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Real Estate - November 2, 2012

Garden Tips

A primer on buying and planting bulbs

by Jack McKinnon

What does it mean when a bouquet of tuberose, gardenia and coleonema (Breath of Heaven) don't do it for you anymore? When a perfectly manicured lawn leading to a potager of wonderful French vegetables ripening on the vine makes me wonder if the chef can do it justice, or will it go to waste? What about when a fountain, perfectly placed in a Roman villa, brings only a wandering glance and a wish for something new.

Is this a gardener's mid-life crisis? I wonder if there is hope out there for me. And then, in the local nursery I see that the bulbs have arrived. Aha! I realize there is still hope. The growers didn't go out of business and the nurseries didn't give up on their clients. Yes, there will be a spring again and the potential for the spectacular show and surprise that will come from it is right here in these small embryonic time capsules. All we have to do is plant them and they will do the rest.

But which ones to buy? And how deep do we plant them — and some of them I have never heard of before. I will try to give you at least a starter course this month in the glories of buying and planting these botanic wonders so your spring and maybe even many springs to come will have a show to be remembered for decades.

Here are the tips:

1. When buying bulbs, get them early and get them big. The larger the specimen the better chance the flowers that will come out of it will be spectacular. It is best to hand pick your bulbs from bins rather than buying packages. Unless you can see them through a window in the bag or the bag is made of net material you don't really know the quality of the bulb.

2. There are five types of bulbs. Some are actually not bulbs at all. First there are true bulbs including allium (onion), tulip, daffodil and lily. Second are corms, which include gladiolus, colchicum and crocus. Third are the rhizomes such as zantedeschia (calla) and iris. Fourth are the tubers like tuberous begonia and cyclamen and potato. Fifth are the tuberous roots, the best known being the dahlias.

3. Check for spots, rot, soft places or broken parts and reject these in your search. If one variety is showing sickly looking product look for something else. You may find the type of bulb you are looking for in another nursery that is supplied by a different distributor and is in better shape. Usually every distributor has some better varieties than others. Sometimes other gardeners have picked through the bins and you missed out. Don't worry, try another nursery or two or five until you find what you want.

4. Bulbs like being clumped together; it is their nature to grow in groups and come up as a cluster so buy several of each kind. I even think it is better to have three varieties and a quantity of each rather than having 10 varieties and only a few of each. This way one can design a bed or pot or window box to really give a stunning show.

5. Often there are instruction sheets for each different type of bulb available on the bin that you choose your bulbs from. If not, ask the staff. If you buy packaged bulbs read the package before you buy it. There will be timing, depth, light and care instructions on the package. If not then think twice about those ones. The bulb industry has learned over the years that growing bulbs is becoming a lost art and really works at educating its clients for successful results.

6. If you cannot find any instructions at all in the nursery then take out your smart phone and do a search on the type of bulb you are looking at. You may not need to put in the exact name (King Alfred daffodil) but the type of bulb (daffodil) will get you help. Look for planting depths and care instructions first and then more detailed information.

7. Bulbs planted now will be buried and out of sight until spring. This means planting them requires planting something over them to cover the ground. This will give a flower or foliar show and will look great when the bulbs come up to do their spring thing. Some of the plantings we used at Sunset over bulbs were primroses, cyclamen, violets, pansies and lobelia.

8. Plant pots with bulbs (tulips, daffodils and narcissus) planted at the proper depth. Cover them with sawdust until they have broken the surface, then brush or blow off the sawdust. This can be done out of the main show area because it will be months before they come up. When the flowers start to show bring the pots out and place them on the patio or front porch for a stunning spring show.

9. For naturalizing (growing year after year without much care) especially in this area, daffodils and narcissus are the most predictable. They are also the only bulb I know that gophers don't eat. Planting wildflowers over them makes for a spectacular show. Plant the bulbs first and sow wildflower seeds after the first real rains come.

10. For smaller bulbs like crocus (early bloomers), anemone, freesia and ranunculus (later bloomers), I like to have them in the foreground. This way they are noticed as the delicate and subtle gems they are. Freesia are especially nice smelling so have them where you can savor their fragrance. And know that there is hope in the garden; we just have to work at it a bit.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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