Propagating California Native Bulbs - For the First Time

I was looking through my locally gathered seeds and checking on the timing of seed sowing etc. and discovered that for seeds of California native bulbs, fall is the best sowing time.

I also read that it can take up to three years for seedlings to even emerge - and, for soap plant - up to seven years before they flower! You're in it for the long haul when you propagate these. But I have three kinds of bulbous plant seeds gathered from plants growing wild on our property and really want to try and get them to grow in greater abundance here:

Zigadenus Fremontii, AKA Death Camas, AKA Fremont's Star Lily. Definitely poisonous. I handled the seeds etc with gloved hands, being hyper careful. I haven't come across a lot of interesting info about this plant, but it does have a lovely inflorescence.

Here are the seed capsules. I took one inflorescence for its seeds, and left the other in place. I shook several dark oblongish seeds from each one.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum, AKA Wavy Leaved Soap Plant. Definitely edible after boiling and very useful in many ways: making brushes out of the soap root fibres, washing things in the soapy bulb, and so on. Much in use by the native people. Here are some young ones, showing the wavy leaves:

The flowers open around 4 pm, and last just that day. They are fertilized by evening insects - moths I think - or not. Each day more flowers open - for a few weeks - then it's done.

When the plants get older, the leaves get more strappy and long.

Here are the seeds getting ready to disperse - cool, eh? They are small, round black gritty looking seeds.

More info here:
Calochortus albus, AKA Fairy Lantern, one of the loveliest things you can come across in the wild, in my opinion, and I was thrilled when a small clump of them graced us with their presence last year.

The next picture I took a few years ago, of some growing in our area but not on the property:

This is a pinker kind that grows nearby too.

These are on our property:

Here are some with the lovely seed capsules ripening:

Mystery Seeds! I also have these mystery seeds. I don't know what they are but I decided to treat them as a bulb, on a hunch that may be wrong. Please tell me what they are, someone! It's driving me nuts! Or bulbs! one might say. . .

I've always been a bit afraid of gardening with bulbs, though I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the gophers eat them. Deer tend not to nibble on them but rabbits do, in general. So it's a challenge. But I'm motivated because these grow right here!

So - yesterday morning, I was researching bulb propagation.

Country Mouse: Hm. It says here on this web site that you can start bulbs in a container that's 5" deep and about 17" square, with a wire mesh bottom. Can you make me something like that?

Dusky Footed Wood Rat: Sure. I need to get rid of this sheet of plywood anyway. Sixteen inches square good enough or does it have to be 17?

Country Mouse: Squeek squeek! Joy joy!

--- Brief pause with noises off ---

"Here you go. Nine enough?"

I mean what can I say? You wonderful rat!

I'm following the instructions provided on this nicely organized and very informative web site, and I recommend you go there if you are either propagating bulbs, or want to buy bulbs:

Far West Bulb Farm

These generous enthusiasts grow in Grass Valley and freely share their propagation techniques and other information, for the benefit of other enthusiasts, such as your humble mouse.

To make their their planting mix necessitated a trip to the nursery to get the ingredients. They have two mixes: a seed mix and a soil mix. I followed their tip to use a deeper tray and put soil mix in the bottom with seed mix on top, saving one transplanting operation:
Our experiments where we sow directly into large bins are proving very successful, we recommend this for all small growers. This eliminates the trouble of transplanting later.
I know it goes against the advice about potting up slowly from stage to stage of a young plant's life, to keep the roots comfortably irrigated and happy. But these are bulbs and it may be quite different. I'm happy to listen to the voice of experience.

Here's the soil mix. This was just one five-gallon bucketful too much for my four boxes.

SOIL MIX using (6) 5–gallon buckets: 5 cu. ft
1 PEAT, 1 PERLITE, 1 clean sharp SAND, 3 COMPOSTED BARK (6 buckets total)
+ 17 oz Osmocote Pro 13-10-13 with IBDU and micronutrients, or equivalent
+ 8 oz rock phosphate
+ 4 oz kelp

Unfortunately I forgot to get composted bark, and got potting soil instead.

I could only find rock phosphate in a fifty pound bag! Oh well, I guess it can stay in a bin for a long time.

If you want to know more about rock phosphate, go to this page on the Mineral Information Institute web site. Now that sound like a rockin joint, eh? It's all about the phosphorous, which bulbs apparently need quite a lot of. Bulb fertilizer apparently has high phosporous and potassium but low nitrogen.

I picked up this kelp meal:

I'm not sure what is so special about kelp. It's renewable, and it has a lot of micronutrients and bioactivators and trace elements. You tell me!

But it makes a pretty mix of things, don't you think?

I didn't use so much Osmocote, to make up for my blunder in using organic planting mix and not the decomposed bark. So I guess I'm not being very diligent and hope the bulbs will forgive me.

