeliads is the pineapple (Ananas comosus).

Another terrestrial bromeliad is the Puya. This genus includes about 210 species, several of which are native to Chile, where they have the common name chagual.

One of the Chilean Puyas is the Blue (or Turquoise) Puya (P. berteroniana). This plant grows a flower spike about six-to-ten feet tall, and has exceptional landscape value because of its extraordinary 1.5” waxy, metallic blooms of an unearthly emerald-turquoise color, with contrasting bright orange stamens. The blooms hold blue, syrupy nectar that attracts hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.

Puya berteronianas

The Blue Puya can be found in some public gardens. I viewed several fine specimens, and took this photo, about one year ago, in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, in Canberra.

Locally, the Blue Puya is in bloom now at the UCSC Arboretum. The blooms do not last long, so to see one of nature’s most extraordinary flowers, visit the UCSC Arboretum soon. For information and pictures, visit and click on “What’s Blooming.”

The Chilean bed in my garden includes two quite young examples of this genus: a Blue Puya (P. berteroniana) and a Silver Puya (P. coerulea). These are slow-growing plants, now years away from blossoming in my garden. While they are not yet pleasing my eyes, they are already trying my patience (a little) and piquing my imagination.

Annie’s Annuals lists nine Puya species, but current availability includes just three. Similarly, the wholesale nursery San Marcos Growers lists eight Puya species, with just three currently in production. Your local garden center could special-order plants from these nurseries, or another preferred source. Search the Internet by botanical name for information to share with garden visitors.

You certainly can keep your garden’s tried and true selections, but consider adding exotic plants to enrich your landscape.

Exotic Bulbs for Spring Bloom

As we proceed into autumn, the gardener’s thoughts turn to the gratifying display of spring bulbs.

If your garden already includes bulbs that bloom each spring, and you have all you want, relax and let nature do its thing!

If you want more blooms to brighten your spring, however, plant bulbs during the next few weeks.

The general rule is to plant bulbs before the ground freezes, but Monterey Bay area gardeners can only imagine a freeze to schedule bulb planting.

In this temperate climate, bulbs that do not require vernalization (dormant period chilling) are most convenient.

There are many bulbs in this category, including the popular narcissus, plus 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.

Several species tulips require little chilling during their dormant period, including Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’, T. clusiana (Lady Tulip), T. saxatilis (Candia Tulip) and T. sylvestris (Florentine Tulip). All these produce demure, colorful blooms.

By contrast, hybridized tulips, with larger blooms and taller stalks, require chilling. Some helpful suppliers offer pre-chilled bulbs of hybridized tulips.

Bulbous plants are native to the globe’s five summer-dry climates, particularly the Mediterranean region, South Africa, and California. Adventuresome gardeners can have a great time growing spring bulbs from one or more of these areas.

Triteleia laxa

Triteleia laxa ‘Queen Fabiola’

Such projects require some research. The larger mail-order bulb suppliers offer at least a few bulbous species from faraway places, among the mainstream varieties, but their catalogs have inconsistent information about the country of origin.

Here are sources of bulbous plant information, by country of origin:

  • Pacific Bulb Society’s Wiki, a volunteer-written on-line encyclopedia of flowering bulbs, with photographs.
  • Telos Rare Bulbs, a mail-order nursery in Ferndale (on the California coast, near the state’s northern border), offers a great selection of native plants of California, South America and South Africa.
  • Mediterranean Area: Alpine Garden Society lists specialized books on bulbous plants, including Bulbs of the Eastern Mediterranean, by botanist Oron Peri. The bulbous plant cognoscenti are thrilled with this newly released book.
  • South Africa: The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs (2002), by John C. Manning, Peter Goldblatt, and Dee Snijman.
  • Chile: Few bulbous plants are native to Chile, including Glory-of-the-Sun (Leucocoryne) and the striking—and rare—Blue Chilean Crocus (Tecophileae cyanocrocus). Both are available from Telos Rare Bulbs. For the short list, visit Chileflora (click on Seeds Shop/Life Form: Bulbous Plants) or Sacred Succulents (click on Rare & Beneficial Plants from Chile), a small, family-run business in Sebastopol, California.
  • Australia: Gardeners of the land down under cultivate several bulbous plants that originated in other areas, but apparently few if any that are native to Australia. (If you know of any, let me know.) The region’s popular Chocolate Lily (Dichopogon strictus) is attractive, but it’s tuberous, not bulbous.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 12.20.55 PMThrough a recent search of the Internet. I found a new book by Attila Kapitany, Australian Native Bulbs (2015). This book highlights eight native
species of bulbs, corms, and tubers, and “discusses many more.” It is available on eBay with shipping costs for the interested buyer to discover.





