Fall is the time to plan for the bulb-planting season just ahead. Early in the morning, when you can smell fall in the air, take a stroll through the garden with a pad of paper and pencil in hand and make notes. What shall I plant to take the place of the petunias that are fading, where could I put in some crocus, and what about those empty pots on the patio?
In fact, I may be a little tardy with this advice if you are interested in ordering bulbs through the mail. Bulbs by mail are one way of getting what one wants. If you have been disappointed in your local nurseries' stock, or are looking for the unusual, you will find a much greater selection available from mail order nurseries that specialize in bulbs.
For instance, I just sent in an order for a delightful little crocus that grew like a weed in my last garden, but is next to impossible to find at nurseries. It has no common name and its botanical name looks unpronounceable, Crocus goulimyi . It is a fall-flowering crocus, from Greece, which explains why it does so well in our similarly warm and dry climate. It has small flowers, even for a crocus, and they are a rather plain light lilac, but each bulb sends up several and it will come back year after year, if not over-watered in the summer when it is dormant.
I may be getting carried away comparing it to a weed, but compared to most other crocus that will bloom one year and then never again, it does multiply slowly. Just a few years ago, it was a collectors item, but John Scheepers, Inc., R.D. 2, Phillipsburg Road, Middletown, N.Y. 10940, nows sells them for a reasonable price. You can phone in an order (which may not be too bad an idea at this time of the year) by calling (914) 342-3727. Scheepers also sells a number of fall-flowering colchicums, which are crocus relatives with very large flowers, though I have trouble getting them to return a second year and snails love to eat the large succulent bulbs.
McClure & Zimmerman, 1422 W. Thorndale Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60660, also sells fall-flowering crocus and colchicums and a good deal more. They are endeavoring to become a source "for the dedicated bulb enthusiast." Their catalogue (free) makes very good reading and is one of the few to mention our unique West Coast conditions. They have the usual selection of tulips and other traditional bulbs, but they also carry many of the rarer bulbs, some of which are better suited for Southern California.
For instance, they talk about the need to precool tulip bulbs in our climate, and then go on to list several "species" or wild tulips that don't need this treatment and will naturalize in Southern California-- Tulipa sylvestris , T. saxatilis and T. clusiana .
This year several are going to be generally available at nurseries for the first time, including the unusually pretty and floriferous (and very tough) Homeria aurantiaca and H. ochroleuca , and the pretty and nearly indestructible babianas. Homerias and babianas ought to be in every California garden because they return as faithfully as the swallows do to Capistrano.
If you have already experimented with the Cape bulbs and are ready for further adventures, write for the catalogue of Cape Province Bulbs issued by BioQuest International, P.O. Box 5752, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93150-5752. This small grower carries the rarest of the rare. Even though they offer a catalogue, it is quick to caution that this is "basically a small, private collection with more of the spirit of sharing the garden and less of a commercial enterprise."
Another catalogue that is good reading is that of the White Flower Farm, Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050. This catalogue reads, and has the heft, of a book and a year's subscription costs $5. The catalogue lists mostly bulbs that do best on the East Coast and the how-to advice must be interpolated to fit our climate, but there is some good advice and some choice bulbs therein.