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Brighten your home and garden with bulbs

January 17, 2014 - 3:15pm

If you live in a condo or apartment, or you have limited garden space, flowering bulbous plants can give you loads of pleasure with little effort.

On the mainland, the weather east of the Rockies is breaking all kinds of records. Some of the record cold snaps followed by warm spells are making gardening a gamble. “Lucky live Hawaii” where precipitation, or lack thereof, is the root of our biggest gardening headaches. Bulb-forming plants have evolved to compensate for crazy weather in that they go dormant when conditions are stressful. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, you can have success with these easy-to-grow plants.

In general, most bulbs grow best in a well-drained soil and a sunny location. The pH of the soil should run between 5.8 and 6.5. Most bulbs should be fertilized with a low-nitrogen analysis fertilizer. If you keep these factors in mind, you should be able to produce excellent plants and flowers.

Calla lilies can be started now and will flower during spring and summer months. Incidentally, calla lilies are an exception to the cultural suggestions we have already mentioned. Callas will perform best in a soil that has considerable organic matter and is retentive of moisture, but not soggy. In order to obtain the best results, the clumps should be dug every three to four years and the rhizomes separated and replanted at a depth of 4 inches. Callas are at their best in cooler sections of the island such as Volcano and Waimea, but they will grow in warmer sections as well. These plants are related to anthuriums and originate in South Africa.

One of the most popular bulbs to try is the amaryllis. Amaryllis bulbs can be planted any time during the winter and early spring months. Depending on the variety or hybrid grown, they will flower through May. The amaryllis is like most folks after the holidays — it must watch its diet. Too much food and the plant will not bloom, so it flourishes in poor soils we tend to have in West Hawaii.

Here are a few tips to get your amaryllis to do their best. First of all, don’t tempt them with rich foods. Nitrogen-packed fertilizer makes the plant fat and green with few blooms. Like many other bulb plants, amaryllis bloom best when fed a miserly amount of a low-nitrogen fertilizer. The idea is to starve the plant into worrying about next year’s blossom so that it will store food into a nice big bulb for the future blossoms, plus giving you a proud display of blooms this year. If the plants grow rampant on little or no food, try planting them in less fertile soil next time. Rationing water during the late growing stages tends to produce better bulbs.

Bulbs planted now will put on a flower show in six to eight weeks. Select a fairly sunny spot for an amaryllis bed because too much shade will yield small flowers. Colors from which to choose are red, pink, white and a combination of these colors.

If you can afford them, buy hybrid bulbs. With reasonable care they will give you bigger and better blooms.

With fancy varieties, when the tops of the amaryllis die back, you may leave them in place but don’t forget where they are. To avoid that problem, you may dig them up and store them. Upon digging, remove the smaller offset bulbs from the “mother” bulb. It will take about three years for the juvenile bulblets to bloom, but in the meantime, the mother bulb will show her colors plus produce additional infants for future generations of flowers.

Propagating bulbs by cuttings is an interesting hobby. To try your luck, use a razor or sharp knife and a cut a “mother-size” bulb into a number of pieces — up to 60 pieces if you have the knack of thin slicing. Be sure that each wedge of the bulb has a portion of the stem tissue attached to the scale portion. Next, dust the wedges with a garden fungicide to prevent diseases and plant them in a flat or bed containing a mixture of peat and sand or other porous medium. Keep the planting mix moist and humid and in about four weeks small bulbils will appear between the scales. The tiny bulbs are ready for potting. Three years later, you’ll have a mother bulb that will bloom.

To propagate amaryllis by seed, harvest the seed pods soon after they turn yellow and begin to break open. Dry the seed pods a few days before sprinkling the seeds onto a flat. Start the plants off in full shade, but gradually move them into full sunlight, then transplant them to a sunny spot in the garden.

Canna lilies are great warm season bloomers. They are in the banana family and are not true bulb plants nor are they lilies. Other popular warm season bloomers include the many varieties of day lilies. Again, these herbaceous clumpers are not true bulbs. Some area nurseries even specialize in the many hybrids. For fragrance and for lei, try the popular tuberose.

Clivia are some of my favorites, because they bloom several times a year in our Kona Cloud Forest garden even in the shadiest conditions.

Of course, some bulbs like narcissus should be planted only during cooler months. You can also grow tulips here. Just store the bulbs at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 days prior to planting and be sure to plant them immediately after removal from cold storage. Since tulips and narcissus require cold weather, they have to be replaced every year or grown at elevations of 6,000 feet or higher. For more information about the culture of bulbs, ask your garden shop or nursery, or find a gardening book at an area bookstore.

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