Cultivating exotic bulbs can be challenging, intriguing and rewarding, as beautiful and out-of-the-ordinary blooms appear in the spring.


Comments and Questions are Welcome


Right Time, Right Plants

Tom Karwin

Each spring, many gardeners seek new plants for their gardens. That’s understandable, since that is when gardens spring into new life (sorry about that!).

The spring can be a good time to plant seeds for annuals, but the fall is by far the better time to plant perennials because our rainy season, beginning historically around mid-October, hydrates the plants while they establish roots and prepare for the following spring.

For this reason, we have excellent plant sales during the fall, offered by non-profit garden groups that support your gardening success, and of course want to earn money for their activities.

These sales offer California natives and other plants that thrive in the Monterey Bay area’s summer-dry climate and that align very nicely with your plans to build soil health in your garden.

Two early sales happen Saturday, October 3rd.

  • The Monterey Chapter of the California Native Plant Society will have its annual plant sale from 10:00 to 1:00 at the Hilton Bialek Habitat at Carmel Middle School. Info:
  • Watsonville Wetlands Watch will host its 3rd annual Pajaro Valley Backyard Habitat Festival and Native Plant Sale from 9:00 to 4:00 at the Fitz Wetlands Educational Recourse Center, at Pajaro Valley High School. Info: .

Two more sales have been announced for the following Saturday, October 10th.

The Santa Cruz Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the UCSC Arboretum will hold their sales together at the UCSC Arboretum’s Eucalyptus Grove. The entrance to the sale is on High Street, is across from Western Drive, on the edge of the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Both sales are open for members from 10:00 – 12:00, and for the public from 12:00 – 4:00. Memberships for both organizations will be available at the gate on the day of the sale.

Info for the CNPS sale:

Info for the Arboretum sale: (click on “Events/Recurring Events”)

The Arboretum’s sale includes selections from dry-summer climate regions in California, South Africa and Australia, offering opportunities for venturesome gardeners to add exotic plants to their landscapes. As one example, Melinda Kranj, Curator of the Australian Collections, has shared her knowledge of an iconic Australian plant in “Banksias Breath New Life for a Fall Garden” (click on “News” on the Arboretum website). She wrote, “The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is currently growing about 50 species, and many different varieties and cultivars” and will have several Banksias available at the sale.

Banksia victoriae

Banksia victoriae

Incidentally, the generic name of this plant honors English botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who collected the first Banksia specimens in 1770, while on Captain James Cook’s first expedition into the south Pacific.

These plant sales are scheduled at the right time, and they offer plants that are right for our regional climate. As always, the gardener should install new plants in the right place in the landscape. Consider mature size and sun exposure, as well as garden aesthetics.

South African Flora

As California’s drought stretches into the future, the plants of Earth’s five Mediterranean climate zones attract gardeners’ interest and soon earn their appreciation. Many of these plants are fine additions to the landscape, offering beauty, fragrance and benefits for garden fauna as well as easy cultivation (with some exceptions) and environmental friendliness.

In today’s column, with our feet on the ground, we have an overview of the flora of one of these “summer-dry” zones: South Africa.

This relatively small country’s Mediterranean climate zone is the very small and extraordinary Cape Floristic Region. As background, botanists have identified six Floristic Regions (floral kingdoms) of the world. These are regions with distinctive plant life. The Cape Floristic Region, by far the smallest of the six, is noteworthy for very high diversity of plant life, with over 8,000 species, and very high endemism: nearly 70% of the plant species are native to the Region and nowhere else.

Much of the Region’s botanic diversity grows on the fire-prone shrub land called fynbos, which is roughly comparable to California’s chaparral. Both of these two shrub lands have shrubs with hard leaves, closely spaced on their stems.

The fynbos is the home for numerous small shrubs, evergreen and herbaceous plants, and bulbs, many of which are in three plant families.

