Gardeners are believers – who else would plant a tiny seed and stand back and expect a gorgeous flower or crunchy carrot to grow? Gardeners keep their faith in bulbs, too, even though it seems unreal that these unattractive little things – not even as handsome as an onion – can produce stately giant trumpet daffodils or statuesque tulips to light up the garden each spring.
Freesias produce some of the most fragrant spring flowers.
Photo Credit: International Flower Bulb Centre
There are several species and many varieties of grape hyacinth you can plant in fall to create a wonderful bluish-purple carpet in spring.
Photo Credit: Jessie Keith
There are countless types of daffodils – plant a variety in fall for a wonderful mix of colors, forms and heights in spring.
Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman
Dutch Irises are regal flowers that produce incredible spring beauties like these – when they’re planted in fall.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Tulips require a little more work where winters are warmer, but the results can be spectacular!
Photo Credit: James H. Schutte
For something a little out of the ordinary, try Chionodoxa, or glory-of-the-snow.
Photo Credit: International Flower Bulb Centre
And for Southern California gardeners (as well as gardeners in most of North America), planting bulbs is high on the list of fall chores to get done before December. For beginners, bulb planting is a mystical rite full of questions: How deep do I plant? Which end goes down? How far apart should they be? When will I see them sprout? Do I water? How much fertilizer do they need? How can I tell if there’s a disease? When will they flower? Even for the seasoned gardener there are some new things to learn – and maybe even some new varieties to try.
No matter your level of gardening experience, the cardinal rule for bulbs is to get the ones you want before planting time. You can plant fall bulbs that will bloom come springtime in Southern California anytime from late September until early December, but if you procrastinate for too long you probably won’t find the type of bulbs you want – or worse yet, the quality of what’s left may be questionable.
You’ll find a selection of fall-planted bulbs in garden centers and nurseries starting from sometime in September through late December. These sources are great if you’re looking for the best sellers. Daffodils, hyacinths, Dutch Iris, tulips, ornamental onions and the like are beautiful additions to any spring garden. But if you’re looking for something a bit more unusual, mail-order suppliers will usually carry what you’d like, including squill, lilies, grape hyacinth, Spanish bluebells, ranunculus, anemone, gladiolus and freesias (and more).
Because the ground doesn’t freeze for most Southern California gardeners, bulb-planting season is extended – but you still need to plan. First you have to learn which varieties and classes of bulbs are best for your area. Then you have to buy the bulbs when you see them (or order early from the mail-order houses) and figure out where each will go in your garden (keeping in mind that most will need sun to flourish).
Keeping in mind that Southern California isn’t Vermont or North Dakota – or even Florida – what should you plant? It’s true that some bulbs do better in this climate than others, while others need that cold weather Southern California never really gets in order to bloom. If you want tulips, hyacinths or crocus, be aware that they’ll need some vernalization (some time in a cold atmosphere before planting). And you’ll have to dig them up late the next spring and store them in a cool, dry place until fall. Repeat blooms means going through this ritual year after year. It can be done – and the results can be gorgeous – but it’s more work.
Of course, there’s a long list of spring-flowering bulbs that don’t need such a routine. All narcissus (including the huge giant trumpet kinds generally labeled as daffodils, those labeled as jonquils and the tiny, lovely miniatures) can go into the garden early and stay put after flowering without being dug up and stored. The same is true of Dutch Iris – those tall and stately beauties that make striking bouquets – and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa). And we mustn’t forget grape hyacinth! These low-growing little plants with flowers in cobalt blue, white or a reddish-violet just bloom and bloom until hot weather.
Fritillaria, a tall, unusual-looking member of the lily family, will last for years in your garden and produces brilliant bell-shaped flowers in several colors. The various varieties of Scilla will naturalize in Southern California’s climate, producing spikes of blue, pink, lavender and white (which are often used in bouquets). Another striking addition to the SoCal spring garden is Allium, sometimes called the “flowering onion.” It’s tall – often as much as 30 inches – with a fuzzy, round flower head.
Freesias are prized beauties thanks to their delicate fragrance. They do well in a warm winter climate like ours, producing loads of tubular flowers in shades of pink, red, salmon, white and yellow. And both anemone and ranunculus need to be planted in the fall for those beautiful spring blooms.
With such a wide spectrum of bulbs to choose and plant, there’s but one thing left – to get out there and do it!