Bulbs for Sonoma County
Perfect Place and Time for Planting Bulbs
If I were a bulb, I'd want to be planted and raised in Sonoma County. After all, a majority of the world's bulbs are native to the Cape of South Africa and the Mediterranean Basin (including North Africa). We in Sonoma County have a Mediterranean climate just like those regions, which means that their bulbs absolutely thrive here. Surprise: tulips are not native to Holland! Most originate in temperate Europe and the Middle East, with the most diversified coming from Central Asia.
The generic term "bulb", as I use it here, refers to all true bulbs, rhizomes, corms, tubers, and tuberous roots. Bearded Iris is likely the rhizome with which we're most familiar, and Dahlias are the most common tuberous root plant. Brodiaea, Gladiola, and Crocosmia are examples of corms; Cyclamen, Caladium, Anemone, and Watsonia are tubers. But the most numerous of all are the true bulbs such as Narcissus, Tulip, Amaryllis, Lily, and Hyacinth.
Fall is the perfect time to get your spring-blooming bulbs into the ground, that is, if it's not so rock-solid that you can't dig in a shovel or spade. I usually wait until after we've had a couple of
soil-softening rains. All of the nurseries, hardware stores, and large home improvement stores are now offering wide varieties of bulbs for sale, as are bulb catalog companies.
Here's a clue about buying bulbs. Inside the true bulb is the entire embryonic plant. Cut one vertically in half and you'll see it: the outside protective papery "tunic", the layers of scales which become the leaves, and the stem, all waiting for the rain, some winter chill, and its internal calendar to prompt its new growth. This means the larger the bulb, the larger the plant and the flower/s will be. So, if you personally choose your bulbs from a bin, select the largest and firmest with the tunic still intact.
Until recently, I generally planted only the most common bulbs, like Daffodils, Tulips, Grape Hyacinth, Anemones, Iris, Callas, Liatris, etc. Duh!! There are 100's, no, 1000's of bulbs available to us, and more especially to us because we live in the same climate from which most bulbs originate! Generally, late winter and early spring-blooming bulbs are available for sale in the fall (and ready to plant), and the summer and fall-blooming bulbs are for sale in the spring. Except for unusually peculiar weather conditions, you can almost time the bulbs' blooming, as most package directions and gardening books will specify the season of bloom and indicate if it's early, middle, or late. If you're having a special event and want a spectacular floral display, you can "guesstimate" when to best plant bulbs.
A majority of bulbs prefer quite similar conditions: somewhat rich soil, good drainage, full sun, with our winter rains taking care of irrigation, naturally. True bulbs are usually planted to a depth of about twice their height, while the corms, rhizomes, and tubers most often prefer to be planted just below soil surface or partially on top. One exception to deep bulb planting would be the Amaryllis belladonna (Naked Lady), which does better with the tip exposed; if planted too deep, there will be abundant foliage but fewer blooms. When I have divided my Irises (about every three or so years) and have too many rhizomes to replant or can't be bothered, I'll simply toss them into the nearby field. Lo and behold, they somehow turn over, put their roots into the soil, grow, and bloom! They're tough, and the deer or rabbits don't seem interested in them. If you're thoroughly confused about which direction corms and tubers ought to be planted, don't worry. Upside down eventually works because these bulbs are programmed for their roots to grow down and stems to grow up toward the light.
Speaking of garden pests, we all know that gophers love tulip bulbs but don't touch daffodil bulbs. You could cage your tulip bulbs, but that's a lot of work for lazy bulbs which don't produce flowers well every year. Instead, you could put tulip bulbs in pots or half wine barrels to protect them from gophers. Actually, any bulbs do well in containers as long as you feed them, have good drainage, and give them good light exposure. In fact, you can layer bulbs in a container for an extended display, depending upon their size, required planting depth, and expected bloom time. The deeper ones will simply push their stems up through the more shallowly planted ones. Or, you could plant native wildflowers on top.
Some other popular and easy bulbs include Allium (with a slight onion fragrance), Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Crocosmia, Liatris spicata, Crocus vernus (for spring) and Crocus sativa (for fall), Freesia, Sparaxis tricolor, Ranunculus asiaticus, and Watsonia. Most of these are readily available and are spring and summer blooming. Another popular rhizome is our own Iris douglasiana (Douglas or Coast Iris), so named because it thrives in coastal meadows and woods. They also do well in inland heat but may require additional water. Lavender and violet are the common colors, though there are white varieties as well.
The Brodiaea, which some taxonomists lump together with Triteleia and Dichelostemma, is a native corm quite abundant in grassy, sunny meadows of Northern California. Blue, lavender, and lilac are typical, though there are white, yellow, and crimson species too. Generally, their active growth is during the fall and winter rains, appearing when most annuals and other perennials are beginning to fade. These all need to be protected from deer and rabbits which love the tender leaves, and from gophers, field mice, and raccoons which relish the corms.
Other less common bulbs but which grow well here are Ixia (African Corn Lily), Ipheion uniflora (Spring Star Flower, blue, about 6" high and naturalize quickly), Tigridia pavonia (Mexican Shell Flower), Scilla peruviana, Chasmanthe aethiopica (on 3-4' erect stems), Babiana (Baboon Flower, similar to Freesias but taller), Fritallaria imperalis (aptly named Skunk Lily), Leucojum vernum (Spring Snowflake), and Schizostylis coccinea (Kaffir Lily, which naturalize well here and are late summer and fall blooming).
All of the bulbs mentioned above grow well in Sonoma County, some naturalizing more readily than others. But these are just a miniscule fraction of bulbs available; for instance, a book on bulbs from the Cape of South Africa alone is over an inch thick! Check out the local nurseries first before going on-line. Then searching the web for "flowering bulbs" will give you many sites upon which to research and order bulbs if you cannot find what you are looking for locally. Buy now because both the common and unusual bulbs go fast, and some catalog companies will not ship for fall planting beyond a particular date. And prepare to plant soon for that spectacular spring bulb bloom you've always envisioned!