Plant Bulbs For Full-Time Bloom In The Garden


The Secret’s Out

OCEANSIDE DESIGNER Ruth E. Wolfe is known for layered landscapes bursting with flowers throughout the year. It’s a much-desired but elusive goal of many home gardeners.

What’s Wolfe’s secret? Under-planted bulbs — bulbs tucked around existing perennials, shrubs and trees.

“Good garden design always includes an orchestrated succession of four-season bloom, and bulbs make that happen,” says Wolfe who often layers her garden designs with thousands of them. “Bulbs help make the most of any real estate you have and most naturalize over time, giving big bang for the buck.” 

Sometimes bulbs fill gaps created when another plant is cutback or dormant. For example, in early spring, cheery narcissus sprout around a pruned ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia. As the silvery perennial rebounds, it masks fading bulb foliage. “One camouflages the other,” Wolfe explains.

Other pretty spring pairings add tall watsonias around winter-dormant kangaroo paws, and Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) near resting daylilies. Or try a simple layered under-planting of early, mid- and late-flowering narcissus to create non-stop bloom. “When one is dying down, another is coming up,” Wolfe says. 

Gardens of every style also get a boost from bulbs. “In succulent gardens, which are pretty stationary, bulbs bring fragrance and movement,” Wolfe says. “I like white star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum) with the dark rosettes of ‘Zwartkop’ aeonium.” 

Spring-blooming bulbs — planted here now through the end of the year — are probably best known, but there are bulbs for every season — gladiolus and lilies in summer, naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) and crinum in fall, and oxalis and Tulbaghia fragrans in winter. 

Wolfe often plants several from different seasons in the same spot. For example, summer’s gladiolus bulbs buried 9 inches deep might be topped with spring’s narcissus (planted 6 inches down) and baboon flowers (3 inches deep).

Right plant in the right place applies when selecting bulbs. “Know your bulbs so you can match them to plants with similar water, sun and soil needs,” Wolfe says. “Remember, too, some bulbs are more sensitive to water in their dormant season than others.”

Here are some other tips from Wolfe for success with under-planted bulbs:

Plan bulb additions. Retailers like Ocean-
side’s Easy to Grow Bulbs are rich resources for cultural information and bulb and plant combos for every season.

Some shrubs and perennials don’t like their roots disturbed. Pick tiny bulbs and “tuck them in” to minimize root damage.

Gardens: Garden Guide: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand

Most bulbs require good drainage. For heavy soil, try narcissus, watsonia, star of Bethlehem and Spanish bluebells.

Aim for a natural look, planting in odd-numbered groups. “Don’t line them up like soldiers,” Wolfe emphasizes.

Don’t add fertilizer at planting time. “Bulbs have their own food source and too much fertilizer will mean foliage at the expense of flowers,” she says.

Don’t cut back bulb foliage when flowering ends. The leaves help the bulb create and store food for next season. Let them turn brown before snipping them off. υ


Learn more about under-planting with bulbs in “Gardens for All-Seasons,” a two-hour class taught by landscape designer Ruth E. Wolfe and Mary McBride of Mary’s Garden at the San Diego Botanic Garden on Saturday, Oct. 13. 

Where to find it, page 120

Categories: Gardening