Tulips and daffodils may steal the spring show, but savvy gardeners know so-called minor bulbs can have a major impact in the garden. Often relegated to the bottom bins and back pages of spring bulb displays, these bulbs could do with some better PR.
You’ve probably seen the tiny blue flowers of scilla right after the snow melts. Among the first flowers to pop up, these petite blooms may be called harbingers of spring, but I think of them as floral antidepressants after a long, cold winter.
True to their name, minor bulbs — such as scilla, crocus, snowdrops, snowflakes, glory-in-the-snow and grape hyacinths — are smaller and less showy than their full-sized cousins. But what they lack in size, they make up for in quantity. Hardy and carefree, these tough, old-fashioned flowers come back every year in greater numbers. This tendency to naturalize makes them useful for lots of applications in the garden — and the yard.
Try planting minor bulbs with daffodils and tulips for a more finished look (what some garden designers call “shoes and socks”). To extend spring-season colors, try interplanting minor bulbs among ground covers or perennials, for a preview of greater things to come.
Minor bulbs look right at home nestled in rock gardens, and also can be sprinkled in the lawn for a spring-meadow effect.
They can even be planted by themselves, if you use them in masses. Planted in undulating drifts, scilla, glory-in-the-snow or grape hyacinth can form a blue river.
Because they tolerate partly shady conditions, minor bulbs are perfect for planting under deciduous trees. As with other spring bulbs, it’s best if you allow their foliage to die back naturally so they accumulate enough energy to return and multiply in following years. (When they’re planted in the lawn, their foliage usually has faded by the time the grass gets high enough for its first cut of the season. )
Minor bulbs, some of which aren’t much bigger than a pea, are easy to plant, especially since they don’t need to be planted as deep as daffodils, tulips and traditional hyacinths. In fall, plant them in shallow, irregular-shaped basins 3 to 4 inches deep. Scatter the bulbs in the hole and cover with soil. (For more precise planting, use a dibber to drill down and poke individual bulbs in place.)
Their short grow-and-bloom time seems to keep them free from most disease and insect issues. Deer and rabbits seem to leave them alone for the most part, though you might have a problem with mice, voles and other rodents. If so, just place wire mesh over the bulb bed.
Did I talk you into planting minor bulbs? If so, here are a few of my favorites to check out this spring:
These pearly, teardrop blooms are often the first to peek up from under the snow. They can be planted under deciduous trees (even black walnuts), because they go dormant as the trees leaf out. Left alone, snowdrops will spread and naturalize, even in clay soil.
One gardener’s vigorous is another’s invasive. These charming blue flowers can invade gardens and lawns, but they go dormant fairly early in the season and are important to pollinators as an early source of nectar.
The cupped blooms of crocus are a welcome sight in spring, whether they are white, gold or lavender. Planted within the lawn, their grass-like foliage disappears as they go dormant. Squirrels do like to nibble crocus, except for the supposedly squirrel-proof “Tommy” varieties, such as Crocus tommasinianus, which has lovely purple flowers with contrasting gold stamens.
Sometimes called summer snowflake, this sweet little flower blooms in April. Dainty bell-shaped blossoms, each petal tipped with a tiny green dot, dangle from the slender foliage. Snowflakes grow in part shade to full sun and prefer rich, well-drained soil, but will adapt to clay.
Grape hyacinths have clusters of tiny round florets on a single stalk. Because of their intense, purplish-blue color, they’re often paired with daffodils. They look stunning when planted en masse, but they also work well in containers with annuals, perennials or other bulbs.
As the name implies, this minor bulb is an early bloomer. It is similar in color to scilla, but its upturned flower face fades from pale blue to white in the center. Be forewarned: They tend to stray, so plant them where they have room to grow.
Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.