The Protea family (Proteaceae), which includes 80 genera and 1,600 species, all in the Southern Hemisphere, and mostly in South Africa and Australia. The family name comes from the name of the Greek god Proteus, who could change between many forms. The adjective “protean” (changeable, versatile) has the same root. Plants in this family have a great diversity of flowers and leaves.

The popular South African genera in the Protea family include

  • Proteas (sugarbushes), which come in a range of heights, from three feet to nine feet, with unique compound flower heads (correctly, inflorescences) in pink or sometimes red.9-11-15 Protea
  • Leucospermums (pincushions), most reach four-to-five feet tall, with yellow, orange, pink or red flowers.

9-11-15 Leucospermum

  • Leucadendrons (conebushes), various species grow from three-to-eight feet tall; the striking silver tree (L. argenteum) reaches 25-to-40 feet tall, with “soft, silky, shimmering, silvery-green-gray, lance-shaped foliage.” The cone-shaped flowers typically are surrounded by petal-like bracts, often combining red and yellow colors.

9-11-15 Leucadendron

Australia is home to several genera of the Proteaceae, including banksia, grevillea and hakea.

The Cape heaths (Ericaceae) include some 660 species that are endemic to South Africa, and are often called winter (or spring) heather. Another 40 species, including summer (or autumn) heather are native to other parts of Africa the Mediterranean basin and Europe. Most of the Cape heaths are small shrubs, from eight inches to sixty inches in height, with attractive tubular pink flowers throughout the year.

The Cape reeds (Restionaceae). The genus Restio includes 168 species in South Africa. Various species of Restio grow from one-to-ten feet tall, with tiny flowers grouped in spikelets that comprise inflorescences. Other genera in this family of perennial, evergreen rush-like flowering plants are found throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

To view photographs of South African plants, serve the web for the plant’s botanical name and click on the menu option for images. Better yet: to experience the real presence of these plants, browse to, navigate to Visit/Gardens and Collections/South Africa, and tour the Arboretum’s South African collection in person. You could become inspired to bring South Africa’s botanical bounty into your own garden.

The Ageless Aeonium

Today, we introduce the genus Aeonium, which includes 35 species, most of which are from the Canary Islands, northeast of Africa.

These plants are characterized by the development of rosettes of leaves on basal stems, i.e., stems that rise from the plant’s roots.

The generic name, Aeonium, comes from an ancient Greek word that means “ageless.” In fact, for most species, the rosettes die after producing a flower, although the entire plant lives. A few species are monocarpic, meaning that they produce a single rosette without a stem, and then the entire plant dies.

Popular Cultivars

  1. A. ‘Zwartcop’ (Black Rose), a cultivar of A. arboretum, develops rosettes with very dark reddish-purple, almost black leaves, on stems that can rise to four feet. This plant produces effective displays in the landscape or in a mixed container, especially when contrasted with yellow flowers like those of the plant’s own blossoms.
  2. A. ‘Sunburst’ (Copper Pinwheel), a cultivar of A. davidbramwellii, is a variegated form, with large rosettes with variegated green and white leaves edged in bright, coppery red. The stalks rise up to 18 inches. ‘Sunburst’, like other variegated plants, can provide pleasing contrast in the garden.

Aeonium 'Sunburst' best

  1. 3. A. nobile (Noble Aeonium) produces a single, stemless rosette up to nearly two feet in diameter, making it entirely distinctive among the aeoniums. The leaves are yellowish, with a reddish edge when grown in bright light. This is one of the monocarpic aeoniums: it dies after producing its reddish blossoms.
  2. A. tabuliforme (Saucer Plant, Dinner Plate Plant) is another monocarpic aeonium that provides a single, unique, nearly flat stemless rosette.


Aeoniums will be dormant during the summer months and resume growing in the early autumn.

They are very easy to grow in containers, where they flourish with their shallow roots and occasional watering. Use a normal potting soil, rather than a fast-draining cactus mix. In the Monterey Bay area, they prefer bright morning sun and afternoon shade. Fertilize only when the leaves become yellowish, indicating nitrogen deficiency. Too much fertilizer will promote too-rapid growth and weak stems.

When grown in the garden in this area, aeoniums require little care. As with container plants, avoid very rich soil and fertilizers.