I did the planting mix first because I wanted to spread it out in the bottom 3.5 inches of the boxes, then put one inch of seed mix on top. Here's the seed mix recipe:

SEED MIX using (3) 5–gallon buckets: 2.5 cu. ft.
1 PEAT, 1 VERMICULITE, 1 PERLITE (1 bucket each to make 3 buckets total)
+ 8.5 oz Osmocote Pro 13-10-13 with IBDU and micronutrients, or equivalent
+ 4 oz rock phosphate (this stuff is mined, and is released over a very long period)
+ 2 oz dried kelp

BTW - Glenn Keator, in his classic book, Complete Guide to Native Perennials of California, says you can use good commercially available potting mix for most or all of your propagation needs. (I'd get the exact quote but I'm afraid my copy of this wonderful book is in our truck along with Rat, and they've just left the driveway!) When I read that I wondered why I'm bothering with all this complicated recipe following. Everyone seems to have their favorite seed starter mix. It can be a bit confusing and overwhelming - so - if you are feeling confused and overwhelmed - you might just try following Glenn Keator's advice!

So - here is the finished set of boxes, with planting mix, topped with seed mix. I sprinkled the seeds thinly onto the top, then covered with a thin layer of potting soil, though I put sand on the Zigadenus which likes sunny locations.

What's Next - Caring for the Containers

I'll put them out where they might grow naturally, as far as sun and shade. I might keep them covered too, not sure - with wire mesh. I'll definitely keep them watered:
They must be kept moist from seeding time until consistently hot weather arrives, including during winter. ... But remember, most of these bulbs dislike high soil temperatures and moisture at the same time, so if this combination occurs, stop watering.
We cover the flat with a mulch of pine needles. You can gather them in good quantities from the side of the road after the second or third good storm of the year. Being run over a couple of times makes them soft and easy to lay! Mulch stops heavy rain from knocking mix out of the flat, moderates the temperatures. Shoots grow through fine.
After the second year, topdress flats each fall with slow-release fertilizer. For 17" flats: 1 LARGE tablespoon Osmocote-type fertilizer each (17.6 grams)
As far as mulch, I will go looking for some needles - redwood, douglas fir, monterey pine - I'll see what works. But I might still put some wire mesh on top. I'm afraid of things grubbing about in the boxes looking for snacks.

The California Native Bulbs folks also say this - Now, I'm really not sure about Miracle-Gro! But my hort teacher was very adamant that plants don't care where they get their nutrients from - while recommending organic amendments because they tend to release slower. So anyway . . .
When watering, we use Miracle-Gro in a Miracle-Gro mixer/dispenser on the hose every two weeks, from March until drying out time at HALF strength. Don't leaf fertilize on hot days, and follow up by watering the next day.
(My emphasis.) Well, I dunno. One of the reasons I like natives is they are native and you don' t have to fuss with them to get the soil etc right. I'm not sure I can live up to all these requirements. But I'm getting a bit better at dealing with gardening complexities. Over time I hope I can develop better habits and routines. And if they take, and I can get them in the ground where they won't get predated too badly, then I hope I can leave them to Mother Nature's own care and enjoy them for many years to come.

We'll see!


Randy Emmitt said…
What a great project! Guess I'll have to keep coming back for the next 5-7 years to see the results.
Queer by Choice said…
It always amazes me to see how scientifically exact you mice are in mixing the perfect potting soil. Me, I just buy some cheap steer manure and stick it in a pot, sprinkle some seeds on top, and add water! My seeds take a lot longer to sprout in pots than in the ground, but they generally get around to sprouting eventually.

I guess I got lucky with my soap plant, because it flowered in its first year. I had no idea that was unusual. It didn't bloom in its second year, and I thought for a while that it had died, but this fall it's been putting out foliage again.
Barbara said…
What an amazing amount of effort you're putting into this project. I'm really impressed, and also intrigued by the plants that are so exotic to me. What luck to get someone to make those perfect growing frames for you. It was interesting reading.
Christine said…
Can you work on propagating another Dusky Footed Wood Rat?! I could use one of those! Perhaps it's because I'm the exact opposite, but I'm always in awe and appreciation of your precision. May it reward you tenfold!
Susan Krzywicki said…
OOOOOOHHH! Keep us posted. Thanks for sharing the info and the experience.
A+ for your courage!

Shall I check back in, say, six or seven years to see how your project is going? That's the thing that discourages me from propagating bulbs from seed--Most of them take so bloody long! The few dichelostemma bulbs I planted 20 years ago have reseeded happily so that I have lots of them now, but I'd hate to think how long it would have taken to see many flowers if I hadn't taken the shortcut with planting the bulbs.