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Making Use of Leftovers : Pots Full of Odd Bulbs Can Lead to a Great Corner of Color

January 04, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

In his garden, George de Gennaro has grown as many as 50,000 bulbs, all in spectacular fashion. But near De Gennaro's back door are more modest plantings that are equally pretty--growing in pots. When bulbs are planted in containers, it doesn't take many to make a show; just a dozen bulbs will fill a good-sized pot, and just a few pots will brighten any stoop.

Every year, De Gennaro sets aside from his large plantings a few of each kind of bulb for the display outside his back door. In early January, he plants them. Now may seem to be an odd time, but he and other gardeners have discovered that many of the traditional bulbs--especially tulips, crocus and hyacinths--do best in Southern California when they're planted late in the season. If you've been following this reasoning right along, you probably have a refrigerator filled with tulips, hyacinths and crocus that are now ready to plant. And, if you are like me, you no longer have the space in the garden to plant them, other flowers having taken their reserved seats, so to speak. These leftovers are candidates for containers.

If you don't have any bulbs on hand, you can still find them at nurseries, usually marked down, and most, including freesias and daffodils, can be planted right away with no time spent in the refrigerator; they don't need the artificial chilling. You may even have freesias and daffodils sitting in their paper bags at the end of the workbench because there was no space in the garden. Those, too, are candidates for containers.

Most bulbs--freesias, for instance--are simple to plant in containers; merely plant them and then put them aside in a sunny place until they flower, watering as needed, of course. Several of the more popular and traditional bulbs require a little more work, however. Here's how De Gennaro plants tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and crocus in pots:

First, for the best staging he uses a variety of pot sizes, small and large, short and tall. Some bulbs are planted in plain plastic pots, later to be placed inside decorative containers and used indoors for temporary color.

All pots are filled to within a few inches of the top with good potting soil. Over the potting soil goes a one-inch-thick layer of sand, in which the bulbs are planted and then surrounded with more potting soil so that their tops are barely covered (De Gennaro doesn't leave the necks of daffodil bulbs protruding, as is often recommended). Make sure that enough space remains above the soil for watering. De Gennaro has observed that most bulbs need surprisingly little room for their roots.

The pots are thoroughly watered and then put in the garage. That may seem an unlikely place for bulbs, but it's necessary because it gives them a cool, dark place in which to grow roots. Since they must be watered there, about once a week, De Gennaro constructs a giant drip pan--plastic sheeting draped inside a frame of wood 2x4s--that catches any excess water.

When the new, leafy growth is three or four inches tall, the pots are moved outdoors into shade for a few days and then into dappled sunlight, where they will proceed to bloom.

Those pots that are to eventually find their way into the house are brought indoors just as the buds begin to show blushes of color. Most of these bulbs will flower for at least a week and a half, and many will bloom for two weeks. A sunny window will suit them best.

Suppose that a garage isn't available. De Gennaro has another method that he tried last year and found successful. The planted pots are put in a shady part of the garden or on the north side of the house and covered with black plastic sheeting. The gardener must water them more often, keep checking for signs of growth, and remove the plastic as soon as the bulbs start to push up. But those pictured here were grown that way and, as can be seen, to great success.

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