Bulbs Are the First to Go Underground

This is definitely a weekend for planting, and bulbs are on my list. Pinata-colored ranunculus will be the first to go in the ground, because they are what I plant the most of and there is definitely a trick to getting them off to a good start, which is to do nothing, something gardeners have a hard time doing.

Before planting, sprinkle an all-purpose granular fertilizer on the ground and then rake it into the soil. The tubers, which look like a dried-up bunch of bananas, should be planted with the points facing down, and not deep. Two inches of soil over the top is max.

One reason I plant so many is that they don’t require a big hole or trench, and though the weather has cooled off a lot, it isn’t cool enough for that kind of work. Be sure to space them close together at about 6 inches apart.

Water them thoroughly after planting, with a sprinkler, and let it run long enough to wet the soil a foot down. Test with a spade to make sure. Now do nothing until they sprout. Don’t water at all--even during a Santa Ana--until the first leaves poke out of the ground.


Don’t worry about their survival. If you watered thoroughly after planting, there will be enough moisture for them to start growing. If they’re not up in two weeks, and you just can’t stand it anymore, water one more time, but no more! This eliminates the possibility of the tubers rotting, which is just about the only thing that can go wrong with ranunculus.

Freesias are my next favorite, but these I do not plant in big beds like the ranunculus. They get tucked here and there, wherever I can find a little bare earth beside a path. A few always go in pots; that way they can be set up on a bench or railing to be sniffed.

These too should only be planted with 2 inches of soil over the tops, but space them only 2 inches apart. I plant in clumps of six bulbs, which gives me little fragrant bouquets all along the garden’s paths.

Freesias were originally native to the Cape area of South Africa, though they are now grown by the Dutch and have much larger, even double, flowers. However, their South African ancestry still shows because they naturalize in our very similar winter-wet, summer-dry climate, especially the white-flowered varieties and the recent double-flowered strain.


Several other “Cape bulbs” are favorites of mine, because they usually return year after year, only dying down for the summer; are easy to grow and take up very little space. Babianas, or baboon flowers, are about the same height as freesias but come in shades of blue and purple. These don’t quite die down for the summer and their stiff brown, pleated leaves must be cut off if you are to be rid of them.

None of the Cape bulbs require a deep hole; most are planted about 2 inches deep and spaced as close.

Ixias are another I plant, though the flowers seem closed more often than not because they need a warm spring sun to open them, something that doesn’t happen every day along the coast.

Lapeirousia laxa is my wife’s favorite Cape bulb, with shocking salmon-red flowers on a dainty plant only about eight inches tall. This one blooms for a month or more and is as good in pots as it is in the ground. They are impossible to find at nurseries, though Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena often carries the tiny corms, but once you get hold of a few, they will be with you forever, being somewhat of a benign weed in the garden.

Homerias, both the yellow and the orange, are sturdy Cape bulbs that flower for a month or more and increase in the garden to make nice clumps. Their only drawback is the ridiculous length to which the leaves grow, some being three or even four feet long. Don’t plant these too close to a path or you’ll trip over them.

There are many other Cape bulbs, and other bulbs that are as easy to grow in our climate, but you won’t find them listed in most books, so to pursue the matter further, I highly recommend buying what has become my bulb Bible: “Bulbs, How to Select, Grow and Enjoy” by George Harmon Scott (H.P. Books, Tucson, Ariz.), which lists them all.

I also grow some of the more traditional bulbs but fewer and fewer every year because these others are so satisfying and, well, easy. I will undoubtedly plant a few daffodils this weekend and will buy some tulips, though I won’t plant them yet, because they need to be refrigerated for at least six weeks.

I have found that these bulbs do best in my garden: Dutch amaryllis, anemones, brodiaea, crocosmia, some crocus (mostly the fall-flowering), cyclamen, Spanish bluebells ( Endymion ), ipheion, Dutch iris, lachenalia, leucojum, a few lilies, moraeas of all kinds, muscari, ornithogalum, oxalis, rhodohypoxis, scilla, sparaxis, tritonia, vallota, veltheimia and watsonia.


Many of these are rare and hard to find, but are a better investment of your time than trying to grow many of the Eastern, cold-winter bulbs that are for sale at nurseries--including things like snowdrops and fritillaria--which have about the same chance of flowering as a peony, another East Coast impossibility.