By Marc Hess, Editor Gardening South Texas newsletter
What is a Texas gardener to do? We just watched our gardens languish in a hot summer drought, and we’re bound to see that again next year. If that is not enough we’re up against the likelihood of another February deep freeze like the one that killed so many of our long-established shrubs and palms last year. It makes a gardener wonder if we will ever see color in our landscapes and garden beds again. This is the time for us to focus on flowering bulbs.
With proper selection of bulbous plantings, you will find many opportunities for luscious, colorful garden beds next spring bearing lovely displays of daffodils, irises and even tulips. Many bulbs require a period of cold weather to trigger the bloom cycle and we are likely to get that again this winter.
If you want to see that color next spring you need to get your bulbs in the ground before the end of December.
As a rule, spring-flowering bulbs are “hardy.” This means they can survive the cold winter months after being planted in early winter. They actually require a period of cold to activate the biochemical process needed for flowering. But “hardy” is also a proper moniker because of their ability to withstand long periods without water. They can do that because nutrients are stored in their bulbs.
“Spring-flowering bulbs fall under the one-and-done mantra, meaning they need to be watered at the time of planting, and then they are done until spring,” says Amy Dube, flower bulb expert for the educational campaign called Dig.Drop.Done.” Plant your bulbs, and then give them a good dose of water, enough to reach the base of the bulbs,” says Dube. “This initiates root growth. After that, let Mother Nature take her course.”
Unlike fall annuals such as mums and pansies, flower bulbs don’t need constant attention. They will stay snuggled in their winter dormancy period like a bear in hibernation, then they will pop out when the ground temperature warms and be the first blast of color to welcome you into a new spring.
While not the first bulb to bloom, the Daffodil is the quintessential flower of spring. Representing the sun itself, its cheery stature and bright clear color announce the beginning of spring and the symphony of color on its way. Daffodils, also known as narcissus and jonquil, are one of the easiest bulbs to grow.
Iris is a super tough spring flower that does fabulously well in Texas gardens. You will often see White Cemetery Iris or Flag Iris popping up year after year in old neglected cemeteries throughout the state, most often in late March and April. These tough, drought-tolerant, and deer-resistant plants are one of the most prevalent of the heirloom iris and readily available in nurseries.
The Cemetery Iris is considered the oldest natural hybrid in the Bearded Iris family. Records of its cultivation can be traced back to the 1400s. As far as we know it was first cultivated in North Africa specifically to decorate gravesites. Later it became a popular decorative plant with the Spanish who brought it to Texas where, Lord knows, there were an abundance of gravesites to decorate. With a track record like that it’s easy to assume that you will have success with the White Cemetery Iris in your landscape.
Gladiolus is the tallest of the bulbs and are grown for their showy spikes of flowers which come in many colors. Glads are often used as background plants in the garden, or in rows, or as cut flowers for inside the home. If care is given to a planting schedule, and your local watering restrictions allow for it, your glads can provide spectacular color from spring until frost.
In general Texas doesn’t provide a good climate for Tulips because most varieties require a long chilling period to force germination. Then, when they bloom, they can’t withstand our familiar Texas heat. However there is one tulip that has shown us that it can regenerate and grow year after year in South Texas. That is the Persian Byzantine or Clusium tulip. It is difficult to find in nurseries but it can be ordered online. Some other traditional Dutch bulbs are kept in refrigerators to give them the chill period they need then are planted in the spring. These Dutch tulips will bloom for a short period. If there is anything left of them by June, you should dig them up and discard their fatigued bulbs.
So, what is a bulb?
The general term “bulb” is used to describe flowers and vegetables that have some sort of food storage mechanism in their stems or roots. The word “bulb” can encompass true bulbs, rhizomes, tubers, corms, and tuberous roots which all have different planting requirements.
➢ True bulbs are oval or egg-shaped root structures that when cut open appear to have layers upon layers.
➢ Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally, just below the soil surface. Gingers and iris have rhizomes.
➢ Corms can be bulb shaped, but are frequently in the shape of a large bagel. Gladiolus and crocuses are grown from corms.
If you get either of these types of “bulbs” in the ground in early winter you will be able to enjoy their color and beauty come spring.
BULB PLANTING TIPS
Most bulbs require full sun, but early blooming bulbs may be planted under deciduous trees like pecans, which are slow to leaf out.
When planting all your bulbous plants in Texas, you may find it best to create a special garden bed or use a large, shallow container. Fill that bed with a sandy loam soil with small amounts of organic matter like sphagnum moss and an inert material like perlite or decomposed granite. An old gardener’s trick is to add about a half cup of coffee grounds per cubic foot of soil to acidify the soil.
Place the individual bulb pointed side up in a hole that is twice the width of the bulb itself—not too shallow and not to deep. Use a bulb planter, dibber or a trowel to plant at the proper depth.
A bulb that stays moist in the soil when they are dormant can rot. Naturalizing bulbs, that return year after year, can rot if sprinkler systems deliver too much water in soil that doesn’t dry out. If you do it correctly your flowering bulbs will come back year after year to let you know that spring has arrived, once again.
IN THE KNOW
What is the beard on a Bearded Iris? The beard is that fuzzy patch at the base of each falls petal. The falls are the three lower pedals that may either be hanging out of the iris’ stem or flare out to the side. Locate the falls petal and look at it near the center of the flower. The beard is usually quite distinct and you can feel the fuzzy hair-like feature.
“One way of enjoying crocuses, hyacinths, and the early- blooming cultivars of narcissus bulbs is by forcing them indoors. The term “forcing” means getting a plant to produce its shoot, leaf, and flower ahead of its natural schedule. To force bulbs you will need to mimic and compress the process the plant would undergo in the garden.”
~ Dr. Jerry Parsons, retired Bexar County extension agent and celebrity horticulturalist.