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Gardeners Don't Have to Fuss Over Pretty Babiana


Don Nielsen really likes babiana. These South African bulbs are easy to grow, yet attract plenty of attention when they bloom every March in his Huntington Beach garden.

"There aren't many plants that take so little care, yet put on such a tremendous show," said Nielsen, who grows babiana in containers, which he places around his hot tub.

"For bulbs, babiana flowers are long lasting--blooming for two to three weeks or longer," he said. "And the flower colors are so vivid. One of my neighbors is in the art field and comes over to photograph them every year."

There are three important attributes in a bulb, and babiana fills all of those requirements, said Laura Lyons, nursery manager for the UCI Arboretum in Irvine. "Babiana naturalizes [spreads] readily, tolerates summer irrigation and thrives without being fussed over."

Today and Sunday, the arboretum is holding its annual summer bulb sale, featuring dormant corms (thickened underground stems) from the arboretum's winter-flowering bulb collection, including babiana.

Now is the time to buy winter flowering bulbs, which should be planted by the end of October.

Babiana have spikes of freesia-like flowers that are generally 12 to 16 inches high, with foliage at the 9- to 10-inch range.

Although most of the flowers are a striking lavender-blue and purple, there are some varieties in white, yellow and red.

One of Lyon's favorite babiana is B. angustifolia. "This babiana is a prolific reproducer with gorgeous, showy flowers that are purple with even deeper purple markings," she said.

Because it blooms in late February or early March, when many other plants in the garden are dormant, babiana makes a good addition to perennial beds. It isn't a tall grower, so place bulbs in the foreground or intersperse among low-growing plants.

To have success growing babiana, keep the following tips in mind.

* Plant in full sun or very light shade in a well-draining location. If drainage is poor, amend by 20% to 40% with a high quality planting mix.

Plant twice as deep as the height of the bulb with the pointed end up. Space 1 to 2 inches apart.

* Use containers that are at least 6 inches deep. The arboretum staff uses a special sandy bulb potting mix that contains three parts coarse silica sand, two parts redwood compost, two parts peat moss and one part fine perlite.

In pots, plant about 1 inch apart.

After a few years, babiana will multiply and crowd containers. Divide the corms in August during dormancy and repot.

* Begin watering in early October. Be careful not to water too frequently when the bulbs are breaking dormancy and going dormant. In general, they should be watered when they are approaching dryness.

No water is required during dormancy, which lasts from May to October, but they can tolerate irrigation at this time.

* Fertilize with a low nitrogen organic food. If using a chemical fertilizer, use it at one-quarter strength. Feed every three to four weeks once bulbs start to grow and stop when they finish blooming.

Although bonemeal has long been recommended as a good bulb food, Lyons advises against using it.

"When gardeners originally started fertilizing bulbs with bonemeal, it wasn't as processed as it is now," she said. "There was usually some marrow left and tissue clinging to the bone, which contained nitrogen. Today's bonemeal is very fine and has very little and often no nitrogen at all."

* When containerized babiana finishes blooming, let the foliage die off and then store the pot in a dry location until the following October, at which time you can pull it out and begin watering.

Another bulb source is Jim Duggan Flower Nursery in Encinitas, which carries a wide variety of South African bulbs and does mail order. (760) 943-1658 or

The annual Summer Bulb Sale is held today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the UCI Arboretum, which is south of the corner of Campus Drive and Jamboree Road on the UCI North Campus.

There will be a wide selection of winter flowering bulbs and some herbaceous perennials.

Admission is free for children and Friends of the UCI Arboretum and $2 for nonmembers. Call (949) 824-5833.

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