Towering over their companions in the garden or providing soaring backdrops for expensive arrangements from the florist, gladiolus are among the least timid of flowers. The giants can reach 8 feet in height, with blossoms 7 inches across; they bloom in virtually every color.
And in Southern California, they aren't picky about when they bloom: Many avid gardeners manage to keep glads going from late spring until the end of summer.
June is typically the peak of their season, however, and the Southern California Gladiolus Society makes it easy for you to catch a glimpse of perfect specimens at its annual show, open today from 1 to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia.
You'll see hundreds of cut flowers, all of which will have been judged in the hours before the show begins, and you'll even have a chance to cast a ballot for your favorite glad.
Division for Novices
If you think the blossoms from your garden can compete, take them to the arboretum before 10:30 a.m. today and enter them in the novice division. Stands and vases will be provided, and there is no charge for entry.
However, if all you want to do is admire beautiful flowers, you'll find enough to keep you busy for hours. Just don't go expecting to be able to buy bulbs and rush home and plant. You'll have to make copious notes on your favorite varieties and do your buying next January, your planting early next spring.
"When they bloom depends on when you plant," said Henry Wagner, a gladiolus aficionado for 25 years and a longtime president of the gladiolus society. (His wife, Wilma, now serves as president.)
"The earliest varieties bloom 60 to 65 days after planting; some don't bloom for 120 days," Wagner said. The average is about 85 days, so calculate when you want your glads to look their best and plant accordingly.
Buy After Christmas
You'll find ample supplies of bulbs in nurseries soon after Christmas; the Gladiolus Society also sponsors a yearly sale at the arboretum in January at which you can select from 3,000 to 4,000 bulbs at excellent prices.
Your challenge, after buying the bulbs, is to take proper care of them until you're ready to put them into the ground, Wagner said. Commercial growers put the bulbs into coolers in which they can maintain a constant temperature of 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperatures in home refrigerators are too erratic to do your bulbs much good.
"Find the coolest area you can, such as your garage or the crawl space under your house," Wagner said, "and don't put them in a paper bag all bunched up together. Spread them in one layer on a tray or hang them loosely packed in a mesh bag."
Before planting your bulbs, prepare the bed thoroughly. Start by choosing a sunny spot in your garden: Gladiolus can tolerate half shade but will be truly spectacular if given lots of light. You want good drainage, so dig in as much peat moss and sand as necessary to give you a good, crumbly soil.
"Fertilizer is not too important for glads," Wagner said. "I put in a little granulated fertilizer (in a 5-10-10 composition) when I plant and again when I see the blooms just forming; otherwise, they don't need much."
Plant the bulbs about 6 inches deep--getting them deep enough is key--and 6 inches apart, in rows spaced 15 inches apart. "They'll do all right almost next to each other," Wagner said. "Growers raise them with almost no space between the bulbs." Wagner said the weekend gardener will have an easier time watering adequately if the spacing is more generous.
And water is critical for gladiolus. They aren't drought-tolerant: They should get an inch of water a week and more when bloom stalks appear. Keep the water off the blooms--it will cause unsightly spots.
You can grow other annuals in with your glads, but don't put them near vegetables or citrus trees. Thrips and aphids love gladiolus, and you will generally have to spray to keep the pests under control, making these flowers bad neighbors for a truck garden.
Dig in Fall
To keep your glads year after year, you'll need to dig up the bulbs in September or October, Wagner said. "We take them out about 30 to 50 days after they stop blooming but before the green leaves die," he said. The bulbs should then be stored just as you do newly purchased ones--in a cool, dark spot where they get plenty of air.
"If you don't dig, the bulbs eventually will die out," Wagner said. "You'll get blooms the first few years and then you'll lose them."
The arboretum is at 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; (818) 446-8251. Admission to the arboretum is $3 for adults; $1.50 for senior citizens 62 and older and students with IDs; 75 cents for children 5 to 12, and free for children younger than 5. There is no fee for entry to the gladiolus show.