Fall is the time to think about spring. Although that thought might seem a bit contradictory, I have spent the past month looking over at the Netherland Bulb Company Catalogue for ideas for planting spring bulbs.
Here in Southern California, the choices are far greater than those in the Northeast, where I spent 30 years gardening. And the phrase always echoes in my head from all the professors of horticulture I had the pleasure of working with at SUNY Cobleskill College of Agriculture: “Choose the right plant for the right location.”
What I have been learning over the past six years that I have lived here is that the Mediterranean climate that is prevalent in North County allows those of us with a small backyard, or a good collection of outdoor pottery, to plant colorful bulbs in November that begin to bloom in January and continue into spring.
I have often been known to pull over on a side street in Carlsbad to photograph a local garden in January in which there are rows of daffodils. Only to exclaim, “How can those bulbs be blooming in the wintertime?”
Well, of course the answer is the weather! With most locations in North County never reaching a freezing temperature, many bulbs will start their underground growth as soon as they are planted.
IDENTIFY CORRECT BULBS FOR YOUR AREA
According to a 2008 Orange County Register story:
“Not all bulbs are true bulbs, such as daffodils are. Some so-called bulbs are sold as swollen-stem bases called corms — some are tubers, some are below-ground stems called rhizomes and some are root pieces. But they are treated as bulb plants because, as a clan, they gather the strength they need to bloom and store it in their underground apparatus.
“And by the way, if you are into drought-tolerant or a Mediterranean style of gardening, bulbs are appropriate for your garden. Blame it on the Dutch bulb industry for making us think that bulbs want it lush. But many bulbs originated from areas with Mediterranean climate — dry summer followed by rainy, yet mild winter.”
A selection of bulbs that can be planted right now could include the more traditional fare including freesia, lilies, iris, ranunculus and daffodils. Tulips and crocus will succeed if pre-chilled. As most garden shoppers know, there is a wide selection of daffodils sold at all garden centers.
According to garden writer Pat Welsh: “Always purchase Grade A varieties such as King Alfred, Ice Follies and February Gold. Many of these varieties will naturalize in our mild climate, which means that they will reproduce year after year and spread throughout your garden.”
South African bulbs to look for include Aztec Lily, Cyclamen, Crocosmia and Agapanthus. Green Thumb Nursery in San Marcos, and Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas and Armstrong Garden Center in Carlsbad have a wide selection of fall bulbs.
The staff at both nurseries can also direct you to the correct soil mixtures for planting bulbs in pots or a small garden.
GIVE A GIFT OF BULBS
If you have a gardener on your Christmas list, or are looking for an unusual hostess gift to bring to a party, now is the time to start, or “force,” bulbs as holiday gifts.
According to Marc Smith of Anderson’s La Costa Nursery, “We have a fresh selection of paperwhite narcissus or varieties of Amaryllis ready to be planted as a holiday gift. These are pre-chilled so they will bloom in six short weeks. The paperwhites sell for $15 per dozen so they make the perfect gift!”
Choose healthy, plumb bulbs and purchase them as individual bulbs, as those that are available at Anderson’s. Many bulbs sold in bags can end up being softened or diseased when purchased in big box stores.
Forcing paperwhite bulbs for the holidays
- Choose 3-5 bulbs that will fit into a deep decorative bowl. The bowl should not have a hole in the bottom and measure 6-9 inches in diameter and 3-4 inches high. Start this process six weeks before the holiday.
- Fill the bowl with clean small pebbles to within 2 inches of the rim.
- Gently push the bulbs into the pebbles so that they rest with half of the bulb exposed.
- Add water so that it barely touches the bulbs.
- Place in a cool, dark place such as a cool garage.
- Keep the bulbs in the garage for at least one week, until sprouts appear.
- Once sprouts appear, place in a room with partial sun.
- As bulbs begin to grow, turn each day so as not to become leggy. Water only when the water has evaporated. Tree branches or chopsticks can be added to provide support.
- If you have planned correctly, your white flowers will open just in time for Christmas or Hanukkah!
I have given paperwhite narcissus bulbs to friends for years, and families with children especially love watching the quick growth. If you give them to your friends now, with printed instructions, they will be on their way to creating holiday décor.
Please direct your gardening questions to Jano Nightingale at [email protected]. Jano teaches gardening classes at the Pine Street Senior Center Community garden.