October is the perfect time to plant bulbs
When most of us think about spring-flowering bulbs, daffodils come to mind.
They’re early, one of the first flowers of spring. They’re beautiful — golden trumpets heralding the coming growing year. They naturalize and can fill a slope with a profusion of flowers over the years. Best of all, gophers don’t like eating the bulbs, and deer don’t like to eat the leaves or flowers.
But daffodils are just the beginning of the delights spring can call up from below ground when you’ve seeded that ground with a wide and wild variety of bulbs.
Now, in October, when the first rains return and the hard soil turns soft and moist, is the perfect time to plant bulbs. The moist soil plumps up the bulbs, giving them a few weeks to snuggle their swelling roots into the soil of their planting beds. By the end of November, signals from the sun’s declining light and warmth will end plant growth and the bulbs will go to sleep until it’s time to put on their spring extravaganzas.
If you plan on planting bulbs in the ground, unprotected lilies, hybrid tulips, crocuses and gladiolas may turn out to be a waste of money, as California’s ubiquitous gophers just love them for snacks.
You may be able to protect them with wire baskets, available at garden centers, sunk into the ground. Some people dig holes for the bulbs, put sharp gravel in the bottom, put in the bulbs, put more sharp gravel on top and cover the hole with soil. The theory is that gophers don’t like to dig through sharp gravel.
Rather than go that far, I simply plant my at-risk bulbs in pots and keep them on the deck. I’ve yet to see a gopher cross my deck and climb up the side of a pot.
What to plant
You undoubtedly already know about daffodils, tulips and lilies, but some of the most beautiful spring flowering bulbs are less known. Many are diminutive, but all are as welcome as spring rain.
As with all spring flowers from bulbs, allow the leaves to brown and wither before mowing or cutting them down. Here are some to consider:
Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa): a native of Turkey, this charmer is deer-proof but beloved by bees. These sweet little posies will naturalize. The most popular variety is rich blue with white centers, and each bulb produces up to eight flowers on a stem.
Striped squill (Puschkinia): My favorite of all the small-flowering bulbs, it entered commerce in 1808. Its stems produce masses of star-shape pale blue-white petals with a deep blue stripe down the center of each petal. It also naturalizes.
Fritillaria: Two types are extraordinary. The crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis Rubra Maxima) grows 30 to 36 inches tall in an umbrella shape from which dangle 10 or so red-orange flowers. The checkered fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) makes you doubt your eyes because its nodding flowers are precisely checkered with maroon and white squares. Both types like a cool, moist spot with dappled sun.
Erythronium californicum ‘Pagoda’ (trout lily): This lily also likes cool, moist soil rich with decayed organic matter and shielded from full sun by overhead trees. This species is native to our region up to British Columbia and produces foot-tall dangling open bells with recurved petals. The foliage is speckled.
Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake): Whoever named this summer snowflake must have been hallucinating, because leucojum is an early bloomer, appearing in late winter to early spring in our climate. Its nodding, milky-white bells have a scalloped edge, and each lobe of the scallop is touched with a dot of rich green. It’s very dainty, and it will naturalize in dappled shade areas of moist soil.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum): This familiar spring flower looks like a cluster of tiny cobalt blue grapes atop a short stem. But it’s just the beginning of what this genus offers. There are pink and white clustered sports and blues in many shades. It’s a champion naturalizer. I’ve seen a woodland with several acres covered with these flowers.
Most of these spring bulbs don’t like being out of the ground for long, so buy them now or as soon as possible and be prepared to plant them within a day of getting them home.
To a flower, they all like dappled shade and moist soil with lots of decayed organic matter. Because of these preferences, it may be better to order them from mail-order sources than get them from store bins where they may not be fresh.