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Hidden gems: Plant bulbs this month
Perhaps the easiest plants to grow in Yuma are bulbs that require no pre-chilling and don't have to be dug up and stored. Once planted, you can sit back and enjoy life until they push their slender, pointed leaves through the ground and burst into glorious bloom each spring.
In fall, plant bulbs in groups, not rows, to add pops of color to your garden. By placing them in your flower beds, you don't have to create new beds and save yourself extra time and energy. These original bulbs will produce offspring and soon, the clumps of bulbs will be large enough to divide.
Usually, bulbs are planted two to three times as deep as the bulb's height. However, some bulbs need their tops exposed while others are planted six to 12 inches deep; so check the label on the bulbs you purchase for planting instructions. Choose bulbs that look healthy, are not soft, and have no moldy spots.
Group the same kind of bulb together, six to a hole, making sure bulbs do not touch because this will cause rotting. Random groupings throughout your garden will give bulbs a natural look. You might want to place a popsicle stick labeled with the bulb's variety on top of each hole to remind you where not to add other plants.
If using containers, choose ones with good drainage and fill with an all-purpose potting soil. Plant bulbs pointed side up and root side down. The bulbs will lie dormant during the winter and awaken in spring to grace your patio with color. If your container is deep, plant paperwhite narcissus bulbs near the bottom of the pot, add soil, then a layer of ranunculus and finish with more soil. This will give your container plenty of spring blooms.
My favorite bulb is the paperwhite narcissus. My start came from mother's mother in Noxapater, Miss. Grandma had them growing in flower beds along either side of the wooden steps leading up to her front porch. My mom carried some of these bulbs with her when she drove her shiny, black 1940 Ford to her first job as home economics teacher on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Warm Springs, Ore.
Once married, she and my dad moved West, and the bulbs were carefully dug, bagged and replanted at their homes in Sells, Ariz., and later in Parker. The bulbs' last stop was 20 years ago when my parents moved to Yuma and planted them one last time.
Now, the bulbs have been passed on to me for safekeeping, and I have them planted in pots and in a north-facing flower bed. These hidden gems, whose lineage spans more than 100 years, are still healthy, beautiful bulbs. The original bulbs, of course, are gone; but their offspring have multiplied through the years, giving me plenty of bulbs to pass on to my children. They are one of the easiest bulbs to grow and just need well-drained soil to prevent them from rotting.
Another favorite bulb is the sparaxis. This tiny bundle of energy withstands our dry climate quite well because it originated in Africa. Its blooms span the rainbow and make a beautiful addition to any garden. It grows about 12 inches high and produces summer blooms in shades of pink, red, orange or white, with bright yellow centers.
I purchased a crinum bulb as large as my fist at a plant sale in Phoenix last spring and planted it with its top above ground. I can't wait to see its pretty, pink blooms again next summer.
Everyone at one time or another has either given or received an amaryllis (Amaryllidaceous) during the Christmas season. These bulbs can be planted in the ground, or kept in their pots, and will continue to bloom each year. Like the crinum, they need to be planted with their tops above ground and fertilized once a year.
A relative of the Christmas amaryllis is Amaryllis belladonna, often called “Naked Ladies.” On a recent trip to northern California, I saw these unusual bulbs in full bloom. The nickname comes from the fact that in summer, a single, leafless stalk will produce several clusters of pink lily-like blooms at its top.
Plant these bulbs close together to achieve a striking blast of pink color. They grow in USDA zones 7-10 and are about two feet tall when in bloom.
Kaffir lily (Clivia miniata) is another easy-growing member of the Amaryllidaceous family. Native to Africa, it can withstand our warm temperatures but prefers a shady location. Clusters of bright-orange tubular flowers on top of stiff, straight flower stalks make it a pretty plant. It likes to be crowded and is not happy in wet soil.
Watsonia (Watsonia spp.) has spikes of tubular blossoms in shades of red, orange, pink and white. It resembles its cousin, the gladiolus, and has a long stalk with blooms running along its stalk from late winter into spring. After several years, if blooming decreases, divide the clump and blooming will resume. Plant corms four to six inches deep in a sunny location.
Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus orientalis) is a rhizome that produces showy bluish-purple or white flowers during midsummer. Its tall stalks can reach four to five feet and its long, drooping leaves are attractive. In our zone, USDA 10b, Agapanthus remains evergreen throughout the year. Agapanthus is drought-resistant and prefers full sun to partial shade.
Canna (Canna x generalis) is a rhizome that comes in a variety of colors. Like Lily of the Nile, it is tall and showy. The most common cannas grown in Yuma have bright-orange blooms and large, green leaves. Some canna varieties have variegated leaves that add extra color and interest.
Ranunculus and gladiolus bulbs are a traditional favorite. Both are easy to grow and have pretty, spring blooms. They usually don't survive our hot summers and must be replanted each year.
In general, our warm climate allows spring and summer-blooming bulbs to be planted from fall though early winter. To keep your bulbs healthy, feed them an all-purpose bulb fertilizer or bone meal. Fertilize with a layer of compost and aged steer manure when foliage appears and again when blooms fade.
Allow blooms to die and leaves to dry and turn brown before cutting off the bulbs' tops. As the leaves die, they continue to provide nutrients to the bulbs, which make the bulbs larger and healthier.
Once blooming has ended, your hidden gems will disappear from sight until it's time for them to rise again next year and create another beautiful display of color.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.