Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Plant bulbs now for spring beauty

Spring-blooming bulbs give so much beauty for so little effort. With a bit of planning, you can enjoy successive waves of color in your garden from February through June. Bulbs make few demands, but there are some keys to success:

  • Buy top-size bulbs. Budget-priced bulbs generally yield smaller flowers. Order in summer from reliable bulb catalogs or online sources for the best variety. If buying from a nursery, select firm bulbs with no soft spots.
  • Choose a sunny or partially shaded spot depending on the species' light requirements. 
  • If the planting area doesn't have fast-draining soil, amend it with organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Bulbs sitting in sodden heavy clay soil will rot. 
  • Check the planting instructions for each type of bulb, but as a rule of thumb, plant at a depth three times the height of the bulb. 
  • Arrange the bulbs in informal clusters, rather than singly or in rows, for a showier display. For mass plantings, some gardeners recommend tossing the bulbs on the prepared soil and digging them in where they fall.
  • After the flowers have died in spring, allow the leaves to stay in place until they turn brown. Do not tie or braid the leaves; they need sunlight to produce food to replenish the bulb. Choose planting sites where the dying foliage will be camouflaged by other plants.

Tulips and hyacinths should be prechilled for at least 4-6 weeks before planting. You can prechill them in a refrigerator but keep them away from apples and other fruits, which emit ethylene gas that can harm the bulbs. Plant the bulbs immediately after removing them from the refrigerator. While most of the large-flowered tulips do not come back reliably after our mild winters, the smaller species tulips often provide a repeat performance. Try Tulipa bakeri, Tulipa clusiana or Tulipa saxatilis.

Good naturalizers
Gardeners immediately think of daffodils when imagining drifts of eye-popping spring color, but there are many other bulb species that naturalize readily. In addition to multiplying year after year, these species have the added bonus of being deer- and rodent-resistant:

  • Allium sphaerocephalon (drumstick allium). Egg-shaped clusters of crimson-purple flowers, 24 inches tall. July.
  • Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades' (Grecian windflower). Hyacinth-blue flowers, 4 inches tall. April/May.
  • Brodiaea (blue dick). Shades of blue, 18-24 inches tall. Native to West Coast. May/June.
  • Calochortus (Mariposa tulip). Choose from white, yellow, pink or lilac varieties, 12-24 inches tall. Native to California. May/June
  • Camassia leichtlinii coerulea (wild hyacinth). Racemes of light to dark lavender-blue flowers, 24-30 inches tall. Native to northwest U.S. May/June.
  • Chionodoxa gigantea (glory of the snow). Lavender-blue with small white centers, 5-6 inches tall. April.
  • Galanthus elwesii (giant snowdrop). Creamy-white flowers tipped green, 5-8 inches tall. March/April.
  • Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior' (Spanish bluebell). Racemes of bell-shaped blue-violet flowers, 12-15 inches tall. May.
  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebell). Racemes of bell-shaped dark violet-blue flowers, 18 inches tall. May.
  • Ipheion (spring starflower). Petite star-shaped flowers range from white to periwinkle blue, 3-6 inches tall. April/May.
  • Iris douglasiana (Pacific Coast iris). Although these grow from rhizomes rather than bulbs, they are beautiful naturalizers. Available in white, yellow, purple, blue, pink, maroon, copper and many other shades, 8-24 inches tall. Native to California. May/June.
  • Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake). Racemes of bell-shaped milk-white flowers, 12-15 inches tall. May/June.
  • Muscari armeniacum (blue grape hyacinth). Miniature grape-like clusters of cobalt-blue flowers, 6 inches tall. April/May.
  • Scilla peruviana (Peruvian scilla). Dome-shaped clusters of blue-purple starlike flowers, strappy foliage persists most of the year, 12 inches tall. April/May. 
  • Scilla siberica 'Spring Beauty' (Siberian squill). Vivid sky-blue flowers, 5 inches tall. April.

By Faith Brown

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