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Plant bulbs now, don’t fret about water, and be dazzled by spring

Trumpet daffodils, the 2014 Bulb of the Year, rank among the most popular bulbs with customers, said Longfield Gardens co-owner Hans Langeveld. Here, they’re shown planted en masse with a contrasting border of blue hyacinth.
Trumpet daffodils, the 2014 Bulb of the Year, rank among the most popular bulbs with customers, said Longfield Gardens co-owner Hans Langeveld. Here, they’re shown planted en masse with a contrasting border of blue hyacinth. Longfield Gardens

Drought or no drought, your garden can have bling in spring.

But to enjoy this miraculous March show, you need to get to work now.

Planted in November, spring-flowering bulbs turn a blah brown landscape into a smile-making spectacular display.

“The way I look at bulbs is like accessorizing the garden,” said garden designer and author Rebecca Sweet, who uses many bulbs in her Northern California landscapes. “Bulbs let you kick it up a notch.”

These surprise packages are like buried treasure in drought-tolerant gardens. Without much water and almost no care, they magically appear each spring to bring color and fragrance.

“People don’t realize it, but most bulbs are very drought-tolerant,” said Tami Kint of Sacramento’s Green Acres Nursery and Supply. “They prefer not sitting in water or getting a lot of water anyway. They like it dry.”

Nature designed bulbs to cope with dry times like these.

“Bulbs are food storage vessels,” explained Hans Langeveld, co-owner of Longfield Gardens, a major U.S. bulb house. “They’re a way for plants to store energy from one season to the next. This gives bulbs a big advantage over plants that only have a root system. In the spring, bulbs need some moisture to get started, but once they’ve sprouted, they are remarkably resilient.”

Their low water needs have made bulbs very popular with gardeners looking for beautiful ways to be make their yards more drought-tolerant.

“You’d think the drought would slow landscaping down, but my business has tripled,” said Sweet, who owns the Los Altos-based design firm Harmony in the Garden. “Everybody wants to rip out their lawn and put in drought-tolerant gardens.”

Bulbs allow Sweet to add bursts of color and play with contrasts. Those assets also are among the garden secrets she includes in her latest book, “Refresh Your Garden Design With Color, Texture and Form” (Horticulture, 160 pages, $19.99).

Several species of bulbs survive years, even decades, with little water and less care, she observed. “Think of those pink naked ladies (amaryllis) on old farmsteads; they keep coming back year after year. Or daffodils; there’s a reason they naturalize so easily.”

Species bulbs – those varieties that are non-hybridized and closest to their original traits – tend to be the most drought-tolerant, Sweet observed. But some hybrids of old favorites have the best of both worlds; they’ve retained their durability while offering other favorable qualities.

An example is crocosmia, she said. The old-time orange variety can be invasive, but the lipstick red Lucifer hybrid is better behaved.

In her low-water gardens, Sweet has discovered some new-old favorites. Masses of muscari (grape hyacinth) form dark blue drifts in spring. Freesias offer candy-colored hues and equally sweet scent. With interesting silver-patterned foliage as well as charming pink flowers, ivy leaf cyclamen grows well in dry shade, such as under oak trees.

“I love Reticulata iris; they look like little purple exclamation points,” she said. “And they’re wonderful combined with yellow tulips or crocus.

“I plant fairy lily – Zephranthes candida – everywhere,” she said. “It’s become my No. 1 plant. I really like alba, the white variety. That little bulb is amazing. The foliage is practically evergreen in our area; it’s very green and grass-like but it’s not a grass. And it has these beautiful crisp white flowers. It’s very drought-tolerant and you can put them everywhere, including partial shade.”

For big pops of bright blue, Sweet turns to the Peruvian lily (Scilla peruviana). “It’s such a crazy fun flower,” she said. “It has these big brilliant blue flowers; they’re a wonderful contrast to yellow or orange. It’s summer dormant, so it doesn’t need that much water.”

When people think spring bulbs, they usually envision tulips and daffodils.

“For spring-blooming bulbs, tulips and daffodils are always the best sellers,” said Longfield Gardens’ Langeveld. “There are hundreds of different varieties of tulips, but the most popular are Darwin hybrids such as Pink Impression, Blushing Apeldoorn and Olympic Flame. They are big, strong plants with very large flowers. In the daffodil world, trumpet daffodils are consistently top sellers. They bloom early and are great for naturalizing.”

In Sacramento, “daffodils definitely are the best sellers,” Kint said. “But bearded irises probably are a close second. They’re very drought-tolerant, too.”

Customers gravitate to big, bright colorful flowers, and new bulb hybrids satisfy that craving every year, Langeveld said.

“We’re also seeing alliums get more and more popular,” he said. “People love the big, round flower heads and also love the fact that alliums are deer-resistant. Deer can be a big problem for many gardeners and the easiest solution is to plant things deer won’t eat. Alliums are in the onion family and fortunately, deer don’t like the taste of onions.”

For Northern California, Langeveld recommends bulbs from other drought-prone regions.

