Planting bulbs is not for everyone, especially those in need of immediate gratification. You may have to wait six months to see flowers from the bulbs you plant in October. Some people don’t plant bulbs because of their short bloom period, which is seldom more than a few weeks. Bulb lovers are those who have discovered that the most glorious moments in the garden – while brief – are worth waiting for.
To appreciate bulbs, it helps to have a sense of drama. You place a lump of starchy tissue in the ground just as the growing season comes to a close. In the same spot, while the rest of the garden still sleeps, green shoots will rise majestically from below, bearing flowers of exquisite shape and beauty, the first harbinger of spring.
The Dutch, to whom the world will be eternally indebted for the hybridization and popularization of bulbs, have turned garden drama into a fine art. Keukenhof Gardens, a 60-acre park in Holland, is open six weeks a year – when the tulips, daffodils and hyacinths are in bloom. The rest of the year is spent planning for it.
In Southern California, many types of bulbs must be purchased annually for their flowers to adorn the garden each spring. Hybrid tulips, trumpet daffodils, anemones, hyacinths, ranunculus and crocus usually bloom but a single season, and do not come back the next year. Either the winter is too warm for the bulbs to break dormancy, or the soil drains poorly, or the bulbs are planted too shallow or too deep, or in too much sun.
The result, in any case, is the same: The bulb rots before it can push up another flower the next spring. Those with the best chance of growing these bulb types are blessed with sandy soil and live in the north end of the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Clarita or the Antelope Valley.
Some bulbs do well in our area even when the soil drains poorly and the winters are mild. Two of the most striking plants in this category have enormous clusters of blue flowers: Spanish bluebells (Endymion) and Peruvian squill (Scilla peruviana). Two amaryllis types – the spring-blooming, orange- red Hippeastrum and the summer-blooming naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna) – are dependable performers, as is Crinum, with large pink trumpets borne on cornstalk stems. Rounding out the list of nonfussy bulbs are paper-white narcissus, fragrant jonquils and Leucojum, whose flowers resemble lily-of-the- valley.
There are other less common, well-performing bulbs, many from South Africa, that are not always available in local nurseries (with the exception of Burkard’s in Pasadena). Foremost among them is Sparaxis, the harlequin flower, in colors ranging from pink to orange to red to maroon, with yellow at the petal bases and black markings. Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum arabicum) has small black spheres in the center of waxy-white flowers, and pregnant onion (Ornithogalum caudatum) is a garden curiosity, named because it forms tiny bulbs above ground under its onion-like skin. Also worthy of mention are Nerine, Lachenalia, Freesia, Watsonia and Tulipa clusiana.
Several species of Oxalis, whether from bulbs or rhizomes, may be planted now, which is also when they begin to bloom. Oxalis have shamrock leaves and flowers that are generally white, pink or mauve. Oxalis purpurea forms a dense mat with flowers on short stems, and Oxalis hirta has pink flowers at the ends of taller, leafy stems. Oxalis crassipes blooms virtually year round, also in pink, and Oxalis pes-caprae, the Bermuda buttercup, is notable for its yellow flowers.
Nowadays, bulbs are usually sold with an instruction sheet detailing how to plant and care for them. In Southern California, hybrids imported from Holland should be planted in the shade. Most other varieties, especially those native to South Africa, should grow well in either sun or shade. An exception is the naked lady, which demands full sun. Dutch tulips should be placed in the refrigerator for six to eight weeks prior to planting. After flowering of any type of bulb is completed, apply fertilizer high in potassium (such as 5-10-20) to increase sugar and starch formation needed for growth of new bulbs.