• Growing Iris, Planting bulbs and sowing wildflowers

    by  • October 30, 2015 • Fall, Garden

    Fall is time for dividing iris, planting and sowing wildflower seeds…

    Bearded Iris Growing Tips

    Spring-flowering bulbs thrive in full or partial sun. Good drainage is important for most bulbs, so avoid placing them in soggy areas and in low-lying parts of the garden where water pools during wet winters and spring thaw.

    1. Dig a hole or trench large enough for several bulbs. Bulbs are most effective when planted in bunches. In small gardens, groupings of 6 to 12 are effective; in large gardens, use groups of 12 to 24. I prefer to plant drifts of bulbs, so I use a spade to dig the holes rather than a bulb planter (a tool with a handle that looks like a tin can with both ends cut out).
    2. Bulb size dictates how deep to plant. As a rule, plant large bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and ornamental onions (alliums) about 8 to 12 inches deep, and set smaller bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops 4 to 6 inches deep.
    3. Space large bulbs 3 to 6 inches apart and small ones 1 to 2 inches apart. If you’re confused about which end is up – this can be the case with tubers such as windflowers – just place them sideways, and they will right themselves.
    4. Cover bulbs with soil and water generously. Later, when the ground cools you can apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch to the surface, such as compost, well-rotted manure, shredded bark or chopped up leaves. This helps to prevent soil from drying out and to help keep temperatures stable through the winter.
    5. At planting time, you don’t actually need to apply fertilizer, as the bulbs have already been fattened up for bloom. However, for bulbs that will stay in place for a number of seasons, enrich the soil in the planting area with good organic compost or well-rotted cow manure worked into the soil when planting. You can also use a slow-release bulb food when planting.
    Iris 'Hemstitched'

    Iris ‘Hemstitched’

    Keeping pesky squirrels away from bulbs

    Squirrels consider tulips and crocuses tasty treats, but fortunately, find daffodils unappetizing. Bulbs are most vulnerable after planting, when the soil is still soft from being dug up, and squirrels often discover them while burying nuts.

    Bulb planting deeply, firming the soil down well, throwing a few leaves on top and then cleaning up any trace of bulb planting can help to discourage squirrels.

    For serious theft problems, place chicken wire on top of the planted area and anchor it with pegs cut from wire coat hangers. The squirrels won’t enjoy digging through the mesh and you can remove it once the ground begins to freeze.

    Personally, my solution is my dog, and I always seem to get dogs who love to chase squirrels. For me, this tactic works like a charm.


    Spring Bulb FAQs

    1. Why can’t I plant tulips in the Spring?
      A. Spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils must be planted in the fall or early winter to bloom in spring because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark the biochemical process that causes them to flower. In fall, it’s important to get them into the ground before the ground freezes. They need time to develop strong roots.
    2. It’s February and I just found a bag of bulbs that I forgot to plant. Do I save them till next year?
      A. No! If they are still firm and plump, plant them now. Bulbs are living plants, not seeds they cannot wait, they will dry out. Either chill them in the refrigerator for use indoors as forced bulbs or somehow get them into the ground outside. Because they are so tough and contain a full storehouse of food, your bulbs will try their best to bloom no matter how late it is in the season. This is a case of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Chances are you may still get some results, even if you plant them late.
    3. I’ve been told to plant bulbs in clusters — why is this important?
      A. Groups of bulbs make a much nicer show than individual “soldiers marching single file.” To create greater color impact in the garden, plant clusters of same-color flowers together in blocks or “bouquets.” Visually, you get more “bang for the buck.” One trick: try positioning similar bulbs in a triangular planting pattern in the garden, with the point of the triangle towards the front and the long leg towards the back. The result: it will look as if you planted more flowers than you did. Generally, larger bulbs should be planted 3 to 6 inches apart, smaller bulbs 1 to 2 inches apart.
    4. What should I do after tulips fade in spring? What about daffodils?
      After tulip flowers have faded, “dead-head” them by clipping off the faded blooms so that they won’t go to seed. Narcissi (daffodils) do not require dead-heading, just leave as is. The main requirement for bulb flowers in the post-bloom period is to leave the leaves alone so the plant can put its energy into “recharging” its bulb for next spring’s performance. This “energy charge” is gained through photosynthesis as the plant uses the sun’s energy to turn basic elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium into food. This food is stored in the bulb’s “scales,” the white fleshy part of the bulb, for use next spring.


