Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Plant bulbs now for spring color

Fill Your Spring Garden with Cheerful, Colorful, Fragrant Flowers!

Freesia comes in a variety of colors and exudes a sweet fragrance. Photo: GardenSoft
Freesia comes in a variety of colors and exudes a sweet fragrance. Photo: GardenSoft
The easiest way to assure that your next spring garden explodes with flowers is to plant bulbs. Daffodils, paperwhites, tulips - these are the blinking lights of spring, whether they're popping up in pots or covering forgotten hillsides.

Bulbs offer a great opportunity to plant and forget. Many bulbs come back year after year, multiplying and naturalizing. By carefully selecting a variety of bulbs, beautiful flowers can fill your garden from early to late spring.

For the best selection, shop early, as soon as the bulbs appear in the market or catalogs arrive. An advantage to shopping catalogs and websites is the larger variety of bulbs available. More than 200 varieties of daffodils can be found with a little online searching -- in colors ranging from pure white, light to deep pink, peach and multiple shades of yellow and orange. Multiple varieties of lesser known bulbs are also available online and in catalogs.

When shopping locally, look for firm, evenly colored bulbs with no signs of soft spots, mold or moisture. Generally, the larger the bulb, the larger the flower; top-quality bulbs will provide strong stalks and large blooms.

Alliums feature pom pom flowers – some varieties are short and sweet, others have softball-sized globes atop 3 feet stems.  photo: GardenSoft
Alliums feature pom pom flowers – some varieties are short and sweet, others have softball-sized globes atop 3 feet stems. photo: GardenSoft
Lesser-known bulbs such as camassia, squill, bluebells and alliums standing 6 inches to 50 inches tall, offer an opportunity to try something just a bit out of the ordinary. Watsonias, with tall spikey foliage and flower stalks in white, pink or orange are fabulous along a fence line. Freesia and sparaxis are really easy to plant as their tiny bulbs only need to be about 2-inches deep. They naturalize and are great for floral arrangements. Iris are among the rhizomes that are excellent naturalizers, meaning they come back year after year.



Calochortus is a California native wildflower bulb. Photo: Katie Martin
Calochortus is a California native wildflower bulb. Photo: Katie Martin


Although these foreign-born bulbs often steal the springtime show, it doesn't mean there aren't equally stunning and easy California native bulbs to try. Of particular beauty and interest are the allium, calochortus and brodiaea. These bulbs send up subtle, delicate flowers in a wide variety of pastels - easy on the eye and reminiscent of a wildflower walk on Mount Tam in early March.

The most eye-catching photos in bulb catalogs are usually the tulips — parrot tulips, especially. The bad news for us in our Mediterranean climate is that tulips need a winter chill in order to bloom. Most tulip bulbs will come with advice to refrigerate for four to six weeks before planting. That works well to coax them into bloom the first season, but naturalizing is pretty much out of the question. You can certainly dig them up after blooming, store them in a cool dry place, packed in peat moss or vermiculite, and refrigerate them every October, or plan to order new bulbs each year.

GETTING STARTED

  • Read the directions that accompany your bulbs. Light needs should be listed as well as planting depth. Generally, bulbs will thrive in full sun to partial shade and should be planted three times as deep as the bulb is wide.
  • Select a planting area with good drainage. If water tends to puddle and sit for hours, choose a different location or work in copious amounts of organic matter to aid in drainage.
  • Many bulbs are like candy for gophers but they will not touch those in the narcissus family. To protect precious tulips (and others), plant in wire cages or ½-inch hardware cloth.
  • Narcissus and iris are deer resistant.
  • Be realistic when you shop. Planting takes time and energy to dig appropriate planting areas.
  • After flowering, allow the foliage to dry naturally. The sun will help nourish the bulb's energy through the foliage.
  • Keep notes on where you have planted the bulbs. This will help prevent damaging the bulbs when you are gardening during the dormant season.
  • Consider overplanting with annuals to camouflage drying foliage.
    Plan now to welcome a host of golden daffodils to your spring garden!


Original text by Marie Narlock and Jane Scurich
Edited by Jane Scurich

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