growing bulbs in Texas
Since writing my discoveries about bulbs a year and a half ago, I’ve learned so much more about growing bulbs. In spring and fall of the last year, I’ve gone on massive bulb-buying sprees, trying a few that I know will succeed here and then a few that are experiments.
I think one of the reasons I’ve gone crazy with bulbs is that you get a lot for your money. Rather than having to buy potted plants or grow from seed, a box of bulbs can fill an awful lot of space inexpensively. If you want to dive into bulbs, Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South, is one of those indispensable books for Southern gardeners, and I knew I was turning into a garden geek when I kept this book by my bed and read it cover to cover. It’s not the easiest book to read, the writing style feels a bit overworked to me, but there is nothing else with this kind of information. Hey I’m the woman who read an entire book on sweet peas, twice. It’s worth it for the very specific varieties that are known to do well, return year after year, and specific growing conditions of each.
Major failures this year: Dahlia, Hyacinth
Major successes this year: Jonquils, Gladiolus, Louisiana iris
Mixed success: Canna
The main issue with almost all bulbs is that they need to be on the dry side in their dormant season (when their leaves die back). There are very few exceptions to this; cannas and Louisiana irises haven’t seemed to mind year-round moisture, although I have had several canna rot this year (and in a dry summer, go figure–that’s why the “mixed success”).
Keeping dormant bulbs dry is nearly an impossible condition to create especially in my garden which has mixed beds and no strictly xeriscape areas. The unamended parts of my garden are such heavy gumbo clay that even if they are not watered, they can potentially rot if we have a rainy season since the clay holds so much water and can choke the life out of anything. Many people plant bulbs in areas that don’t get much tending or water from the sprinkler.
If you’ve read anything about bulbs you know that what’s usually called bulbs includes rhizomes, tubers, corms and more traditional daffodil or tulip-looking bulbs. And they come in all shapes and sizes from the size of your pinky fingernail to some being bigger than your hand. But basically, you are planting a ‘bulb’–a ‘food storage unit’ that once planted will sprout roots, leaves and flowers. Irises are rhizomes, Gladiolus are corms, Hyacinth is a bulb, and Cannas are tubers.
Often, when someone mentions the word “bulb” in Texas, many think this means we have to chill them before planting as most traditional bulbs need cold. Well, only if you want to grow most daffodils, tulips or hyacinth–the most popular spring bulbs. There are hundreds of bulbs that don’t need chilling and come from warmer parts of the earth. Here’s just a very short list:
Jonquils and Tazettas (the daffodils we grow here)
Most of these don’t mind having no cold at winter and some prefer if we don’t: Crinum lilies, Amaryllis, and Canna and many others prefer the summer and aren’t hardy in areas that get constant frost or freezes. So the myth that Texans can’t grow bulbs is simply not true; for every bulb we might have to chill here there are many that our northern neighbors dig up in fall to protect from frost. Have it either way.
These days gardeners are interested in reclaiming some of the old heirlooms, especially those that have been discovered (like old roses) flourishing after years of neglect in old southern homesteads or cemeteries. How romantic! After living in my house for a few years, I realized I had many of the Texan heirlooms right underneath my nose. The bulbs the came with my garden, and are as old as the house, are:
St. Joseph’s lily
Grand Primo daffodil
These are all pretty common in old Austin yards, including our native rain lilies, Cooperia drummondii and Habranthus tubispathus (aka Zephyranthes tubispathus), beautiful bulbs which pop up after a rain all over my lawn. The fact that they’ve persisted for who knows how long, without any care, means that they’re really the best to try. They all (except the bearded iris) seem to grow and bloom year after year in crusty old unworked clay soil. The Oxblood lilies and the Grand Primos seem to be the toughest in my yard, growing, blooming and multiplying whether it’s dry or wet.
For two years I had no idea I had the St. Joseph’s lily, until the lily leaves came up and I realized that it needed to be moved into more sun. I also had no idea that the fleshy leaves growing up and down my driveway were crinum. I had never seen those bloom, either, since the fence built right before we bought out house blocked all of their light. I had never seen the iris bloom. Same problem, this time the thicket of chinaberries was stealing their light.
