Peonies are unusually happy this year.

The fact that peonies do not perform well in such mild climates does not dissuade some of us from growing them. After all, they can sometimes be found in local nurseries and even farmers’ markets as if they belong here. Tubers of more of the countless varieties can be purchased online or from mail order catalogs while dormant in autumn. Unfortunately, without much winter chill, few peonies perform as they should.

Peonies can be white or various shades of pink or red, with considerable variation of flower structure. Tree peonies that bloom yellow are the most likely to be wimpy without winter chill. All peonies are good cut flowers. After spring bloom, the distinctively coarse and rich green foliage stays until autumn dormancy. The more popular herbaceous peonies should not get more than three feet tall and broad. Tree peonies do not actually grow into trees, but develop woody stems that can hold flowers nearly six feet high. Larger flowers may need support.

Because plants get established so slowly, they should not be moved or disturbed. Small new plants can be divided from larger plants while dormant, but take a few years to actually bloom. Peonies like rich soil and regular watering, where they do not get crowded or shaded by other plants.

Wildflowers Are Flowers Gone Wild

Periwinkle is pretty for a weed.

Wildflowers have been quite a fad. Relative to most fads, they are not so impractical. For some situations, they are a good excuse to waste less effort and resources on unrefined parts of the garden. Of course, they all require some degree of effort and resources. Most are neither as wild nor as natural as their marketing suggests them to be. Few are native. 

Wildflowers that lived here centuries ago, prior to the introduction of exotic species, were relatively unimpressive. Although some bloomed spectacularly, they did so within a brief season. Winter is too cool for pollinators that wildflowers intend to attract. Summer is too dry for bloom to last long. Most bloom was limited to the transition from winter into spring. 

The same native wildflowers bloom even less now than they did centuries ago because of competition with exotic species. Most exotic species that compete with wildflowers are feral forage crops that lack colorful bloom. They grow so vigorously that they obscure the natives. Mitigation of such undesirable vegetation ruins wildflowers that mature within it.

Most of the best wildflowers here now are as exotic as feral forage crops. Those that are native might be more reliant on unnatural cultivation. California poppy, evening primrose, and native annual lupines might prolong bloom with a bit of extra water through summer, but need weeding. With the same watering, (non-native) cosmos stands up to the weeds. 

Unfortunately, vegetation management is more important than wildflowers outside of the refined garden. Overgrown weeds are combustible and can be dangerous to pets. Weed whacking too often involves wildflowers before they get their chance to bloom, as well as foliage of spring bulbs after bloom. (It sometimes damages bark of trees and shrubs too.)

Some low and dense perennial wildflowers are more reliable than annual sorts because they exclude annual weeds. Saint John’s wort and periwinkle are invasive exotic plants, but work well as ground covers. Mowing or shearing them late in winter slows their competing weeds, and also enhances their foliar density before competing weeds regenerate.

Bearded Iris

Pastels are perfected by bearded iris.

When there is not an app for that, there is probably a bearded iris that will work just fine. Really, there is just about every shade of yellow, blue, purple, orange, pink and almost-red imaginable, ranging from wildly bright to subdued pastel. There are actually several shades of white, and a few rare flavors of dark purplish black.

It seems that the most popular of the bearded iris bloom with two or more colors. The standards may be very different from the falls. Any part of the flower may be striped, spotted, blotched or bordered with another color. Flowers may be relatively simple or garishly ruffled. Many are fragrant.

Bearded Iris bloom between March and May. Some of the modern varieties bloom again in autumn. Flower stems can be as short as a few inches, or as tall as four feet, with only a few to several flowers. The rubbery and somewhat bluish leaves form flat fans that look neater if groomed of deteriorating older leaves. Each fan dies back after bloom, but is efficiently replaced by about two more new fans. Colonies of fans should be divided over summer every few years, or as they get too crowded to bloom well. Bearded iris likes well drained soil and at least six hours of direct sun exposure daily.

Iris Blooms Almost Any Color

Such cheerful colors are too easy.

Iris got its name from the Greek word for rainbow, because all the colors are included. There are thousands of varieties of bearded iris alone, to display every color except only true red, true black, and perhaps true green. (However, some are convincingly red, black or green.) Then there are as many as three hundred other specie of iris to provide whatever colors that bearded iris lack.

