In the Garden:
New England
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Grape hyacinths create a carpet of blue in my spring garden.

Small Bulbs with Big Impact

Fall is the time to plant those garden standbys, tulips and daffodils. But don't limit yourself to these familiar bulbs. You can add interest to your landscape and extend spring bloom time by tucking in some less common bulbs as well. Often referred to as minor bulbs, they nonetheless can have a major impact in the garden.

Now, botanically speaking, not of all of what most folks refer to as bulbs are actually true bulbs. Some are corms, tubers, tuberous roots or rhizomes. But all of the bulbs and bulb-like plants I'll be describing are planted in the fall in a similar fashion.

One of the earliest to bloom in the spring is the snowdrop (Galanthus spp.), with its small white flowers accented with green. Plant them liberally in groups of 25 to 50 or more for an eye-catching display even when there is still some snow on the ground. These little bulbs dry out easily, so plant them as soon as you buy them, placing them about 5 inches deep. But don't put them in rows. For the most natural look, scatter the bulbs across the planting area so some are closer together and others more widely spaced. Choose a spot with moist, well-drained soil and make sure it's visible from a window or walkway, as they bloom too early for much garden strolling. Hardy in zones 3-9, snowdrops spread by offsets to form dense clumps. You can increase your bounty by digging up sections of established clumps after the flowers have faded, but before the leaves go dormant, and replanting the dug up sections in a new spot immediately.

Winter Aconite
Give your garden a dose of early winter sunshine with winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis). These early bloomers open their cheerful bright yellow flowers above a ruff of green leaves on 3-4 inch high plants even when snow still covers the ground. Winter aconites grow from dormant tubers that look almost like dried up twigs. Plump up the tubers before planting by covering them with damp peat moss the night before you plan on putting them in the ground, then set them an inch or two deep. Like snowdrops, winter aconites look best if planted in large drifts. And buy more than you think you need because the percentage of viable tubers is often low. They will grow well in zones 4-9.

Siberian Squill
One of my favorite small bulbs for spring color is Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). With nodding blossoms of the most beautiful true blue, scillas will spread to form large colonies where they're happy. I like to tuck a drift of these bulbs in nooks and crannies all over the garden -- under shrubs and trees, in the perennial garden; I've even let some naturalize in a section of lawn. As with all bulbs, the foliage must be allowed to ripen naturally in order to store food for next year's bloom, so I make sure to hold off mowing that section until the leaves of the squills have yellowed. Plant these little bulbs in large numbers, twice as deep as the height of the bulb. As might be expected from something with Siberia in its name, squills are about as hardy as they come, growing in zones 1-9.

The common name gives you a good clue about the bloom time of Chionodoxa spp., as they often burst into bloom when snow still covers the ground. The sprays of small, star-shaped flowers come in shades of blue, white, and purplish-pink. I grow C. forbesii, with rich blue flowers with a white eye, and C. luciliae, with larger, lighter blue blossoms. I've scattered them in a bed of hostas, where they have plenty of room to put on an early show before the hostas' leaves emerge. Plant bulbs about 3 inches deep and 2-3 inches apart. They are hardy in zones 3-8.

Grape Hyacinths
These little flowers have lots of sentimental value for me, as they grew abundantly in the garden of my childhood home. But Muscari armeniacum adds a lovely note of blue to any early spring garden in zones 4-9. The flower heads, with their spikes of densely clustered small flowers on 4-6 inch tall plants, look like clusters of grapes. Once established, they'll spread easily in the garden, sometimes too easily, so be prepared to pull up excess volunteers. While they go dormant for the summer, like other spring-blooming bulbs, this species sends up foliage in the fall. Other species of Muscari offer white and bicolor flowers; the flowers of M.comosum 'Plumosum' are unusual violet-colored, feathery plumes.

All these little bulbs are usually quite inexpensive per bulb, so buy them by the dozens and tuck them throughout the garden this fall. As the cold and snow grudgingly give way to spring next year, your winter-weary eyes will delight to see these diminutive beauties shrug off the weather to adorn the landscape with bright spots of color.

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