Both the Spider lily and the Dutch iris are lone clumps planted in very odd locations in my back yard, which shows me that there was once a much different garden back there. But I am doing my best to preserve these heirlooms and giving them locations they would appreciate.
My major failures this year were with Dahlias. I won’t say failure, because I knew what I was getting into. Dahlias are beautiful tall wildflowery bulbs that look right at home in cottage gardens, and are cleaner than hollyhocks. I wish wish wish they were easier to grow here. Although they are frost sensitive and in northern climates, planted in spring and dug up in fall to protect them, they don’t like extreme heat either. They are native to Mexican mountains and like cool summer air, not the heatbox we have here. Out of 15 dahlia tubers, I had two survive the drought this summer (most of them rotted) and one of them, Claire de Lune, bloomed its little heart out all last week. Needless to say I am saving it and seeing if it can continue here.
Hyacinth was my other failure. Hyacinth is a fall-planted bulb. Even though I chilled them, we had too dry a winter and the bulbs struggled to grow. I also tried to force them indoors by keeping them in the fridge but that didn’t work either. I have grown hyacinth before so I’m not worried. It will not return here unless you chill the bulbs, but there is nothing like that grape scent wafting all over my house.
Many of my gladiolus struggled this summer but there are two that put on a massive show this year: Byzantine gladiolus and Abyssinian glad. The deep magenta Byzantine must be planted in fall and blooms in spring. Getting your hands on the true heirloom Byzantine glad is quite expensive, but worth it. The white Abyssinian blooms in fall–this year in November–and has a lovely powdery fragrance, especially at night. It’s fragrance is not unlike Moonflower.
PLANT IN FALL: Freesia, Ranunculus, Daffodils (some need chilling but paperwhites, tazettas and jonquil varieties don’t), Oxblood Lily (these bloom in fall but are also planted in fall), Daylilies, Grape Hyacinth (different than the traditional hyacinth, these are also called ‘blue bottles’ in the south), Irises.
By far, the most popular traditional fall-planted, spring-flowering bulbs in Austin are tazettas, a group of narcissus that has clusters of small and very fragrant flowers atop each stem. There are many different types to choose from, and they are related to paperwhites, the popular daffodil bulbs you see in stores for Christmas forcing.
PLANT IN SPRING: Canna, Gladiolus, Crinum, Rain Lilies
Fall is usually the time of year people think about bulb-planting, but there are many bulbs that are planted in spring for summer or fall bloom. Even Freesias. which are typically planted in fall, can be planted in early spring for another wave of bloom after the earlier planted ones. I tried this last year to see if it would work and it did; they grow very fast. I’d say the most ubiquitous spring-planted bulb is Canna. I see these tropical lovelies everywhere, sometimes even used as hedges. They can grow to 3 feet and I’ve seen some at enormous 8 feet heights and are magnets for butterflies. Cannas are different than most wildflowers that put on a 2- or 3-week show. They flower all summer long, all the way till December if frost doesn’t get them first.
Irises are an odd exception. I have planted them year-round out of necessity, because I have so many old ones in my garden. And sometimes this makes them suffer a bit but they usually bounce back. They are usually sold in catalogs for early fall planting and sometimes it is advisable to order ahead than you would for most fall-planted bulbs. Most iris advice suggests to plant them no later than August or September, but here I’ve planted as late as October with good results. The reason for the earlier planting is that irises need to have time to establish roots and start sending up leaves before the frosts start coming (in Austin this usually starts in late November).
So I’m off to get the rest of my bulbs in the ground. This fall’s count? About 100. I tried to keep it smaller! This includes over 50 snowflake bulbs to cover what is hopefully no longer going to be an ugly dirt patch under my cedar tree. (Yay! a bulb that blooms in shade!)
Further reading: article about crinums by Texas garden expert Greg Grant, and if you scroll down further, there is a piece called Bulbs 101 with suggestions for Texas bulbs.