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Turn On Color in Fall Garden With Bulbs

August 29, 1993|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Instant gratification is difficult to get in the garden, especially with bulbs. Patience is not only a virtue but usually a necessity.

But with fall-flowering bulbs, the gratification, while not instant, is pretty quick. You plant them in late summer and they bloom only a few weeks later, in early fall.

Colchicums are perhaps the best known fall-flowering bulbs. Most people don't even bother to plant them--they'll bloom in the box at the nursery, or on the potting bench, or sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. All they need is light from a window.

The flowers are crocus-like, but bigger and usually pink. Later they'll make leaves and roots if they're planted in the ground, though snails and slugs relish the bulbs, which must be planted part way out of the ground. The pests peel the bulbs like an onion and eat the leaves as they appear, so most people enjoy the novelty of bulbs flowering out of the ground, then toss them out.

Much more satisfactory in the garden are the saffron crocus, from which the precious spice is made. The flowers are a lovely lilac and large for a crocus.

Inside each are several bright, burnt orange stigmas, a bonus for the cook. Save these and you have home-grown saffron and as any cook knows, it doesn't take much to season and color a dish. Simply pick the stigmas, air dry, then seal away in a little jar.

This Mediterranean native should be planted in the ground, in full sun, and in soil that can dry out a little in the summer, which is true for most of the bulbs mentioned here. Almost all of them come from summer-dry climates like our own.

Fall-flowering bulbs are well-adapted to Southern California, where they come back year after year. They flower, then grow leaves and roots in winter and spring, go dormant for the dry summer, and return the following autumn, usually blooming before the leaves reappear.

The only trick is to keep them reasonably dry in summer so they do not rot while they're dormant.

A perfect place for crocus or other small bulbs is between paving stones, near the edge of the path where they won't be trodden on. They're small enough to fit into tight spaces and they won't get lost like they often are in the garden among larger plants.

Plant any of the crocus twice as deep as they are tall and space the bulbs about 3 to 6 inches apart.

You can find a handful of other fall-flowering crocus at nurseries now. Crocus speciosus is the prettiest, with dainty deep violet-blue flowers with a darker veining in the petals. They only get 4 to 5 inches tall and are considered easy to grow. The bulb is native to Iran and Turkey, though all these bulbs are commercially raised in Holland, or here. "Conqueror" is a clear, deep-blue form developed by the Dutch.

C. zonatus is a native of Lebanon, with pale lilac flowers and a yellow throat. It too is considered easy to grow, although one named C. karduchorum, with a white throat, is even easier.

Easier to grow than it is to pronounce, C. goulimyi was only discovered in 1955, growing on a Greek island. It has soft lilac flowers and it multiplies quickly in our gardens.

"It's easier than a freesia," said Mary Brosius at Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, one of the few to offer it. But don't look for these bulbs right now. They don't come from Holland until mid-September or early October. As a result, they may only grow leaves the first year, flowering next fall.

Spider Lilies

Lycoris bulbs are usually at nurseries in late summer or early fall and Dan Davids of Davids & Royston, one of the suppliers, says they must be planted early in September or even in late August, if you want flowers the first year. Wait too late and you'll get leaves but no flowers, at least not until the following fall.

The common name of spider lily refers to the delicate, spidery flowers on some kinds.

Lycoris aurea has golden yellow flowers and is the easiest to grow according to Davids. L. radiata is a fiery red and the most spidery, L. sanguinea a salmon color, L. squamigera a pink, and L. albiflora is white.

All grow about 1 to 2 feet tall, tall enough for the front of a flower bed, though they do best in areas that won't get too much summer water. The leaves that come in winter "are just kinda there," as Davids put it, nothing to write home about.

Plant the bulbs 3 to 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Slugs and snails often search them out, so be sure to bait.

Nerines, from South Africa, are similar looking plants in shades of pink, red, orange and white, with petals that glisten in the sun. They're hard to find at nurseries but you may come across bulbs grown in quart pots. Gardeners find them easier to grow in pots than in the ground.

Sternbergia

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