Bearded iris are still the most popular for home gardening because they are so reliably and impressively colorful, and because they are so easy to grow and propagate by division of their spreading rhizomes. Siberian, Japanese and xiphium iris are less common types that spread slower with similar rhizomes. Japanese iris wants quite a bit of water, and is sometimes grown in garden ponds. The others, like most other rhizomatous iris, do not need much water once established. Dutch iris grows from bulbs that do not multiply, and may not even bloom after the first year.

Iris flowers are so distinctive because of their unique symmetry of six paired and fused ‘halves’ that form a triad  of ‘falls’ and ‘standards’. The ‘falls’ are the parts that hang downward. The ‘standards’ that stand upright above are the true flower petals. As if the range of colors were not enough, the falls and standards are very often colored very differently from each other, and adorned with stripes, margins, spots or blotches. Many specie have fragrant flowers. Each flower stalk supports multiple flowers. Some carry quite a few flowers!

Some types of iris are so resilient to neglect that they naturalize and grow wild in abandoned gardens. Bearded iris are more appealing and bloom better with somewhat regular watering, but can survive with only very minimal watering once established. Some iris multiply so freely that they get divided after bloom, and shared with any of the neighbors who will take them. Newly divided rhizomes should be planted laying flat, with the upper surfaces at the surface of the soil.

Grape Hyacinth

Grape hyacinth is very reliably perennial.

Are they reliably perennial or invasive? In ideal situations, old fashioned grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum, can get a bit too eager to proliferate and migrate. Not only do their bulbs divide efficiently, but their seed disperse beyond bulb colonies. However, bulbs do not migrate too rapidly for containment. Thorough deadheading inhibits seed dispersion.

Grape hyacinth provides some of the earliest spring bloom. Floral spikes of tiny rounded flowers do not get much more than six inches tall, but are delightfully abundant. The rich blue color is exquisite. Hybrids and other species can bloom with pale pink, pale purple, white, yellow, or various shades or tints of blue. The grassy foliage is somewhat rubbery.

If they do not migrate efficiently enough, established colonies of grape hyacinth are easy to divide in autumn. Of course, it will be necessary to mark their locations as their foliage dies back at the end of spring. Division is easier and faster than growing new plants from seed. If hybrids produce seed at all, it may not be viable. If it is, it may not be true to type.

Deadheading Spring Bulbs Conserves Resources

What happens when daffodils finish blooming?

Now that the various spring bulbs have finished blooming, or will soon, many will benefit from deadheading. The techniques are simple, and actually benefit many plants besides spring bulbs. In the most basic terms, deadheading is merely the removal of deteriorating flowers after bloom. Ideally, it should happen prior to the development of seed structures.

A most obvious advantage of deadheading is that it eliminates unappealing carcasses of finished flowers. This neatens the appearance of remaining foliage. The foliage of some spring bulbs shrivels soon after bloom, but remains intact through the process, to sustain development of new bulbs. It is easier to ignore without prominently shabby floral stalks.

Deadheading also conserves and redirects resources that would otherwise sustain seed production. Such resources can instead promote vegetative growth, including production of new bulbs to replace the old. Furthermore, depriving bulbs of seed provides an added incentive for vegetative regeneration. If unable to survive by one means, they try another.

Some bulbs are more reliant on deadheading than others. Grape hyacinth and snowdrop are too profuse with bloom for minor seed production to inhibit their performance. In fact, they produce viable and genetically stable seed, which could be an advantage if more of the same are desirable. Although seed production is limited, seed disperses extensively.

Dutch crocus are an example of sterile hybrids that are unable to produce viable seed, or waste associated resources on such efforts. Other extensively bred bulbs that are not so sterile may not be true to type. Consequently, their progeny are likely to be very different. Freesia do not require deadheading, but can produce feral seedlings with insipid bloom.

Lily, narcissus, daffodil, tulip and hyacinth are some of the popular spring bulbs that now are ready for deadheading. Summer bulbs and perennials will get their turn later. Canna, dahlia and perennials that continue to bloom through summer will be tidier, and perhaps bloom more abundantly with efficient deadheading. They need not wait until next year to express their gratitude.


Snowflake might be mistaken for snowdrop.

Some of us here on the West Coast know it incorrectly as ‘snowdrop’. That is actually the common name of the many cultivars of Galanthus that are so very popular in other regions. ‘Snowflake’ is the correct common name for Leucojum aestivum. Of course, most of us accept either name. The real snowdrop is not so popular here anyway. It blooms better with more chill than it gets locally.

