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Plan now for a colorful spring, thanks to bulbs

  • Jane Scurich
  • Indian summer is rapidly approaching — or at least I hope it is. Warm lazy days on the patio are the perfect time to peruse the bulb catalogs while visions of daffodils dance in our heads.

    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.

    The trick is in choosing the right bulb for your locale. Fortunately, most bulbs are relatively easy to grow.


    You'll find spring flowering bulbs (including corms, rhizomes and tubers) available in almost every garden center and big box store as well as online and through stunningly photographed 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.

    An advantage to shopping catalogs and websites is the larger variety of bulbs available. One of my favorite catalogs features 200 daffodils in colors ranging from pure white, light to deep pink, peach and multiple shades of yellow and orange.


    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. I am fond of watsonias, whose 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.

    The most eye-catching photos in bulb catalogs are always the tulips — parrot tulips, especially. Although I absolutely adore tulips, 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 each year, 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.


    Alternatively, you can make plans to visit the magnificent tulips at Pier 39 and the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden in Golden Gate Park in late February through March and invest in some bulbs that will bring your garden to life every spring.


    • For the best selection, shop early, as soon as the bulbs appear in the market or catalogs arrive.

    • 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.