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IN THE GARDEN

It's Time to Plant Bulbs for Showy Spring Color

October 29, 1995|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

By nearly all accounts, the Los Angeles Garden Show was a great success, with more than 32,000 people attending the five-day event. And the October timing was perfect; if you purchased plants or found ideas for improving your garden, you can immediately get to work, for we are in the middle of the fall planting season.

Give Diascia a try

A group of plants that sold out quickly in the sales tent was Diascia . These natives of South Africa have become fairly common at nurseries, although they are generally harder to find in fall than when in full bloom in spring. I've found, however, that they thrive in my garden when planted in fall or winter.

Don't let their delicate appearance in a four-inch pot fool you; they get full and frothy, with pink to salmon flowers, in a short time. Save a front-row seat for them in flower beds where they can spill onto paths or paving, because they get only about 12 to 18 inches tall (and wide) and tend to flop forward. David Frost, who grows several kinds at his Native Sons Nursery, has found that this floppy habit makes them nice in pots, where they "billow over the sides."

Most, including Ruby Field, Salmon Supreme and Rupert Lambert, are some shade of salmon. One of my favorites is Elliot's Variety; it's pink and a little taller than most, and it made quite a show in my garden last year, blooming in front of pink and purple alstroemerias. Wendy is another pink and Langthorn Lavender and Blackthorn Apricot describe themselves.

Frost says he's pleased if he gets them to bloom for two years, and I think the secret to growing these supposedly drought-resistant perennials is to start with fresh nursery plants in quart pots every year, treating them just like annual bedding plants and simply taking them out when they finish up in summer.

Daffodils in Southern California

Never mind that daffodils do better in other climates. Poets from Shakespeare to Wordsworth have made the nodding flowers such a part of spring that even the most practical California gardener cannot resist: At the garden show, many were busy filling brown bags with the papery bulbs.

It's not that they don't grow here--they do and flower beautifully in spring--but most, like the common King Alfred, simply don't persist. In our climate and soils, the bulbs tend to rot if they get watered while they are dormant in summer.

Where garden beds are regularly irrigated, daffodils are best treated as bedding plants that you plant now and toss after they finish flowering, just like tulips and pansies. Plant them among other spring flowers, in clumps of three to five bulbs spaced a couple of inches apart, and they'll add a cheerful note to the spring garden at no great expense.

A few have a better chance of returning the following year if the garden is not overly watered. The most reliable of the commonly available kinds are California Giant, Cheerfulness, Fortune, Ice Follies (one fancier calls this white- and cream-colored variety the best in her garden), Trevethian, Yellow Cheerfulness and Pink Charm (one of the new pinks). Geranium, Grand Soleil d'Or, Chinese sacred lilies and paper whites tend to come back year after year.

All the others can be enjoyed for at least a season, and the list of reliable returners grows by leaps and bounds if you let the foliage brown before cutting it off and then keep the bulbs dry once they are dormant (try them in a dry part of the garden).

Plant the bulbs twice as deep as they are tall. Setting the bulbs on an inch-thick bed of sand at the bottom of the hole seems to help prevent rotting.

A new fall bulb

Its real name is the nearly unpronounceable Rhodophiala bifida , so bulb growers are calling it the red amaryllis bellandona because it looks so similar to the pink naked ladies common in older gardens.

It blooms at this time of the year--a little later than Amaryllis belladonna --with large red trumpet flowers. It is native to Argentina and Uruguay, and growers report that it's a "tremendous naturalizer"--meaning it will persist and spread in the garden, needing little care or special treatment. Look for it among the other bulbs at nurseries.

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