All aeonium species and hybrids can be propagated from seeds, but most are propagated easily from stem cuttings. This might be done to produce additional plants or to bring a rangy plant into a more compact form. During the plant’s normal growth period, from autumn to mid-spring, cut a rosette with up to five inches of stem (shorter for smaller, shrub-like forms) and place in a cool shady place for at least three days, to heal over. Then, place the cutting in a normal potting mix, in a small container, and in a shaded, windless location to reduce moisture loss. After the plant has established roots, place in a container or in the garden.

The monocarpic species are not propagated from stem cuttings, but from leaf cuttings, which are more successful with A. tabuliforme than with A. nobilis.

Aeoniums are drought-tolerant plants that are easy to cultivate and interesting additions to the garden.

Restoring Soil

Several people commented on last week’s column on the carbon cycle. All endorsed the concept of restoring garden soil, to support its natural ability to sequester carbon.

One reader had questions about how to go about restoring garden soil. This is a Big Topic and you, good reader, might have your own questions, but you also might share his interests. My brief responses are below. Visit for more details, including plant suggestions.

Q. Plow the grass under?

A. Losing the thirsty lawn is a good first step, because such monocultures are not appealing to wildlife. Plowing, however, could both promote re-growth of the grass and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. A better approach is to kill the grass over several sunny weeks by covering it with clear plastic (solarization), or with newspaper or cardboard (smothering).

For information on Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes, visit the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management webpage on the topic. The presentation emphasizes pest control; in this context, unwanted turf grass amounts to a pest.

The California Native Plant Society has Detailed lawn removal advice.

Q. Plant different grass?

A. Yes! California native grasses can provide the basis of an attractive meadow, which is more casual than a manicured carpet of turf grass. A meadow has unique aesthetic appeal; supports a variety of wildflowers and wildlife; requires little water, infrequent mowing, and no chemicals; and helps to restore the soil.

Kids on Native Grass Lawn

Lily Baker’s front yard in San Jose
features a native grass lawn.
California native grasses help restore the soil.

For information on several California native grasses, visit the Tree of Life Nursery’s web page, “Masses of Grasses.”

A very good book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien is Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (2011).

Q. Grow more trees?

A. Absolutely! Trees and large shrubs are attractive additions to the landscape, valuable participants in the carbon cycle, and welcomed by all forms of wildlife. Invest a little research to select trees will thrive in your climate, and grow to an appropriate size for your landscape. Again, California natives are good choices.

A good introduction to California native trees and larger shrubs is available from the non-profit Nipomo Native Garden, which has produced a web page, “Native Trees for Landscaping and Wildlife.”

Q. Eliminate ground cover in favor of something with deeper roots?

A. Ground covers are any plants that hug surface or rise to any height up to four feet. Most importantly, they protect soil and soil microbiota from baking in the sun, or eroding. During the fall and winter, plant seasonal cover crops that draw nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Examples of such “nitrogen-fixing” plants include peas, beans, and clover. In the spring, before your cover crop sets seed, till the plants under to decompose and release their nitrogen into the soil to support the growth of other plants.

Deeper roots mean better drought-tolerance: deep-rooted plant can find moisture far below the surface. Such plants are generally preferable in the landscape, all other factors being equal.

The depth of roots varies among plants, reflecting adaptation to the plant’s environment. Among weedy grasses, for example, Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) has roots only about right inches deep, while Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) can grow to 60 inches deep in search of water.

Infrequent, deep irrigation encourages all plants to develop deep roots and drought tolerance. A common error with automatic irrigation systems is to schedule frequent, brief periods of watering. This practice encourages shallow roots, ultimately increases overall water usage and leaves plants vulnerable to dry periods.

Q. Shallower roots?

A. The advantage of shallower roots is that plants growing in arid climates have immediate access to occasional rains. Succulent plants have adapted to such conditions by developing shallow roots and the ability to store scarce moisture in their leaves, stems or roots. For this reason, gardeners often appreciate succulent plants for both drought tolerance and landscape appeal.

The New California Garden, which we envision here, features meadow grasses and succulent plants: a good time to start is now.

Bare Root Trees and Shrubs

One of the best bargains in gardening is planting bare root trees and shrubs. And now is the time to do just that.

Bare root trees are dormant, by definition, and not attractive in the usual way, but they are excellent candidates for addition to your garden.

