Bulbs are pretty amazing things. They have the ability to survive harsh environments and then when conditions are right they awaken and grow. Summer flowering bulbs have been sitting in a warehouse all winter and are now in stores ready to plant. Care must be taken to select live healthy bulbs. You have experience in doing this because the most popular bulb in the world can be found in the supermarket- the onion. Avoid bulbs with cuts, bruises and soft spots and beware of bulbs that may be too dried out. I like to shop for bulbs at places that let you rummage through a box of loose bulbs and pick the ones you like.
Ok, now for the technical stuff: I have been using the term bulb rather loosely. The botanical term is geophyte which includes corms, rhizomes and tubers. I like the word geophyte. It literally means earth plant. It is easy to spell and pronounce, which is rare in the field of botany. Now back to the fun stuff !
The only problem around here for bulbs is poor drainage during the dormant season. Long periods of wet soil can lead to bulb rot. Also underground voles will eat some geophytes. If you do not have a cat you might want to try a product called PermaTill. This stuff looks like kitty litter but is kilned slate. The particles have a rough surface which voles and moles hate to dig in. Mix a generous amount in your flower beds and it will improve drainage and aeration too.
Here is my short list of bulbs to try around here.
Calla Lilies Zantedeschia are native to the marshy areas of South Africa and are related to Elephant Ears (Alocasia). They need full sun and rich moist soil in the garden. Plant the bulbs so the top of the bulb is about one inch below ground with added compost. Feed them every 2 weeks with 20-20-20 liquid fertilizer. Stop feeding the first of August. The White Callas are the most fragrant. Pink and purple callas do better in part shade. Callas make good potted plants and some callas have interesting spotted foliage.
Pink Rain Lilies or Pink Fairy Lilies. Habranthus robustus is a relative of our native Zaphyranthes atamasco. These dainty flowers are native of Brazil and are happy on our island. They often pop up and bloom after the first summer thunder storm. The light green foliage comes up in the spring before the flowers bloom. Rain Lilies are easy to propagate from seeds and dividing clusters of bulbs. Collect seed pods when they turn yellow and then scatter seeds where you want them. They can be planted with other small bulbs like daffodils ‘Tete a Tete”, or ‘February Gold’. Try other rain lilies too. The white rain lily Zypheranthes candida, and the yellow rain lily Zypheranthes citrine do well with little care.
Gladiolus are the workhorse of the florist industry and what funeral would be complete without them. These South African iris cousins come in a rich selection of colors and shades from purples, reds, yellows pinks and whites and many are bicolored. They also come in a good selection of sizes too. I like the dwarfs or nanus because they do not need staking. For the giant glads, I recommend planting them deep, in a circle and use a tomato cages for support. If you are using them for cut flowers, don’t plant them all at once. I have planted them as late as August for October blooms.
Dutch Irises are also a favorite of flower arrangers. They are one of the few bulbs that can be planted in the fall and spring. They do not store well or take the summer heat, so plant them as soon as you get them. The foliage will die in the summer heat but return in the fall.
Lillies are a big group with several different types. They have done very well for me here and I don’t know why they are not more popular. Longiflorums are the Easter lily types. They come in white and pink. You can plant those leftover potted Easter lilies in your garden. Just cut off the dead blooms and they will bloom next year but rarely on Easter. The Asiatic Hybrids are smaller, hold up better in the garden and make great cut flowers. I recommend starting with these. Flower colors include yellows, whites, pinks and bi-colors. The Oriental Hybrids have very big flowers and will need some staking. Colors are whites, pinks and bi-color. They often have spotted petals. The Trumpets are tall with large flowers and a good selection of colors. They will need support. To add to the confusion, hybridizers have crossed all of the above lilies with some interesting results including striking color patterns. If you like natives there are a number of species and wild forms available too. Although it is recommended that lilies get full sun, I have had good results in filtered sunlight.
My secret to planting bulbs is a power tool. I use an 18 volt rechargeable drill with a 2 3/4 inch bulb auger. None of this getting on my hands and knees with a hand trowel for me. I can plant about 50 bulbs in about 15 minutes. First, I drill all the holes, then toss in some fertilizer and PermaTill, drop the bulbs in the hole and kick the soil over the holes with my foot. If I need a bigger hole, I just wiggle the drill back and forth. I also use the drill to plant annuals and vegetables.
There are plenty of other geophytes that are worth trying, and if you are looking for something new then check out the International Bulb Society website at http://www.bulbsociety.org/ .