One of my favorite places to visit in the spring is the March Bank at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum. The estate’s stunning 60-acre naturalistic garden has one of the finest displays of minor bulbs around. Blooming in succession over a span of a few months, the bulbs weave a thick carpet of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and whites beneath the property’s centuries’ old trees. Faced with all that beauty, I vow each year to plant a few minor bulbs of my own.
Of course, most of us don’t have the wherewithal to plant the 70,000 tiny bulbs it takes annually to produce this magnificent display. Nevertheless, a more modest dose of the dwarf-sized early bloomers can still provide months of spring color. It’s more than worth the effort just to see your lawn or hillside light up come March in shades of lavender, yellow, white and blue.
A FLOWERING SUCCESSION
At Winterthur, they have carefully chosen minor bulbs that bloom progressively over the whole spring season. The first blooms appear in February in a burst of snowy whites and bright yellows followed by later-blooming flowers in shades of lavender, pink and purple that carry the display up through April. And many of the early bloomers remain for the second part of the show, which results in a colorful tapestry of staggering beauty.
It may sound a little intimidating for the home gardener – but creating a miniature show of your own is easier than you think. Just choose a few species, dig a trench and throw a bunch of these small bulbs in, making sure to plant them at the recommended depth on the package. Toss in some bulb fertilizer and backfill. Then sit back and enjoy the expanding color come spring.
To get you started, below is a guide to the minor bulbs that Winterthur plants on the March Bank each year. All of them are easily available at your local nursery or by mail order through White Flower Farm or such great bulbs suppliers as Brent & Becky’s or Breck’s Bulbs. Most grow to only around 4 to 6 inches. The time to purchase them is now.
SNOWDROPS (Galanthus nivalis)
A member of the amaryllis family, the tiny snowdrop is one of the most popular of all bulbous plants. Featuring nodding, bright white flowers atop bluish green leaves, it typically flowers between January and March. The leaves have hardened tips that enable them to poke through the frozen ground in late winter.
WINTER ACONITE (Eranthus)
Featuring bright yellow, cup-shaped blooms, this late winter bloomer appears ahead of most daffodils. Winter aconites make perfect companions to snowdrops.
Not exactly a bulb, the crocus grows from a corm. With over 90 known species, there are numerous varieties to choose from in yellow, white, blue and bicolor combinations. A favorite at Winterthur is Crocus tommasinianus, also known as ‘Tommies.’ Varying in tone from lilac to deep purple, Tommies are one of the smallest of the crocus species, growing to just about 2 inches high.
Often confused with the early-blooming Scilla to which it is closely related, Glory-of-the-Snow is nonetheless a separate species. Featuring blue, white or pink flowers, the name is derived from the plant’s habit of flowering in alpine regions just as the spring snow is melting. A particularly beautiful cultivar is ‘Alba’.
As its name implies, this tiny early bloomer with bright blue flowers is well adapted to the cold. A native of Russia, its nodding flowers emerge over tufts of grass-like foliage from March through April.
MINIATURE DAFFODILS (Dwarf narcissi)
Not to be confused with their larger cousins, these minor bulbs begin blooming at the tail end of winter. The best-known species is Tete-A-Tete. Flowering from mid-March to early April, Tete-A-Tete often features two flowers in combination (hence the translation ‘Two people talking to each other’). It even blooms in the snow.
GRAPE HYACINTHS (Muscari armeniacum)
Grape hyacinths look like miniature hyacinths, but they are smaller and grow only to about 6 inches. They produce a tiny cobalt blue spike of flowers that resemble beads (or blueberries). Highly fragrant, grape hyacinths bloom in mid spring.
GRECIAN WINDFLOWER (Anemone blanda)
This low-growing, daisy-like flower with a yellow center has delicate petaled flowers that grow 3 to 8 inches. Anenomes can easily form carpets of color across wide expanses of space. Available in light purple-blue, pink and white shades.
SNAKES HEAD LILY (Fritillaria meleagris)
A member of the lily family, Snake’s Head also goes by the names checkerboard fritillary and Guinea Hen flower due to its characteristic patterned blooms. The tiny maroon checkered flowers appear from March to May and grow 6 to 10 inches.
SPANISH BLUEBELLS (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
Also known as wild hyacinths, Spanish bluebells produce 15-20 inch spikes of pink, blue or white bell-shaped blooms in late spring. The plants naturalize easily and can quickly cover large areas. Spanish bluebells will bloom for a sustained period of time, making them excellent companions to all species of daffodils.
RULES FOR PLANTING MINOR BULBS
Bulb planting is easy provided you follow a few simple rules. First and foremost, make sure to plant your bulbs in a well-drained site (hillsides work great) to guard against root and bulb rot. Like all bulbs, minor bulbs do not like waterlogged sites.
All bulbs can grow in full sun but, with the exception of the crocus (which requires sun), most will adapt well to shadier spots since leafless tree branches let in plenty of sun in the early spring when the bulbs are most active. Bulbs typically go dormant around the time the leaves appear.
Lastly, when planting minor bulbs, think broad strokes, not individual flowers. The tiny species are best appreciated in large drifts. Combine different colors and shapes for a long-blooming display in rock gardens, along walkways and sprinkled throughout the woods. Or go bold and plant them in your lawn. You’ll be amazed at the colorful carpet they’ll create come spring.