If you are planning on planting bulbs this fall, this weekend is the one.
At the very least, buy the bulbs now, before they are too picked over. In another month you'll find only skins lying in the bottom of the boxes they are sold from, or empty racks once filled with packages.
Tulips should definitely be purchased and put in the refrigerator. I have a box of 100 sitting right next to the lettuce and cauliflower. And there they'll stay until late December. I plan to plant them over the holidays. If you are going to plant hyacinths--the large Dutch kind--they too should go into the fridge.
Other bulbs can go right in the ground and here are a few that make nice weekend projects:
Babiana, also called the baboon flower, and homeria, which has no common name that I know of, are two that have been hard to find in past years but should be at most nurseries this season because they are now carried by one of the largest wholesalers. Both are sure-fire bulbs that will not only flower next spring but for many springs thereafter.
Both bulbs are native to the Cape area of South Africa, which has a climate said to be remarkably like our own: Rains come in winter and the summers are dry. So a similar regime in the garden guarantees they will return year after year.
Hold the Water
While they are dormant in summer, it helps if they do not get too wet for too long, so simply improving the soil so it doesn't stay soggy seems to be adequate. I have homerias and babianas growing in flower beds that are watered all summer and the only problem I've noticed is that the leaves stay on even after they have turned brown.
Nooks and Crannies
If you are worried about too much water, simply plant them where you don't water as often. Little nooks and crannies in the garden best suit these bulbs anyway. Plant the bulbs (technically, the bulbs are called corms) about two to three inches deep. They look best planted in clusters of three to five bulbs, so they grow as a clump. Because they persist in the garden, they will multiply and in time will grow to even larger clumps.
The homeria will make a clump about two to three feet tall with the leaves actually being much longer but they bend or lie on the ground. If they are too long, you can cut the leaves back to about two feet long and it won't harm the plant. Each bulb produces a couple of leaves and then in spring, one tall spike that is much branched. For a month or more, flowers the color of orange sherbet open at the ends, each almost two inches across.
There is even a nicer version with deep yellow flowers that grows a little shorter and denser called Homeria ochroleuca . Both will grow in a little shade if that's all you can offer. In my garden that's what they get and they are the longest blooming bulbs I grow.
Babiana are called baboon flowers because baboons apparently favor the corms. I suspect that the baboons simply find them easy to spot (they certainly don't look tasty) because the sturdy pleated leaves last all through summer and one tug will pull them out of the ground. If you object to the leaves in summer, cut them off with scissors after they turn brown.
The leaves grow about a foot tall and the flowers come early in the year and are usually white or a pretty bluish-purple. They are not nearly as dramatic as the homeria and look more like a wildflower, but a cluster of several bulbs spotted here and there in the garden guarantees some easy, early color for years to come. Plant these corms two inches deep.
Blues and Purples
Another pretty bulb that is a wildflower of a respectable near-blue color is the brodiaea. A California native, the bulb is quite plentiful in the local hills but not at nurseries. This year it is being offered along with the babiana and homeria. What you will be buying, however, is a much enlarged Dutch hybrid of our wildflower, with big, light lavender flowers arranged like a star burst on sturdy stems about 18 inches tall.
Spacing the Bulbs
This one shouldn't be planted in clumps but in little meadows with the bulbs spaced about three inches apart, two to three inches under the soil. I think it would be very pretty poking out of a low ground cover such as thyme or even any of the low-growing annuals, and that's where I plan to plant some this year.
What if you can't find any of these bulbs? There are plenty of others, but if you like the idea of bulbs that are easy to grow and that come back year after year, there are two that should be planted right away and are common at nurseries--the paper whites and the closely related Chinese sacred lilies.
Both are daffodils, or more correctly, they are narcissus, and they belong to a group known as the Tazetta narcissus, which also includes the popular variety Geranium and Soleil d'Or. All are easy to grow in gardens, if planted early enough in the season so they have time to make adequate roots. But the paper whites and the Chinese sacred lilies are extra easy and are so persistent in gardens that you often see them growing in vacant lots, having outlasted the house.
Both also flower very early in the year, in January or February at the latest, and will grow into respectable clumps if not over watered in summer. Narcissus should be planted about twice as deep in the soil as the bulbs are tall.