- Author: Cindy Watter, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
I always love the bulb catalogs that drop through my mail slot at the end of every summer. I once overbought and then procrastinated on planting them. This was when I lived in Humboldt County.
One Presidents' Day—that is in February—I remembered that I had a burlap bag on my side porch with twelve dozen naturalizing daffodil bulbs that I should have planted in October. After a day of frenzied digging and applying bone meal to each bulb's nesting place, I was done. Then I worried they wouldn't come up.
They appeared in March, just as if I had planted them at the right time. This was because the northern California climate is ideal for bulbs. In fact, you can plant most bulbs any time between October and February.
My bulbs survived the side porch for four months because it wasn't too hot, and they were daffodils. Tulips and hyacinths require prechilling in your refrigerator before planting.
Because these were bulbs for naturalizing, meaning they would spread, I tossed them around in the front yard and planted them where they fell. I dug holes twice the size of the bulbs, sprinkled in some bone meal, placed the bulbs, and covered them up. I did this 144 times.
The yard had some dappled sun and shade, which was perfect. Because the neighbor's ducks regularly invaded my yard, I never had any problems with snails. I had a beautiful show of daffodils.
That was 45 years ago. I drove past my old house a few years back and was happy to see that the daffodils had indeed survived and spread in drifts of yellow and white, all over the yard.
“Bulb” is a term we use to refer to embryonic plants, such as daffodils, narcissus, and lilies. The bulb is encased in a thin papery skin and contains everything it needs for growth. Tubers, tuberous roots, rhizomes, and corms are often called bulbs, but they are bulb-like plants.
Bulbs should be planted at a depth that is twice their height; tubers, tuberous roots, rhizomes, and corms are planted just below the surface. Cyclamen and anemone are tubers, or potato-like structures that are underground stems that will grow above-ground stems. Dahlias are tuberous roots that will put forth stems.
Bearded iris is the most common rhizome. It is planted horizontally and will sprout with upright stems. Crocus and gladiolus grow from a corm, a stem that forms a bud on top that produces flowers. New corms develop on top of the old one, which shrivels away.
Speaking of shriveling, when daffodils fade you can cut off the flower, but let the green leaves wither away. I used to see patches of daffodils with the fading leaves wound like a skein of yarn, with another leaf securing them. This looks adorable but is unnecessary.
Bulbs are planted with bone meal because it contains phosphorus that nourishes the soil. The problem with bone meal is that it attracts carnivores—in my case, a small dog that was so enchanted with the bone meal in my tiger lily bed she rolled in it and tried to eat it. I had to put a screen over the bulbs until the aroma faded.
You can use an organic fertilizer and compost to help your soil instead. Bone meal comes from slaughterhouses, and some people don't like to use it for that reason. If your soil has a pH above 7, use an acidic fertilizer—the type formulated for azaleas—to raise your soil's acidity and lower the pH. These days I use lots of compost, aged chicken manure and organic fertilizer.
Bulbs generally don't have predators. The exception is the tulip, a favorite of gophers. I don't have any gophers in my downtown yard—just rats, raccoons, and possums—but they are a plague in Napa County. UC Master Gardeners can advise you on how to deal with gophers.
I have seen bulb plantings that are layered, with daffodils first, then tulips, lilies and finally iris, which are barely covered by soil. They bloom in succession, and the planting bed is generally full of flowers in spring and summer.
One late-blooming bulb is the Naked Lady (Amaryllis belladonna), a native. It is pale pink and fragrant, and I see it all over coastal northern California as well as Napa County. It is dormant in winter and puts forth green leaves in spring. The leaves shrivel in the summer but never fear—in late summer or early fall, the pink blooms will appear on reddish stems. These flowers are particularly attractive to native bees.
Planting bulbs is so easy (unless you need to plant twelve dozen in a hurry, as I did). The displays they put forth lift one's spirits. I particularly enjoy my tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium), which remind me of the talking flowers in Lewis Carroll's Looking-Glass Land.
Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County and the Napa Library for “Discover the Las Flores Learning Garden” on Thursday, January 4, from 7 pm to 8 pm via Zoom. Did you know that Napa has an amazing learning garden where you and your family can see examples of dry gardens, native plants, and pollinator? Learn how Master Gardeners transformed part of Las Flores Community Center Park into an array of botanical teaching gardens.
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Workshop: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for “Winter Rose Garden Care & Pruning,” on Saturday, January 6, from 10 am to noon via Zoom. Prepare your roses for the upcoming growing season with this review of pruning techniques and best pruning tools. Learn how to help your roses cope with climate change and how to choose the right rose for the right place. Attendees will be invited to join a hands-on pruning workshop at Napa's Fuller Park rose garden on Thursday, January 11, from 10 am to noon, to practice what they learned. Register to receive the Zoom link.
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