    unknown daffodil

    It is necessary to leave the green foliage exposed to the sun until it turns brown or six weeks have elapsed since blooming. Fight the urge to trim back or constrain the leaves during their die-back phase after looming. Don’t bunch, tie, braid or cut bulb plant leaves during this period. Dealing with the fading foliage is basically one of those things that lovers of spring bulbs must deal with. The only management tip is camouflage.

    Try inter-planting bulbs with annuals or perennials, or planting them strategically nearby so that the latter mask the declining bulb foliage as best as possible. As a planting strategy, plant clumps of bulbs instead of full beds. This way you will have a lovely spring show, and plenty of room to plant camouflaging companions.


    1. How soon should I plant my bulbs after I buy them?
      A. Sometimes you will buy bulbs before you are ready to plant in order to get the best selection. While it’s always best to plant your bulbs as soon after you receive them as possible, when you have to wait, be sure to store the bulbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Some people keep their bulbs in the refrigerator crisper drawer, taking care to avoid storing them with ripening fruit. They should be fine for several weeks even months if properly handled. But don’t wait too long. Ideally, you should plant six weeks or so prior to hard ground frosts in your area to allow ample time for fall root development.

    The basics of sowing wildflower seeds

    Spring in California used to mean wildflowers. Lavish, glorious, intoxicatingly beautiful hills and meadows covered with richly and delicately-colored wildflowers of all shapes, sizes, and hues. It must have been one of the wonders of the world, judging from the remnants still to be seen, and from the reactions of early settlers.

    July meadow

    July meadow

    In 1850, Jeff Mayfield and his family first encountered the San Joaquin Valley:

    “As we passed below the hills the whole plain was covered with  great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange, and blue. The colors did not seem to mix to any great extent. Each kind of flower liked a certain kind of soil best, and some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across…My daddy had traveled a great deal, and it was not easy to get him excited about wild flowers or pretty scenery. But he said that he would not have believed that such a place existed if he had not seen it himself.” 


    Traditional Planting Time

    Traditional planting time is October and November, but wildflowers are adaptable to many different planting regimes. We sow as late as April on the coast. Seed sown in the spring will usually require some irrigation till the seeds have germinated and made early growth. Some afternoon shade is helpful. Here on the coast, we sow seed in four inch pots through the year for regular planting in the garden.


    Weed Control

    My idea of gardening is to discover something wild in my wood and weed around it with the utmost care until it has a chance to grow and spread.

    –   Margaret Bourke-White

    Wheelbarrow of weeds. These will be put in trash bags and taken OFF the property.

    Wheelbarrow of weeds. These will be put in trash bags and taken OFF the property.

    The most critical factor in reintroducing annual wildflowers is weed control. If the native wildflowers could out-compete weedy species, we would still have scenes such as Jeff Mayfield and other early observers described. Like all annual seeds, wildflowers require good seed-bed with firm seed/soil contact, consistent moisture, and freedom from weed competition.

     Intimidated by broadcasting seeds? Some gardeners sow in flats or pots, where the environment can be controlled, then transplant the wildflowers into their garden thru the planting season. It’s also a good way to learn which are good seedlings and tell them from weed seedlings.

    Seed can be bought in bulk and broadcast in meadows, resulting in wildflowers for bringing into the house, for personal adornment, for sitting in, lying in, luxuriating in. They can be planted as garden annuals and in containers!

    Wildflower mixes provide months of lovely color, reseed vigorously, and are an excellent way to educate yourself in the different kinds of wildflowers.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.