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Old Lilies of This Field Apparentlyt Don't Follow the Book


QUESTION: I have a whole bunch of lilies popping up in my yard. They just flowered and died back in October, so I dug them all up and separated the bulbs and replanted. Then I watered the dickens out of them, but now I read in a book that I should not be watering them because the bulbs are dormant in winter. Trouble is, most have already regrown their leaves. The book also said not to separate the bulbs, but I did and there is no putting them back together. Should I be following the instructions in this book?

--B.L., Studio City

ANSWER: Toss that book out, because it's got it all wrong for California (as many do). From what you described, you're probably growing an old-time California garden plant named "naked lady," Amaryllis belladonna, because the bulbs bloom in late summer with lily-like flowers, before they are clothed with leaves.

A lot of us remember them from our childhood because suddenly these lovely big pink trumpet-flowers would appear on stiff, two-foot stems when everything else in the garden was exhausted from the long summer. Even in vacant lots among the dead grasses. The long, inch-wide leaves would follow after the flowers faded, so the bulbs do their growing in winter. They go dormant in summer, when the leaves shrivel.

They are less common in gardens now but can still be found around many older homes. A. belladonna is a cast-iron plant for sunny or partly shaded spots that you can plant and forget. It can survive on rainfall alone, with no fertilizing, though it can tolerate some summer water. It is true, as with almost all bulbs, that once you separate a clump into individual bulbs, it may take a year or more to flower again while the bulbs recover from the loss of roots.

It could also be the closely related crinum lily, though these tend to flower later in fall. You can check by seeing if the flower is attached to the stem by a long tube, as crinums are. There are also crosses between the two, called amarcrinum, that have naked lady-like flowers on tall stems but no long tube connecting flower to stem.

Crinums and amarcrinums have pink, white or reddish flowers and tend to have leaves year round, sometimes atop thick, short trunks. They appreciate some summer watering but can do without; the culture for all three is very similar, although the naked lady is the toughest.

Vivid Green Fescues Are Easy to Grow

Q: I have noticed that the grass used in many commercial landscapes is always a vivid green, summer and winter. It has a tough, sturdy-looking little blade. Do you know what kind it is?


A: It is one of the new turf-type tall fescues. The blades are a little thicker and stiffer than eastern bluegrass or our Bermuda grass, but lawns look good in just about any season, especially when they are consistently maintained by professional crews. They look equally good, if cared for, in home gardens and, because they are deep-rooted, fescues can survive haphazard care once established.

First becoming popular during the recent drought because they were billed as a water-saving grass, they were found to need quite a bit--more than Bermuda grass, for instance--though less than rye and bluegrass.

Tall fescues grow quickly and must be mowed at least every week, although some of the newer varieties, including Bonsai, are shorter with finer blades. The best-known standard variety is Marathon. Although they are often planted as sod, tall fescues are among the easiest grasses to grow from seed. For much of the greater Los Angeles area, they are hard to beat for good looks and relatively easy care, although they will suffer in summer where it gets really hot.

Rhubarb, If You Really Care, Can Grow Here

Q: Can I grow rhubarb here?

--L.B., Long Beach

A: Yes, although heaven knows why you would. The plants are big, the leaves poisonous and the sweet stems are used only in pies. Although Midwesterners love it and it is a pretty plant, there are probably better uses for the space. Varieties named Cherry and Strawberry are the two common red-stemmed types, available as bare roots at this time of year. Plant these perennial vegetables three to four feet apart.

For Plants, Burial Happens Before Death

Q: I'm moving a potted Japanese maple into a deeper container; can I plant it deeper? Don't trees in the forest get buried by the leaf litter?

--R.P., Beverly Hills

A: Actually, trees in the forest tend to push themselves out of the soil to avoid having their base buried; with few exceptions, this is one of the basic rules of gardening--never bury the base of a plant. It will kill even a pansy, and trees are even more susceptible to the rots and other diseases that attack the base, or "crown," of plants.

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