“Many flower bulbs, including anemones, iris, alliums and crocosmia are native to arid climates,” he said. “Other bulbs that grow well in low-water conditions include eucomis (pineapple lily), nerine (Guernsey lily) and amaryllis.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

BULBS 101

Bulbs are a wonder of nature. Each bulb is actually an underground flower factory, containing everything that plant will need to sprout, grow, bloom and reproduce. That’s one reason they’re ideal for low-water gardens. They don’t need much moisture to start and complete this flower-making process. Thousands of bulb varieties are available for gardeners from amaryllis to zephyranthes. Do some research before buying for your specific garden needs.

▪ Some bulbs – such as tulips and hyacinths – need to be chilled before planting in Northern California. That re-sets their biological clock and cues the bloom cycle. In areas with snowy winters, these bulbs get chilled in the ground. In Sacramento, they need to spend six weeks in the refrigerator before fall planting. While the bulbs are chilling, avoid keeping apples or pears in the refrigerator; those fruits emit a gas that can rot the bulbs.

▪ Plant spring-blooming bulbs in fall, September to early December. If possible, stagger the plantings over three or four weeks to extend the bloom season next spring. Bulbs planted now will bloom in March or April.

▪  Bulbs need good drainage but not much water until they sprout. Ideally, they like sandy loam, but will tolerate almost any soil. If your soil is heavy clay, add compost to improve drainage. Add a little bone meal or bulb food to the flower bed or container just before planting.

▪ Plant bulbs two times deeper than the height of the bulb. Most bulbs are planted pointy end up. Put a teaspoon of bone meal in each hole before placing the bulb or, for a group planting, spread a handful of bone meal over the bottom of the planting hole. Back fill with soil to cover the bulbs. Water deeply just once. Then, wait.

▪ Before you forget where you planted them, make a map of bulb locations including varieties and planting dates and keep it with your garden notes. Place garden markers at bulb locations before or after they sprout.

▪ Winter rain usually takes care of any irrigation needs for the bulbs before they sprout. If there’s no rain for a month, give them another slow, deep watering. But bulbs prefer to be kept relatively dry.

▪ After they bloom, leave the foliage on the bulbs. That’s gathering energy and restocking the bulb’s underground reserves. Once the foliage has died back, it can be trimmed. Most bulbs can be left in the ground undisturbed. (They like dry summers.) Dig up tulips and hyacinths to re-chill.

Planting bulb ‘lasagna’

Bulbs can form an intense display when they’re overplanted in layers, “lasagna” style. This can be done in the ground or in a large container, at least one foot deep with good drainage.

If planting in a container, cover the bottom with at least 4 inches of potting soil. Sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of bone meal for every dozen bulbs. Place the biggest bulbs (such as tulips or daffodils) in a layer on the bottom, pointing up. Space them about 2 inches apart. Cover with 2 inches of potting soil.

Plant another layer of bulbs such as hyacinths or alliums, leaving about 2 inches between each bulb. (Don’t worry about where the spaces line up; the bulbs underneath will find the gaps.) Cover with another 2 inches of soil. Sprinkle another tablespoon of bone meal. Scatter over the top of the soil some shallow-rooted corms or rhizomes such as anemones or ranunculus. Lightly cover with more soil.

Gently tamp down the soil and soak. Your “lasagna” bulb garden will sprout in late February or March.

▪ Another form of lasagna planting with fewer layers is to use annual flowers over the bulbs. (The annuals also can replace the top layer of anemones or ranunculus in the three-layer example.) After the bulbs are in place, overplant shallow-rooted annuals such as pansies or Iceland poppies on top. While you wait for the bulbs to bloom, the annuals provide color through the winter.

Also try planting crocus or daffodils under low-water herbs such as thyme or oregano. The bulbs offer bursts of spring color and a surprising touch to herb gardens or borders.

Bulbs in containers

Pots of almost all sizes can be used for tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other spring bloomers. The main criteria for bulb containers are enough depth (daffodils and tulips need about 6 inches, measuring from the base of the bulb) and good drainage.

Fill the bottom of the container with potting mix up to the planting depth. Sprinkle a layer of bone meal and mix lightly into this bottom layer. Place one to three bulbs in the center, then arrange others in circles around those middle bulbs until the container is filled. It’s OK to crowd them in with only an inch or two of separation.

A dozen bulbs fit easily into a 10-inch pot; six will fill a 6-inch container. A half wine barrel can hold at least 30. (Ironstone Winery, known for its massive bulb displays, puts 75 bulbs per half wine barrel.) Cover the bulbs with more potting mix until they sit at their proper depth.

To add a little winter color before the bulbs emerge, overplant with shallow-rooted annuals such as pansies or violas (six plants work well for a 10-inch pot). Place in a sunny location and water as needed.

In February, the bulbs will start pushing through the annuals and bloom in March or April, giving you a changing bouquet through late winter into spring.

Because these flower are in pots, you can move your display around as needed. (You can even bring them indoors for a day or two.) After the bulbs fade, move the container to a less conspicuous part of your garden where the bulbs can recharge for next year’s bloom.

Debbie Arrington

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