These bulbs can’t miss
Plant the right bulb (or its close cousin, the corm) and success is almost guaranteed. The beginnings of spring’s flowers and leaves are folded up inside these compact packages. Plant them at the proper depth, let rain or irrigation nourish the new growth through winter and they’ll bloom in spring. It’s that easy.
Unfortunately, many people plant the wrong kinds, bulbs from colder climates that they expect will become permanent fixtures in their garden. Most of these cold-climate bulbs, such as tulips, hyacinths, crocus and many large-flowered daffodils, will only bloom the first spring and then must be dug up and tossed out, just like annual bedding plants. It can make for dramatic displays but they are short-lived and must be replanted every year.
“Not many people have that kind of time anymore,” says nurseryman Frank Burkard, who specializes in bulbs of a different sort.
Buy too small a bulb and it might not bloom at all. Some of the inexpensive bulbs are often too young to bloom the first year. “It will take two years before they’re old enough, if they survive at all,” he adds.
This has given bulbs a bad rap in recent years, but there are bulbs and corms that are surefire, that bloom the first year and keep blooming for years to come, going dormant in summer but returning each fall or winter on their own, with virtually no help. “Reliability is what it’s all about,” says Burkard. “These bulbs keep coming back and back, without a lot of fuss.” Not surprisingly, many come from climates similar to our own, areas around the Mediterranean or from Cape Province in South Africa, a treasure trove of dry-climate bulbs and corms.
For three generations, Burkard’s family nursery in Pasadena has specialized in bulbs that excel in Southern California, things like the wiry-stemmed ixia or wand flower from South Africa. And they don’t have just one but 13 different varieties. Other nurseries will have some of these tough bulbs, while a few kinds can be found in early spring, when the Cape bulbs from Dutch growers appear at nurseries.
There are even a few wild tulips or “species” that return every year, though you might regret planting them. The wild tulips, Tulipa saxitilis and T. clusiana, can become slowly spreading weeds. Some large-flowered daffodils such as Ice Follies do well here, especially inland and in the mountains where winters are colder. Those with smaller flowers do even better. Small-flowered kinds that come back year after year include Geranium, Grand Soleil d’Or, Minnow, Tete-a-tete, Trevithian, Chinese sacred lilies and paperwhites.
Traditional cold climate bulbs often bloom for only days in ours, while some of the Mediterranean or Cape bulbs have buds arranged along the length of a stem so flowers openly slowly and progressively, lasting much longer.
There is a trade-off that many gardeners have a hard time adjusting to. The flowers on these dry-climate bulbs are typically smaller (though there are some spectacular exceptions), almost like wildflowers, so they do not make the big splash Dutch bulbs are capable of. Gardeners’ expectations for these little bulbs are perhaps too high. Rather than massing them in great beds, they are better tucked here and there in the garden, preferably in places that don’t get much water in summer. In the wild these bulbs and corms often grow in clumps of several, like tufts of grass.
Tuck a few babianas next to the garden gate or front entry, or in the gap between paving stones, and every spring they’ll reward you with sturdy lavender-blue or white flowers. Called baboon flowers in South Africa because those primates apparently eat the corms, there is one named Babiana rubrocyanea that shockingly contrasts magenta-red with a cyan-blue in its flowers. It looks tricky to grow, but I’ve had a foot-tall clump growing by the front gate for more than 10 years and all I do is cut off the brown, pleated leaves each summer.
This tops Burkard’s list of reliable bulbs, followed by the little narcissus and paperwhites, freesias, sparaxis and watsonias. Sparaxis are similar to babianas but are wildly colored, which is where they got the common name of harlequin flower. Freesias are the best-known Cape bulb, though not as tough as most. The plain, old-fashioned white varieties seem to be the longest-lived and the most fragrant.
For areas that get some shade but are not dark, he suggests summer snowflake (Leucojum) and a bluebell named Scilla campanulata. Both are tough enough to reappear in vacant lots.
Homerias are so easy they are considered weedy by some — my kind of plant. I grow them as clumps between low shrubs and they bloom for a good month or more, with muted yellow or orange flowers on branching stems about 2 feet tall. Watsonias are nearly as easy and some kinds get quite large, growing to 6 feet tall. But Burkard prefers the new, shorter kinds because they won’t fall over when they come into bloom.
When planting any of these drought-tolerant bulbs, look for soil that will not get too soggy when irrigated. Add amendments if necessary, or plant in areas that will remain dry between rainy seasons. It’s important to plant bulbs at the proper depth, and nurseries often have guides.
Burkard suggests sprinkling a little bone meal (an organic fertilizer high in phosphorus) in the bottom of planting holes. Water after planting but not again until the soil dries. Irrigate only in winter when the soil is dry an inch below the surface; in a wet winter that may mean never. After they bloom in spring, you can let the foliage brown before cutting it off. In summer, the bulbs and corms rest and are happiest when kept dry. There is no need to dig them up and store them away.
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Suitable for the Southland
Here are some fall-planted bulbs and corms that really last (proper planting depth is critical, and nurseries often have charts to help):
Baboon flower (babiana)*
Calla lily (zantedeschia)
Some daffodils and many narcissus
Some grape hyacinth (muscari)
Spider lily (Lycoris)
Spring star flower (ipheion)*
Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)*
*denotes extra tough, can’t-fail choices