Low-water Gardening Southwest Gardening

Plant Bulbs in Autumn for Spring Color

A wild type tulip, Tulipa tarda. Photo courtesy of Colorblends.

Bulbs* are awesome – in both senses of the word. The flowers are, “Like, totally awesome, dude!” And the whole concept of bulbs, and how they grow, flower, then retreat underground until next year – instill in me a sense of awe. A walk in our Southwestern wilderness in spring is a real treat, as the tiny purple flowers of dichelostemma peek out shyly from among boulders, or the golden globes of mariposa lily delight the eye. Not just the Southwest – many cultivated bulbs are originally from deserts around the world, and so make a wonderful addition to our Southwestern gardens.

Star flower (Ipheion) is lovely and delicate. Photo courtesy of Colorblends.
Plant in Fall

Like the title says, now is the time to order bulbs for planting now and into October. (Spring wildflowers too, but that can be found on Jacquelines blog – here.) Growing bulbs in the Southwest depends on four factors. Incidentally, never, ever, ever! collect any native bulbs from the wild. Some species are threatened or endangered. Illegal collection further threatens populations and could lead to their extinction.

Daffodils are easy to grow, like this ‘Pride-of-Lions’ variety. Photo courtesy of
Get the right stuff.

In general, bulbs with hot climate ancestors will do better than their European cousins. Thus, desert tulips like the Turkish or Israeli wild-type tulips will do better than Dutch tulips, which have been bred for the past five centuries to thrive in cold, wet climates. See the list at the end of this article.

Wild tulips come in many colors, including red, like this Tulipa linfolia. Photo courtesy of Colorblends.
Plant in the right place.

Ignore the directions written for back East. Our full summer sun will bake even the desert natives. In my garden over the years I have discovered that bulbs do well in filtered summer sunlight, tucked around the rose bushes or under deciduous trees, like sweet acacia, mesquite, or even plum. This makes sense because in the wild you rarely see bulbs in spots that bake.

The tiny Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ is a real charmer! Photo courtesy of
Drain well.

Good drainage is absolutely essential for bulbs. Sandy soils are great. But if your soil is more clay, you’ll need to add organic matter such as compost or peat moss, and perlite or sand will help too. This gets back to planting them under the roses, in soil you have already improved.

Paperwhites are lovely and long lasting. Photo courtesy of
Plant right.

Planting depth varies by species. My rule of thumb is that the bulb should be planted two to three times as deep as it is tall. Thus, a 2 inch bulb (from rootlets to pointy tip) should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep.

Try some bulbs — any bulbs — this year. Add some more next October. That way, if the first group didn’t survive over the summer, you will have something in their stead. If they did survive, great! Think of the bulbs that don’t over-summer as a bulbous bouquet. They graced your life for a while, and brought pleasure while they lasted. Perhaps that is all any of us can aspire to.

* I am using the term “bulbs” to also include corms, tubers, and rhizomes.

Wild tulip, Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’. Photo courtesy of

Bulb List

If a bulb is on both these lists, this means they will stand about a half day of summer sun.

Bulbs for full deep shade to part shade:
Agapanthus, caladium, calla, canna, crinum, crocus, day lily, Easter lily, freesia, gladiolus, lycoris, ornithogalum (star of Bethlehem), oxalis, sparaxis, spring starflower (Ipheion), tigridia, and tuberous begonia.

Bulbs for filtered sun to full sun:
*Ajo lily, allium, amaryllis, apios, *blue dicks, canna, crocus, daffodil, gladiolus, iris (all kinds), *mariposa lily, narcissus, oxalis, * Pima lily, society garlic, squill, watsonia, wild or Turkish tulip, zephyranthes (* native bulbs).

Dig these up, store in pots of loose, dry soil, and replant next fall.
Cyclamen: store pots outdoors, out of direct sun, do not water.
Anemone, dahlia, ranunculus: store pots in a cool place, moisten once a month.

Soule-Southwest-gardenA special thank you to Colorblends Wholesale Flower Bulbs for the photos used in this post.

If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures. Check our events page for locations and times. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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