One of fall's most important and exciting jobs is to start buying and
planting spring-flowering bulbs. Bulbs are easy plants to grow. They
have a mystique bordering on the miraculous, but growing them here in
Southern California is different from growing them in the East or
Many bulbs need to undergo a cold winter in order to bloom; here in
California, we can give them the chill they need by placing these
types in the vegetable drawer for a period of about 6-8 weeks prior
to planting. These bulbs should generally not be left in the ground
when the foliage has died down after they bloom. They should be
lifted and stored in a cool, well-aired area (keeping them in a brown
paper bag is a good idea), then re-refrigerated once again 6-8 weeks
prior to planting the following spring.
There are several types of bulbs that can be naturalized (left in the
ground) and will bloom reliably each spring without any winter chill
at all. Many of these are drought resistant, and are unbelievably
easy to grow.
BUY BULBS NOW TO PLANT LATER
Bulb season is short and garden centers generally order a finite
amount of stock, so begin purchasing spring-flowering bulbs as soon
as possible. They soon get picked over and sometimes get put back in
the wrong bins. Do your research on the more exotic bulbs; some are
not suited to our temperate climate. Choose the largest and fattest
bulbs (because they produce the biggest blooms) and make sure the
bulb is firm and not spongy. Make sure you label each bag with the
type of bulb, its color and its recommended planting depth and
Bulbs to naturalize
Among the best bulbs to naturalize in California are daffodils
(Narcissus), Dutch iris, grape hyacinth (Muscari), Freesia, Sparaxis,
Ixia, Watsonia, Lycoris and Crocosmia. Included in the Narcissus
family are the popular paperwhites; they will be the first to bloom
in this group and are prized for their heady fragrance.
Dutch iris and Freesia make wonderful cut flowers. Daffodils can also
be used for bouquets, but if you plan to use them in a mixed
arrangement with other flowers, their stems must be seared with an
open flame after cutting - the sap in the plant will cause the other
flowers to wilt quickly. If you have a gopher problem however,
daffodils are a great choice; because they are poisonous, gophers
will not eat them (unlike tulips, which they love).
When planting these types of bulbs, it is best not to be too precise
in their placement - this will give a much more natural, much less
contrived look to the planting area. A good method for placement is
to take a handful of bulbs and gently toss them - where they land is
where they will be planted.
Eventually (usually in about 3-4 years), the bulbs will become
overcrowded and their blooms will decline. When this happens, it is
time to divide the clump and replant the bulbs; you will probably
have quite a few to share with family and friends!
Bulbs that require pre-chilling
Tulips and hyacinths require much more winter chill than we receive in California. For this reason, they must be chilled in
the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator before planting, as noted
above. What will happen if you skip this step? If they bloom at all, the flowers will be born on very short stems. This isn't very attractive when it comes to the tulips or hyacinths.
After the foliage has all turned brown (never cut off green foliage
on a bulb - it is through the foliage that it gets the necessary
nutrients to bloom the following year), the bulbs must then be dug up
and stored as detailed above. While they may sprout and bloom the
following year if left in the ground, they will not be as vigorous or
as floriferous and eventually they will decline completely. They also
may rot due to overwatering during their dormant state, when they
have no means to use water; this is a particular problem in beds with
other plants that must be watered over the summer.
Bulbs that can be planted without pre-chilling,
but won't naturalize well
Ranunculus and anemones do not need pre-chilling, but it is best if
they are lifted (after the foliage has withered and died), stored in
a well-aired place and replanted each spring. Like tulips, hyacinths
and crocus, they tend to decline each year when left in the ground.
They should not be eliminated from the bulb garden because of this,
though. They put on such a beautiful display that, even if you
treated them as an annual, it would be worth it. Both ranunculus and
anemones make great cut flowers.
Buy early, wait a bit to plant
Even though it will be tempting to plant your little beauties as soon
as you return from the garden center, we strongly advise you wait a
little longer before planting them. They will perform much better if
you plant them in mid- to late October, when the daytime temperatures
have cooled down and the nights are crisp and fresh. For the time
being, keep them in brown paper bags in the garage; you can
congratulate yourself on the fact that you "beat the crowd"
to the garden center and were able to select all the colors and types
you really wanted!