Bare Root Tree

Click to Enlarge

I have often written of the advantages of buying mail order plants, to draw from a wider selection than local garden centers can offer. That’s still a good practice for many plants, although there are drawbacks, as well: mail order buyers need to confirm that the plant of interest is right for their garden, particularly in terms of winter temperatures. Some tropical plants will not survive even the moderate winters of the Monterey Bay area, and some require more winter chill than they will receive in our climate, and will not blossom or fruit well here.

Years ago, eager to start a small orchard of antique varieties of apple and pear trees, I ordered ten bare root plants from a mid-west nursery, only to watch them struggle and eventually fail for lack of winter chill. Purely by chance, one tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin, managed to survive my garden’s USDA zone and is producing very tasty apples to this year. That tree stands to remind me to do my homework before ordering mail order plants.

The hazards of selection are less important during bare root season because local garden centers are able to stock very good inventories of bare root trees and shrubs that are right for the local climate.

Despite the best efforts of garden centers, the economics of stocking containerized plants limit inventories of plants in pots: they cost more to ship and require more space, and offered at twice the price of the same plant in bare root.

Conversely, mail order suppliers (which still might offer a greater range of choices) can ship wholesale orders of bare root plants efficiently to garden centers, but have to recover the greater costs of shipping small quantities of plants to retail purchasers. So, for individual gardeners, the mail order price could be higher than the garden center price.

Additional benefits of buying bare root plants include larger root mass, according to researchers, easier to move and plant without soil and container, and faster growth because they adapt easily to local soil as they come out of dormancy.

The range of options at a garden center could include ornamentals, fruit trees, roses and berries. Many other shrubs could be offered in bare root form, as well, with the same advantages, but I have seen little development of that market.

When selecting an ornamental or fruit tree, look for a straight trunk, evenly spaced branches (if any), good spread of healthy-looking roots that have been kept moist, and a complete lack of any wounds or disease.

Many garden centers also offer espaliered fruit trees that have been developed by grafting branches in the right places, rather than by the time- and labor-consuming process of training. Some espaliered dwarf apple trees include grafts of several apple varieties, to produce a healthy young tree that will both fit a tight space in the garden and produce a selection of applies that ripen at different times during the season.

It is important to plant bare root specimens before bud break, so there is a small window of opportunity for the lowest prices. Don’t delay!

Shrub Selection

Q. I love your column and appreciate that you invite questions.  I want to grow a thick but attractive shrub on the shady side of my house.  It receives very little sun there and is somewhat damp.  Do you have any suggestions?

I live between Fremont and Del Monte off of Montecito in Monterey, if that gives you an idea of the weather.

I like tea trees and they do well in my front yard, but there’s more sun there.  A friend recommended Dodonea, which I’m not thrilled with, but it would be okay.  I don’t know about Abutalon, it might need more sun.

If you could suggest something, I would be most grateful.

A. The Dodonaea is an interesting option, but it’s a tropical plant that appreciates more sun than you seem to have in this spot. Here’s a link to a description of the Purple-leafed Hop-Bush, from San Marcos Growers:

The Abutilon also prefers full sun. It’s attractive but may be more open in structure than you are looking for.

I prefer to recommend California native plants, as you might already know. A very good California native shrub is the Ceanothus (California Lilac), which would do well in your garden. I have a list of over twenty Ceanothus species that are shade tolerant. I could narrow down that list to a few options for your situation, based on the mature size that you would want for a plant in this location.

Let me know what height and width you have in mind for this plant.

Q. Wow!  You’re wonderful!  Thank you so much!  I agree that natives are the best, but I forget that.  Not quite there yet.  The ideal height would be around 7 feet tall.  It would be along a fence, so the width of the area I want to cover would be about 30 feet.

In my rush, I had forgotten to check what the Ceanothus looked like.  Of course, having grown up on the Peninsula, I am very familiar with it.  It’s flower is soapy, as I recall from having smashed them as a child.  This is a beautiful plant, full of color!  I love it!   With the dimensions that I gave you, do you think it would work, where would you recommend I buy it, and do you ever recommend gardeners?  Thank you!


I reviewed the lists of such shrubs in a couple reference books, and searched through the inventories of some likely sources: San Marcos Growers, Suncrest Nursery, Las Pilitas Nursery and Yerba Buena Nursery. They all list several Ceanothus plants, but most are sun-loving, and the shade tolerant varieties tend to be low-growing. The remaining candidates might or might not be in stock at present.