Snowflake does not seem to need much chill at all. It performs so reliably here that it can slowly spread. A few may even self sow in damp situations. Leucojum vernum is another snowflake, with single or paired flowers instead of three or more on each arching stem. Leucojum vernum blooms before Leucojum aestivum. Both are supposed to bloom later in spring, but are in bloom now.

The somewhat rubbery foliage of snowflake resembles that of daffodil, but is a bit darker green. Individual leaves are about a foot tall and an inch wide, and stand rather vertically. Floral stems do not get much higher, but lean slightly outward with the weight of bloom. Their individual flowers are quite small and pendulous, with single yellowish or green dots near the tips of each of six tepals.


Bright yellow daffodil is still classic.

What is the difference between narcissus and daffodil? That is very open to interpretation. Daffodil is really only a particular type of narcissus that tends to bloom with larger and more colorful flowers that lack the rich fragrance of the smaller and commonly white flowers of other narcissus. Most daffodil bloom singly. Only a few bloom with a few flowers together. Other narcissus are outfitted with more individual flowers to each stem.

When they were buried in sunny spots last autumn, bare daffodil bulbs looked like pointed onions. They rested through much of winter so that they could be among the first flowers to bloom late in winter. The rather short and narrow bluish leaves stand vertically. The flaring flowers face outward with a bit of a downward or upward tilt. After bloom, deteriorating flowers should be plucked, but foliage should remain until it yellows and gets shed naturally.

The most familiar daffodil are bright yellow. Others can be white, various shades of orange or yellow, or a combination of these colors. Six outer petals (which are actually three petals and three sepals) radiate around a central trumpet.


Dahlias look nothing like this yet.

There is nothing simple about dahlia. Some are short bedding plants that behave as annuals. Tree dahlias develop big and lanky canes that can get as high as ground floor eaves, only to replace them during the next summer. The most popular dahlias are lushly foliated perennials with striking and extraordinarily colorful bloom. Most are taller than bedding dahlias, but less than six feet tall.

Dahlias can bloom just about any color except blue. However, most purple dahlias tend to be rather reddish or pinkish. Green dahlias are rare, and tend to be rather yellowish. Floral form is wildly variable! So is floral size. Some dahlia flowers get no wider than two inches. Larger sorts get about ten inches wide, so must be staked. Dahlias might be as variable as related chrysanthemums.

Dormant dahlia tubers can go into the garden as early as late autumn here. Most start in winter though, to be less susceptible to rot while waiting for spring. After blooming through summer, dahlia growth succumbs to frost late in autumn. Division of crowded dormant tubers every few years promotes healthier spring regeneration. There is no need to dig and store tubers through winter here.

Summer Bulbs After Spring Bulbs

Summer bulbs start late in winter.

It was easy to bury spring bulbs so discourteously in shallow graves last autumn. None of them got proper funerals. Perhaps cool season annuals obscured their interment sites. No one needed to know they were there. It seemed like a perfect crime, until now. They are back like the undead. After all, they were not dead when interred. They were merely dormant, and likely plump and healthy.

Crocus, snowdrop, narcissus and some of the other related daffodil might already be blooming. Otherwise, their foliage is emerging above the soil. They do not necessarily wait for the soil to get warmer later in winter. Hyacinth and tulip will bloom a bit later. Delayed planting delays bloom, but only for the first season. Established spring bulbs from previous seasons will bloom as they like.

Spring bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, prefer early interment for a reason. They appreciate a good chill through winter. Although most get refrigerated artificially prior to sale, they certainly do not mind a bit more chill. Besides, they also appreciate early root dispersion, even while still dormant. They prefer to bloom early, but unfortunately, also finish bloom early.

Summer bulbs are very different. They go into the garden later because they do not require chill. Furthermore, many types are sensitive to minor frost if they begin to grow too early in winter. Since they start growth later than spring bulbs, summer bulbs generally bloom later. However, some bloom for extensive seasons. A few summer bulbs bloom from early summer until frost in late autumn.

Dahlia, canna and old fashioned white calla are the more reliable of summer bulbs to plant now. Old fashioned white calla may be rare in nurseries. Smaller, more colorful, but less vigorous callas are more popular. Such summer bulbs are more sustainable than spring bulbs, and can perform for many years. Gladiolus and various lily are spectacular summer bulbs, but bloom once annually.

Incidentally, unlike the spring bulbs, most summer bulbs are actually corms, rhizomes, tubers or tuberous roots.