In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
September, 2005
Regional Report

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Violas and pansies are the perfect companion for spring-blooming bulbs. They provide color all winter and throughout spring.

Just in Time for Spring!

Spring-blooming bulbs and annuals go hand in hand. They are a perfect match for each other, especially when planted together in the same bed. Imagine a flower bed bursting with jolly multi-colored pansies with a perfect white cloud of 'Ice Follies' daffodils dancing above. Or the lacy pink and white flowers of fairy primrose (Primula malacoides) setting the stage for elegant 'Angelique' tulips.

There is a trick and I'm going to share it with you. Every summer while I was working as a gardener at the headquarters of Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park, spring-blooming bulbs were ordered by the thousands. Boxes of narcissus, Dutch iris, tulips, daffodils, and a multitude of specialty bulbs, such as hyacinths and crocuses, began arriving in October and went directly into large refrigerators for chilling prior to planting. Some of the bulbs were slated for planting in containers, such as the delicate 'Clusiana' tulips, but most were headed for the main garden and patios.

While the bulbs were resting, the summer flowerbeds were cleared and the soil amended with compost, bone meal, and superphosphate to nourish the bulbs and annuals that would be planted as a colorful cover crop. The amendments were rototilled into the soil as deeply as we could encourage the old Toro rototiller to dig. The tilling was always a pleasant chore -- one of those jobs where the machine does all the work. We were followed closely by chattering blue jays, looking for an easy meal of worms and grubs.

When the soil was ready, the boxes of bulbs were brought out to the garden in wheelbarrows, hundreds of each different variety of bulb. We never mixed varieties because each bulb has its own time schedule for blooming and fading. The impact of 700 brilliant yellow 'King Alfred' daffodils is so much more dramatic when they are planted alone than when they are mixed with other flowers. Well, not alone exactly, because we always covered the bulb beds with flats and flats of annuals, color-coordinated to enhance the hue of the bulbs.

To plant, the bulbs were tossed by hand across the freshly prepared soil. They were planted where they fell. Filoli Gardens in Woodside always planted their bulbs in rows, the planting process guided by a string, but then Filoli is a formal garden and Sunset is casual.

It was almost a crime to put footprints into the beautiful, fluffy soil, but the job needed to be done, and we gardeners worked as a team, digging and planting as we worked our way backwards through the sumptuous soil. Once every bulb had been tucked in bed, we raked the soil smooth again with heavy metal bow rakes.

The next step was to overplant the sleeping bulbs with annuals: multicolored pansies, yellow violas, purple schizanthus, primroses, snapdragons, calendula -- anything that would provide a complementary color to the bulbs, interest during the winter, and last through the blooming season of the bulbs in March or April. Sometimes we mixed the annual plantings, but never the bulbs.

Oh, what a glorious sight in the spring! People would arrive from all over the world to see the joy that a few hours work can produce!

One of my favorite beds was composed of tiny 'February Gold' daffodils planted under perennial ajuga. Although the ajuga didn't bloom until later in the season, it made a beautiful green carpet to show off the early-blooming daffodils. That bed is gone now, I have moved on to other venues, but the memory of those golden flowers and happy days will remain with me forever!


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