Summer bulbs take over when the ephemeral bulbs of spring pass on. They brighten the garden from early summer through the fall with endless colors of flowers and sometimes lush foliage. Although they're called bulbs, they come from a variety of underground storage structures, including corms and tubers. They all come from tropical regions and require similar conditions and care. Some are traditional favorites, like the gladioli grandma grew; some new exotic discoveries like tiger flower and crocosmia.
These plants have longer blooming seasons than their name implies. The foxtail lily and bugle lily, for example, bloom early in the season; canna and crocosmia flower mid- to late summer; while delicate autumn crocus blossoms early fall to first frost. By planting the same species at staggered intervals, you can prolong their garden color by a month or more.
Summer bulbs provide all kinds of design options. Dress up a patio or deck by filling containers with bulbs, or plant as small, informal clumps or large drifts alone or in combination with other flowering annuals and trailing vines. Heat-tolerant bulbs added to borders punch up garden color when the perennials are fading in the highest temperatures of summer.
Some favorite bulbs that will fill the garden with color throughout the season include: white and yellow foxtail lily and bugle lily in pinks and rose. Midsummer color can come from white and blue lily of the Nile, white-yellow and pink calla lily, the yellows, reds, pinks and oranges of canna, crocosmia and glory lily.
Autumn crocus brings pinks and violets to late summer, along with pink nerine, and tiger flower in yellow, white and pink. Caladium and elephant ears have insignificant flowers, but, along with calla lily, will fill the shady areas of the garden with fabulous foliage in interesting shapes, textures and striking sizes and colors.
When shopping for summer bulbs, bigger is better. The larger the bulb, the more stored energy and better the flower production. Avoid small, misshapen or diseased bulbs, or those that show damage or soft spots. Plant in well-drained soil that's neutral to slightly acid, pH 6 to 7. Most bulbs will come with planting-depth recommendations, but the rule of thumb is to plant three times as deep as the bulb is tall, from base to tip. Plant with the growing tip, the pointed end, facing up and space the bulb twice the width apart at a slight angle to keep water from settling around and rotting the crown.
Add a balanced organic fertilizer along with a healthy scoop of compost mixed into the planting hole and combine with the native soil before inserting the bulb. Fight pest insects by inspecting plants early and often, and then remove any offending pests by hand-picking and disposing of the critters in a container of soapy water. If necessary, use insecticidal soap according to package directions.
Because they come from tropical regions, don't expect summer bulbs to survive freezing temperatures. And yet, I'm still surprised by the ones that emerge with fresh, new growth the following spring. But to preserve them for next year, lift them: dig them up and store indoor over winter. After the first frost yellows the foliage, remove the bulbs and separate them, discarding any obviously damaged ones. Remove the foliage 1 to 4 inches above the bulb and gently remove clinging soil. Dry on a screen or newspaper-covered bench for about a week as directed by the planting instructions that came with the bulb.
Layer the dried bulbs in a mesh bag, ventilated crate or in a nylon stocking and hang them in a location that will stay at about 50 degrees throughout the winter. Caladiums are extra-tender, so stack them in a paper bag between alternating layers of peat moss and store in a warmer location.
Check on the bulbs monthly throughout storage, and throw out any soft ones. Apply a light mist of water to any that appear to be shriveling. In March you can begin potting the bulbs indoors, or wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees and plant them back in the garden.
(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)
THE GARDENER WITHIN