So, on a recent visit to Native Revival Nursery, I found two varieties of Ceanothus thrysiflorus that might meet your needs. Both are listed as being shade-tolerant and capable of growing to 10 feet. When grown in partial shade, I would expect that they would not reach their maximum height, but would top out closer to the seven feet you have targeted.

These plants are in stock  at Native Revival Nursery (2600 Mar Vista Drive, Aptos).

They have both varieties in 5-gallon size for $24.99 each. The Snow Flurry is also available in 1-gallon size, for $9.99.

Blue Blossom grows to six feet wide, so for a 30-foot screen you would need five plants.

Snow Flurry grows to 8-12 feet wide (perhaps 8-9 feet wide in the partial shade), so you would need four plants.

You could mix the blossom colors, too!

Best wishes. I hope this helps.

Q. What a wonderful resource you are!  Thank you for these ideas and attachments.  I have written to the nursery and let them know that I’d like to buy three Blue Blossom and two Snow Flurry.  Thank you so much for your help!

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

Click to Enlarge

 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

Click to Enlarge

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


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 with Exotics

Many of the plants we enjoy in our gardens produce flowers. We also enjoy many plants for their foliage, but the flowering plants, called angiosperms, are the ones that attract our attention.

The angiosperms, which first developed about 245 million years ago, have grown to dominate the terrestrial ecosystems, exceeded only by the coniferous forests.

There are about 260,000 species of angiosperms, and the growers of the most popular garden species have produced countless selections, hybrids and cultivars. When we visit our local garden centers or flip through catalogs of mail order plants, we see most often those variations of the most familiar plants.

Some avid gardeners eagerly seek the latest introductions of roses, irises, petunias and other and take pleasure in being among the first in their communities to have the hybridizers’ newest achievements. Each year, when we might think that new versions of popular plants are not possible, we find unexpected colors, new color combinations, more vigorous or more floriferous producers, and plants that have been bred to be more resistant to pests and diseases.

These new introductions are often the most costly plants offered, reflecting both their appeal to consumers and the costs of development and introduction. The most enthusiastic collectors of the best and latest do not flinch and gladly pay the premium prices.

Gardeners who appreciate unfamiliar and interesting plants have alternatives to each year’s new crop of high-priced new introductions. The vast array of angiosperms includes many exotic, garden-worthy plants with gorgeous blossoms that are rarely seen in garden centers or catalogs, and are very much worth the time and attention of gardeners.

The local gardener’s search for exotic flowers will be most successful when focused on plants that are well suited for the special growing conditions of the Monterey Bay area. These include plants from the world’s “summer-dry” climate regions, including coastal California, the central coast of Chile, the southwestern coast of Australia, South Africa and of course the Mediterranean basin.

A wide selection of interesting plants is native to these areas, and will succeed in the Monterey Bay area with routine care.

One example of an interesting exotic from a summer-dry climate is the Giant White Squill (Urginea maritima), which is a member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae). This plant, which is from the Mediterranean basin, has an enormous bulb (perhaps the largest of any plant), and an unusual annual cycle. It grows in the winter: large leaves appear from November to about May, when they yellow and dry, and the plant goes dormant. Then, in late July, it sends up a dramatic flower spike, up to five feet high. Each spike has a raceme of hundreds of tiny white or pinkish-red flowers.

Click to enlarge. Giant White SquillClick to Enlarge Giant White Squill - CU Unusual plants that will grow w ell in your climate, can add a good measure of interest to your garden. Watch for exotic selections in your garden center or garden catalogs.


The Giant White Squill has interesting characteristics.

  • All parts of the plant are toxic.
  • The flower stalks will continue to blossom after being cut, so you could bring a stalk indoors to watch the progressive opening of the blossoms.

For information about “uncommon and astonishing” plants, visit the website of Louis the Plant Geek. His website has information on many exotic plants, and includes photos of the Giant White Squill in leaf.

Gardeners oriented to reading could look for the book, Bizarre Botanicals, by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross (Timber Press, 2010). It could be in your local public library or book store, and is currently available on

Wherever you find exotic plants for your garden, always favor plants that are suitable for your garden’s growing conditions. For most gardeners in the Monterey Bay area, remember that such plants are native to the Mediterranean climate region.

Be horticulturally adventuresome while increasing your chances for success!