Whether or not bulbs are true succulents, people who collect succulent plants tend to be attracted to bulbs too. If you have a collection of winter-growing bulbs, you probably put the barren pots away at the end of spring, out of sight and sheltered from summer rains. September is the time to remember where you stashed them and prepare them for their coming growing season. It’s also time to order any new ones you want to try. Most winter bulbs are activated by cooling nights and soil moisture. They may not show above ground until late October or November, but the roots began to grow a month before you see green. The following task list applies to the great majority of winter bulbs:
1. If the bulbs have multiplied and become crowded, future flower spikes will be stunted. Unpot and divide the clusters, replanting the largest bulbs. Space them to allow two or three years of growth before they become crowded again.
2. Because cooling temperature is necessary to break dormancy, bulbs in clay pots or pots located in the shade will sprout before those in plastic pots in the sun. Plastic pots can be wrapped in aluminum foil or painted white with spray paint to keep them cooler. (You may notice that the bulbs on the south side of the pot will sprout last, and are often smaller than those on the north side. Many winter bulbs are marginally adapted to the desert’s warm winters.)
3. In late September or October when nights begin to drop into the 60s F, soak the pots once. Then keep the medium barely moist until you see green sprouts. Some bulbs such as Ferraria will sprout at much higher temperatures. Move the pots of sprouted plants into a sunny location if they aren’t there already. Full desert sun is a bit too much for most species, especially in spring. So most potted bulbs should be shielded from full afternoon sun. High temperatures can trigger premature dormancy. This is a major reason why those from the coolest habitats do not perform well here.
4. When growth is well under way, water and fertilize generously. Be prepared to cover the tender species on frosty nights. Most species will tolerate nights in the upper 20s in partial shade, while mid to low 20s will damage many if they’re exposed to the night sky. Some of the winter bulbs that do well in Tucson include: