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SPECIAL ISSUE: FALL GARDENS | BULBS

Beauty that not only lasts -- it multiplies

Holland bulbs may be flashier, but those from the Mediterranean and South Africa do better here: Their blooms last longer and grow more plentiful each year.

October 05, 2006|Robert Smaus | Special to the Times

THERE are bulbs to plant this fall that must be tossed out right after they bloom, like a disposable camera or razor, but there are also bulbs that will be with you for years and years, blooming each spring like clockwork. The traditional Dutch bulbs at nurseries and home centers right now, including tulips and hyacinths, are best treated as annual flowers in our climate, tossed after they flower because they need a much colder fall and winter. That's why they're usually imported from Holland.

But there are also bulbs native to Mediterranean climates that actually prefer our mild winters and dry summers. These will flower every spring with no digging or care of any kind. They need no summer irrigation and will actually multiply, making bigger and bigger clumps, "long after you've sold the house," says bulb grower Jim Threadgill. His EasyToGrowBulbs.com specializes in those that do well in Southern California. Every contemporary garden of Mediterranean plants and natives should reserve room for at least a few.

Some are native to the Mediterranean, but many more are native to the bulb-rich Cape region of South Africa. So many grow there that they easily fill a weighty, 486-page "The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs."

Unfortunately, not many are easy to find if you're looking for a few to plant. Most commercial growers don't bother with bulbs that do well in our climate because they're a struggle to grow elsewhere and the blooms do not make the kind of flashy show of Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C., or the fields in Holland.

A gardener needs to think smaller, but longer, when considering Cape bulbs or some of the others that do well here. Because each flower spike often has many individual blooms that open progressively, the show can last a month or more, compared to the week one gets from a tulip.

The flowers may only be an inch or so across but they can be beautifully colored. For this reason you want them where they can be seen up close, say beside a path or an entry gate. There the bulbs can lay dormant and unnoticed for much of the year but can't be missed when they come into spring bloom.

Cape bulbs, and most other Mediterranean-climate bulbs, tend to look and grow best as clumps. Plant a handful close together instead of evenly spacing them out as you would tulips. Mediterranean-climate bulbs grow as perennials and planting a small clump of bulbs lets them grow and spread naturally.

Bulb expert Frank Burkard of Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena grows clumps here and there in his own garden, along paths, beside shrubs, under trees, wherever they fit. Steve Hampson, the horticulturist at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar, grows some in the garden but many go in pots on the terrace since pots are easier to keep dry in summer. "Most of these Mediterranean climate bulbs need to be dry in summer," he said. "They aren't going to be happy when the sprinklers come on in July."

In summer, he tips the pots on their side so they don't accidentally get watered. He uses a porous cactus mix because these bulbs need fast drainage.

Some bulbs in Burkard's garden are in plastic nursery containers that he buries in the fall and then digs up and hides out of sight after the bulbs flower.

In the garden, most of these Mediterranean climate bulbs need well-drained or clay soils that stay dry in summer -- "they like to sit and bake in the clay all summer," Threadgill says -- so keep that in mind when choosing a spot. Don't plant them too deep either -- cover with about as much soil as the bulbs are tall. Some of the small corms can be planted by pushing aside soil with your finger.

A few Cape bulbs have been in Southland gardens for decades. Freesias are one favorite -- perhaps the most common Cape bulb at nurseries, perfect beside a path because they are also fragrant. Babiana, or baboon flowers, and the freesia-like Tritonia have also been around for a while, though they're not nearly as easy to locate, even though some are commercially grown here.

Sparaxis are one of the toughest Cape bulbs. Most come in a wild mix of colors but there's a new soft yellow appropriately named 'Lady Buttercup.'

While many Cape bulbs are on the small side, Watsonia are one towering exception. The big corms can become the size of your fist and the flower spikes are easily 3 to 5 feet tall. Flowers are nearly the size of gladiolus, to which they are related. They make quite a statement behind other flowers and are good cut. They come in several colors, including a mouth-watering peach. Give them room because they'll multiply and make a big clump.

Many bulbs originally native to the Mediterranean also like it here. Two unusual ones that Threadgill sells are the giant white squill and Spanish onion. The squill, or Urginea maritima, has bulbs the size of soccer balls and flowers spikes taller than most young soccer players. The onion, Allium ampeloprasum, has round 7- to- 8-inch balls of flowers on sturdy 4-foot stems

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