By ERIC LARUSSON | Moonshine Ink
In parts of the world where summers are too hot and too dry, or where winters temporarily make growth impossible, nature and evolution have produced a plant form that thrives. The term “bulb” has a distinct structural definition separate from corms, tubers, rhizomes, and tuberous roots — but these all share the characteristics of buds and a fleshy storage material underground. They are all loosely called “bulbs.”
Bulbs behave in some ways like seeds. Each is a storehouse of energy and resources (nutrients and moisture), gathered only during the moist spring, that will carry the plant through the harshest conditions in a dormant “sleeping” state until spring conditions stimulate growth the following year. Our native bulbs include species of Allium, Brodiaea, Camassia, Calochortus, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Lilium, and Triteleia among others.
Whether it’s along the street, around a mailbox, in a rock garden or wildflower meadow, under trees and shrubs, or even throughout your lawn, bulbs are delightful anywhere you plant them. They thrive in loose, organic soil with good drainage. Amend is a compost finished with rice-hulls and is a go-to for bulbs. Add a little to help keep the soil from compressing around the bulbs as they increase in size over the seasons.
To encourage strong roots and large blooms, add a long-lasting organic or mineral fertilizer with nitrogen and ample phosphorous. Fish Bone Meal, Soft Rock Phosphate, and Biosol are natural fertilizers for bulbs.
Many bulbs are extremely deer and rodent resistant. All of the hardy Narcissus species like daffodils that thrive in our climate and persist for decades, bloom every spring without ever being molested. Allium, Colchicum, Fritillaria, and Scilla also have species with very strong critter repellence. A few bulbs are attractive to rodents. Large tulips and giant crocus can be in rodent danger; this can be mitigated by planting them surrounded by sharp gravel or in a cage of mesh. Smaller rock-garden tulips and bunch-flowering Crocus are seldom eaten.
In general, the higher you are, the sooner you should plant: mid-September on the summit to October-November on the east side. Bulbs may be planted as late as January or February if you can reach the soil. Bearded Iris and autumn blooming Crocus should be planted as early as possible in late summer.
Plant bulbs en masse, as they look arresting when planted in swaths. Dig one wide hole, 8 inches deep. Add compost and fertilizer, and several bulbs rather than planting each bulb individually. As a general rule, space bulbs twice as far apart as they are wide. Consider blooming time (March – July), height (1 inch – 4 feet), bloom size (1-10 inches) and color (every color of the rainbow to match with your other flowering shrubs and perennials). You can even plant smaller bulbs in a shallow layer above deeper larger bulbs for a layered effect.
After flowers fade in early summer, leaves collect carbon dioxide and convert solar energy into chemical energy. Bulbs develop buds and store resources for next year’s flowers. It is important to feed, water, and encourage the bulbs to retain their green photosynthesizing leaves for as long as possible. Think of the leaves as solar panels and the bulb as a battery. Remember this when cutting flowers to bring indoors; for example, taking flowers from bunches of daffodils is of little consequence since there are so many leaves.
Bulbs in a lawn give your garden the early playful appearance of a wild meadow. They bloom and fade long before you’ll ever need to mow. Crocus, Scilla, and Chionodoxa are all excellent candidates for lawn bulbs. Plant in wide drifts of like colors.
Autumn Crocus and Colchicum are hardy bulbs that bloom in the fall. They have leaves in the spring, store up nutrients and then make buds go dormant for the summer. In the fall they send up only flowers and will bloom whether planted or sitting on the counter. If planted indoors it is nice to grow a little grass in the pot to compliment the beautiful pink flowers.
~ Eric Larusson is an owner of Villager Nursery, which has planted thousands of bulbs in its Caltrans highway beautification easement. They have also given away thousands of bulbs to schools and public spaces for the general mental health of all residents in late winter. Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a troop, club, or organization interested in daffodil bulb donations or help with planting events.