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FALL PLANTING : Spring Potpourri : A Sure-Fire Gardening Strategy of Mixing Bulbs, Annuals and Perennials

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

TRADITION HAS IT THAT, in the fall, bulbs and other flowers are planted in big, separate beds--the way it's done at public parks. But in this part of the state, where all bulbs can't be counted on to come through, and where annual and perennial flowers are likely to bloom at different times, a better strategy is to mix them up--bulbs and flowers--to make a wonderful spring potpourri. That way, the indelicacy of having flowers that are not uniformly tall or do not bloom all at the same time will go unnoticed.

Take a close look at the flowers (the tulips in particular) in the Brentwood garden of Lou and Stephanie Snyder, designed and planted by Sassafras Nursery & Landscape in Topanga. You'll discover that they are of varying heights and that, although some are fully open, others are just beginning or have yet to bloom. Yet enough are flowering at any one time to make quite a spectacle throughout a long spring season.

Some bulbs have trouble in Southern California because of the peculiarity of the mild climate. The weather might be warm, even hot, one week and cool or downright chilly the next, preventing the bulbs' time clocks from being precisely set. That is true of Dutch bulbs in general and of tulips in particular: Without the cold of a snowy winter or the abrupt coming of spring, those bulbs tend to grow in a less predictable fashion than they do in harsher climates.

You can help tulips, hyacinths and some of the large-flowered crocus along by first chilling their bulbs in the refrigerator (preferably in the vegetable bin so there is no chance of their freezing) for about six to eight weeks. The bulbs you buy now will be ready to plant in late November or early December, though there are gardeners who swear that waiting until late December or even January is better yet.

Planting bulbs deep in the ground, where they are more insulated from occasional hot spells, is also a good idea. If tulips, for instance, get too warm, they will bloom too early and their stems will be too short. They can even start to flower before they are out of the ground, the petals pushing the soil aside. Plant them six to eight inches deep.

Other bulbs in the Snyder garden include daffodils, Dutch irises, anemones and ranunculus. Plant daffodils right away, because they need to make much root growth if they are to flower well in the spring. Dutch irises, anemones and ranunculus can be planted just about any time in the fall or winter; they are not that picky about timing. Thoroughly water ranunculus immediately after they have been planted but not again until they break through the soil. Otherwise they might rot.

Although some of the perennials are left in the ground from year to year, most of the Snyder garden is replanted every fall. Annual flowers must be planted every autumn, and many of the other flowers--some of which are technically perennials--and all bulbs do best if they are replanted every year, as though they were annuals. And the earlier in the season they are set out the better (just make sure to leave room for the tulips that are to be planted later).

Fall-planted annual and perennial flowers (available in flats and packs at nurseries now) take advantage of a soil still warm from summer to grow roots--even though, above ground, it appears as though nothing is happening. As the weather cools, the leafy parts of the plants grow lush, and at the first sign of spring, which might be in February or sooner, the plants begin to flower. They will keep at it until the hot weather shuts them down.

In the Snyder garden, the list of annuals and perennials is almost endless. Many of these plants had yet to bloom when these photographs were taken in March. The garden doesn't stop with the bulbs but continues into April, May and early June, when the garden is refurnished with spring-planted, summer-flowering annuals.

In March, the supporting players in the shadier parts of the garden are English primroses, cineraria, forget-me-nots and coral bells, and in the sunnier regions, stock, pansies, violas, deep-red penstemon and sweet alyssum. Note that the tulips grow in light shade, where they are safe from a too-hot spring sun (most of the good plantings of tulips around Southern California are in partly shady places).

Though you can tuck a few of the bulbs among other flowers, tulips, daffodils and especially ranunculus look best when there are lots of them. In the Snyder garden, sheer numbers have much to do with the impressive display. In fact, there is such variety that it would be a real hodgepodge were it not for the careful control of color. First, enough of one kind of plant is put in to carry a color throughout the garden; at this time of the year, it's the tulips that are the common thread. Like colors are then placed with like colors; the exceptions become the accents.

Almost all these flowers should be planted now through mid-November. Wait beyond then and the soil will have cooled enough to keep the plants from achieving much root growth until after the first of the year. You can plant earlier than October, but you must be very careful about watering. That's because the roots must be able to penetrate more than a few inches into the soil, which can dry quickly on a hot autumn day. Even now, watering is important, and, with the exception of the bulbs, it's better to err on the side of too much than too little--at least until the plants take hold and the weather cools and the days feel a little more like winter.

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