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Garden tips: Spring surprises

Plant bulbs now for garden color later

It's time to plant bulbs. Still available in some stores and Costco, bulbs are the one type of plant that represent spring. And now is the time to plant them.

What's available? Tulips, daffodils, narcissus, hyacinth, ranunculus, freesia, and edible bulbs and tubers.

The choices for edible bulbs and tubers include yellow, red and white potatoes and also red, yellow and white onions, as well as garlic and elephant garlic.

Get these as soon as possible and plant them when you get them. There's no need for refrigeration because the soil temperature is cooling off and will best determine the start of new growth as the temperature rises in the spring. My experience has also been that bulbs put in the refrigerator get forgotten. They end up drying out too much to be viable.

This month's tips will include planting techniques, design ideas, some color theory, an idea or two about containers and what to plant over your bulb bed. If you're too late and cannot find bulbs in the nurseries, then cut out this article and wait until they show up again next year.

1. Plant your bulbs with the correct depth. Usually they come with instructions, but my general rule is to plant them three times' the height of the bulb deep. And be sure to have the root side down.

2. Lay them out on the surface of the soil so you can see what the show will look like. Then, when happy with the design, dig them in.

3. Bulbs like to be planted in groups. It gives a better show as masses of pink, white, yellow, red and blue appear. If you plant cover plants over the bulbs, you'll have color while the bulbs are still just starting to grow.

4. If you only have a few bulbs, put them in prominent locations. Then plant over them things like pansies, violas, primroses or ground covers.

5. Note when you buy your bulbs what height your bulbs will be at full bloom. There's usually a pretty accurate description on the box that your bulbs come in. Put shorter ones in front of taller ones. What this means is plan on not obscuring the view with the tall bulbs, kind of like setting up a group photo of people with taller folk in back.

6. Lighter colors (white and yellow) draw the eye. I think of them as lights that invite you to go outside. At Sunset Magazine where I used to work, we would put these lighter colored flowers at the furthest viewable point of the gardens to draw people out of the lobby and into the gardens. They were also planted in the darkest area of the background thus giving it some lightness and contrast.

7. Putting bulbs in pots makes a stunning effect while still being portable. Plant them shoulder to shoulder to make a dense show. Then plant violas or pansies over them to give color while the bulbs are growing.

8. Bulbs are a complete package. They need water, but not fertilizer, unless they're going to be naturalized. Naturalizing is best with daffodils and narcissus. It means they will come back every year and possibly even produce new bulbs of their own. Plant them with some bone meal and after the first year include them in your fertilizing program.

9. Color theory takes into consideration all the flowering and evergreen plants around a particular design. Primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Green, purple and orange are secondary colors. Basic good color design has masses of primaries and secondaries mixed. A diversion or specific theme design will have masses of one or the other. An example of this is if you wanted to plant a flower bed in the design of the American flag.

10. Timing your plantings can determine somewhat when the blooms will be. A good way to practice is with paper whites. Start some now, then in two weeks start some more and keep on doing it until you run out.

Good gardening!

Jack McKinnon is a Garden Coach and worked in the Sunset Magazine Gardens for 12 years. He can be reached at 650-455-0687 or visit his website at

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