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Orchestrate your spring flower show with bulbs planted now

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October is the time to think about what your garden will need after winter’s rains are over.

Because of the 300-day growing season in this Mediterranean climate, organic matter in the soil is rapidly depleted by the plants and animals that use its nutrients to proliferate. That’s a good thing, because a healthy soil is full of life. But the nutrient-rich organic matter needs to be replaced. In other words, the soil needs to be fed and October is a good month to do it.

Organic matter with a lot of nitrogen, such as fresh farm animal manures, can burn young plants. By adding fresh dung in October, much of the nitrogen will be used over the winter by soil organisms, by cover crops, or simply leach away by rain, and be ready for spring planting without any danger of burning seedlings.

Finished compost, on the other hand, can replenish soil organic matter at any time. You can plant seedlings or bulbs right in it. Think of it as fermented food for the soil. The ferment brings its nutrients into balance, including its nitrogen.

Winter’s sleep is not long for our local vegetation, but it is required for many plants, especially the bulbs that create the gorgeous flower displays of spring. Dry bulb roots plump out in winter’s wet soils, triggering the end of dormancy.

Daffodils are the workhorses of the flowering bulb patch. They return reliably each year, naturalize (increase in number as they reproduce) easily, gophers won’t eat them, deer don’t like them, and they come in many shapes and colors. Plant a bag full of daffodil bulbs in your chosen spot each year and within a few years your spring flower show will be an extravaganza of welcome to the returning spring.

But what happens when the big show is over? You’re left with a lot of unattractive foliage slowly turning yellow and then brown. If you want a good display next year, you need to let the foliage “ripen,” as gardeners call the process of decline and decay. What you need are companion plants that will grow as the bulb foliage ripens, covering it up. Perennials like Japanese anemones, daylilies and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) make good companion plants for daffodils and their close family relatives (narcissus and jonquils). But these perennials need maintenance.

You’ll have less work if you sow seeds of annuals that will self-seed each year and cover up the ripening foliage of your spring bulbs. Annual alyssum (Lobularia maritima), pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), love in a mist (Nigella damescena), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and spiderflower (Cleome hasslerana), among others, are reliable self sowers. Know what the annuals like; alyssum for instance, likes full sun while the calendula can take semi-shade.

When you prepare the soil in October and plant bulbs, cast the seed of the annuals thinly over the bed. Mixing the seed with a quart of soil or sand will make sowing thinly much easier than casting the seed by itself. The self- sowers generally don’t need to be raked in or buried. A good watering will carry the seeds down into the friable soil. They’ll sprout over the winter and as the bulbs start flowering in spring, they’ll begin their benign growth.

Tulips are the other huge workhorse, but gophers love nothing more than a nice juicy tulip bulb, so put them in pots and group them where they can help hide the ripening daffodil foliage.

The workhorses are just the beginning of what’s available among bulbs. Many small bulbs produce exquisite little flowers in spring. Make a patch with good drainage by a well-used walkway in the garden and line it with hardware cloth to foil the gophers, then fill it with rich garden soil and compost. Discover Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) and its small, lovely blue flowers, and its relative, Puschkinia scilloides with very pale blue, star-shaped flowers with each petal sporting a blue-green racing stripe down its length. Mix Peruvian Squill (Scilla peruviana) in this patch. It’s suited to our climate and produces round flower heads made up of about 50 little intensely blue flowers.

Find room for Freesias, especially Freesia alba, the species with the enticingly sweet scent and pretty trumpet-shaped flowers.

And don’t forget the Checkered Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris), whose magical flowers somehow manage to be as checkered as a tablecloth in a spaghetti joint.

No Sonoma bulb garden will be complete without Leucojum aestivum, the misnamed Summer Snowflake that blooms here in mid to late winter. The petals of its hanging white bells have scalloped edges, and there’s a dot of yellow-green on each pretty little scallop.

Speaking of bulbs, consider the lilies. October is the perfect time to plant them, as they don’t root well when the soil is summer-warm, preferring the cooler soils of fall. With lilies, success is all about timing.

There are so many more charming bulbs: grape hyacinths, bedding hyacinths that smell like Easter, flowering onions called alliums, cyclamens, trout lilies, rain lilies, crocuses and Spanish bluebells. For more information, here are some websites to view pictures of these plans and many others bulbs: WhiteFlowerFarm.com; dutchgardens.com; johnscheepers.com; OldHouseGardens.com.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net

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