I love bulbs of all kinds, and have them planted throughout my gardens. The bulb is an underground storage structure that allows the plant to survive through drought as well as winter. Bulbs include the true bulbs (such as lilies and crinum), corms (gladiolus and elephant ears), rhizomes (cannas and ginger), and tubers (caladiums).
Bulbs are among the easiest plants to grow, and provide weeks of color at a time, with little to no fuss. Basically I’m a forgetful gardener, and bulbs are so much more forgiving than other plants. I forget to plant after I buy: while perennials die, bulbs just wait. I forget to water after I’ve planted; perennials wither but bulbs just wait. My favorite bulbs that bloom during late spring or summer include crinum, true lilies, and cannas. Many of these can be found in old cemeteries, which is a testament to their hardiness.
No Southern garden should be without at least one crinum, also called milk and wine lily. The blooms of milk and wine lilies are white with reddish stripes, while other crinums have blooms of pure white to dark pink. Many crinum blooms are highly fragrant. There are varieties that bloom as early as March in east Texas, and some that will bloom all summer. There are crinums with dark red leaves, dwarf crinums, and crinum that grow in water. These versatile bulbs have only one problem: they’re not readily available at garden centers. Ask a friend for a start from their clump, or buy them online from the Southern Bulb Company, a local grower.
Just as there are crinums for every garden, there are lilies for any garden. The best true lilies for east Texas are Asiatic lilies, the Easter lily (lilium longiflorum), and the hybrid of the two called LA hybrids. I generally order my lily bulbs online for the largest bulbs at the best prices, and my favorite source is Brent and Becky’s bulbs. I have several LA hybrids, and in my part-sun garden they get about four feet tall and have dozens of blooms. Plant your lily bulbs deep to keep them from toppling over when in bloom, or put a support such as a tomato cage around them before they get too large. Colors range from white to dark rose, with some creamy apricot bulbs also available.
Cannas are a good ‘beginner’ plant for a new garden – they’ll grow and bloom all summer in even the poorest soils. They have large, tropical-looking leaves of light green, dark red, or even stripes. The flowers are bright yellow, orange, or red, or combinations of these; some are even the palest cream. The only color that eludes the canna enthusiast is a pure white. Some cannas have smaller blooms that are inviting to hummingbirds, while others are big and garish. I love them all – they’re easy to grow in a bed, along a fence, or even in a container. Many cannas also perform well in a shadier location.
When you buy bulbs, choose the best, biggest bulbs available – big bulbs mean big blooms. Select only firm, heavy, solid bulbs with no soft spots, shriveling, or mold. Some older bulbs on clearance might be worth a try, but don’t expect a big show the first year – instead let them ‘recuperate’ through their first year by encouraging foliage and removing buds.
Plant your summer-blooming bulbs in full to part sun, with some afternoon shade to provide a break from the hottest sun. Bulbs will thrive in well-draining, compost-enriched soil, with a bulb fertilizer (high in phosphorus) dug in at planting. Be sure to plant your bulbs ‘nose-up’; if you can’t determine the top, then plant the bulb on its side. A top-dressing of compost and mulch each year is all they’ll need. (An exception to this is iris – they will stop blooming if the rhizome is covered too deeply, so don’t bury with mulch.) Supplemental water will keep bulb foliage green and lush; if crinum foliage looks ratty, you can cut it back and it will sprout fresh new leaves.
There are no pest-proof bulbs, but some, especially those in the amaryllis family such as crinum, are considered ‘resistant’ to pests. Squirrels and rabbits love to munch on lilies as they’re sprouting; protect with a wire barrier till the plants grow a bit. Blood meal or sulfur will also help repel some of these pests. Cannas can be attacked by leaf rollers, caterpillars that prevent the leaves from opening. The easiest way to deal with leaf rollers is to cut off and destroy affected leaves, then spray the plant with an insecticide containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). In the fall, be sure to cut back and remove the dead foliage from all cannas.
If you’d like a list of bulbs that do well in east Texas, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure there are some that will find a spot in your east Texas garden.
About the author: Lin is a Texas Master Gardener in Wood County. Email gardening questions to her at email@example.com. Join her and other volunteers each Wednesday morning at 9, at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.