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"Ruby Giant" Crocus tommasinianus

Feed Loader, Netherland Bulb Co.

Minor bulbs can put on a major show

  • Article by: Deb Brown
  • Contributing Writer
  • October 5, 2004 - 11:00 PM

To most people, spring bulbs conjure images of bright red tulips and golden daffodils. But there's a whole group of bulbs -- called minor bulbs -- that are equally lovely, albeit more petite.

Despite their diminutive size, minor bulbs have a lot going for them. They are often the first to bloom in spring. And while their individual flowers are smaller and more delicate, when mass planted in drifts or clusters, there's nothing minor about their appearance!

Because they're inexpensive, you can afford to be lavish in your use of minor bulbs. And if you allow their foliage to mature and ripen naturally, most minor bulbs will multiply and spread, creating larger colonies from year to year.

So this fall, when you're shopping for bulbs to renew your spring bulb display, pick up several bags of these lovely little gems.

Planting and care

Choose a sunny site where the soil drains well and plant the bulbs three times as deep as their largest dimension. Prepare the soil as you would for tulips and daffodils. Because many minor bulbs grow best in low-fertility soils, use bulb food sparingly, if at all.

Minor bulbs can be planted through mid-October, but be sure to water them thoroughly after planting. You may need to continue watering until the ground freezes if we don't receive regular rainfall. Without adequate moisture, these bulbs won't develop the roots they need to carry them safely through winter.

Once the soil begins to freeze (usually sometime in November in the Twin Cities), mulch your bulb beds with leaves or straw to help protect them from fluctuating soil temperatures. If it snows before the soil freezes, go ahead and lay your mulch right on top of the snow.

Here are a few of the bulbs that will grow well here. Remember that they all need ample moisture as long as they have foliage, but not after their leaves dry in late spring or early summer.

Made for sun or shade

When you see large stretches of deep blue blossoms in early spring, chances are you're looking at Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) that has naturalized and spread. Individual plants grow 4 to 6 inches tall and produce several stems of nodding, bell-shaped blossoms. Plant bulbs 2 to 3 inches apart.

Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) has flowers similar to Siberian squill, but they have white centers and face upward rather than hang down. The plants may be a little larger, too, about 5 to 8 inches tall. Again, plant bulbs 2 to 3 inches apart.

Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides) produces 6-inch stems covered with clusters of white flowers. Each petal has a blue stripe running lengthwise down its mid-vein. Plant these bulbs about 3 inches apart near the front of your garden or by a footpath. There's not much impact from a distance, but up close they're quite delicate and charming.

Snowdrop for partial shade

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalus) is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom each spring. Four-inch plants produce stems with nodding, bell-shaped blossoms. The outer petals are white, while shorter inner petals each have a green spot at the tip. Plant snowdrops no more than 3 inches apart, preferably where you can see them easily.

In sun full

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniaca) requires full sunlight -- at least six to eight hours daily -- to perform well year after year. Each plant produces several stems with conical clusters of tubular blossoms, reminiscent of tiny grapes. Plant height reaches 6 to 8 inches as new flowers open at the top of each cluster. Grape hyacinths not only bloom for weeks outdoors, their stems last about a week as cut flowers.

Crocus open during the day and close again at night. They also grow best in a very sunny location, though they can take light shade. Dutch hybrids, which are the most commonly grown crocus, have larger flowers and may be planted 3 or 4 inches apart. Plant smaller species crocus closer together. Though not as showy, species crocus bloom first thing in spring, often popping up in patches that are surrounded by snow.

Deb Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Yard and Garden Line at 612-624-4771.

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