Ode to Minor Bulbs… NOT Planted in the Lawn

All gardeners have a favorite season. For me, no hesitation: it’s spring! The awakening of nature, soft greens, rhododendrons and spring flora in the woodlands. What a display! Of course, bulbs have a lot to do with it.

Today I wanted to pay tribute to what we call minor bulbs, small ones that reach less than 6 inches (15 cm) in height.

It’s to add a bit of originality that garden writers started to encourage the planting of small bulbs, especially crocuses, in the lawn. I myself, in a certain burst of temporary horticultural madness, tried to reproduce, using crocuses, a work of art of Canadian painter Jean-Claude Riopelle’s surrealist automatism movement in my own lawn. It wasn’t as successful as I had expected! But my lawn retains beautiful vestiges of that period. Yes, crocuses grow in the lawn… and it’s beautiful!

Tulips and grape hyacinths go well together. Image: National Garden Bureau.

However, I have the feeling that when it comes to minor bulbs, gardeners have come to systematically think of them as something for use in lawns alone. So, let me speak out in favor of small bulb liberation. Give them the chance to express themselves other than strictly through blades of grass!

What Are These Minor Bulbs?

First, let’s quickly look at the four main small bulbs we plant for spring bloom.

Popular small bulbs. Image: Julie Boudreau.

The crocus (Crocus spp.) is well known, with its more or less open cup-shaped flowers. Each plant bears a flower that is relatively large in comparison to the size of the foliage. Mostly violet or purple, you can find crocuses of all colors. They are among the first to bloom in the spring.

Squills (Scilla spp.) are well known for their ability to naturalize generously. It’s not uncommon to discover colonies of squills in a forest, especially where gardeners of neighboring homes go to dispose of their gardening residues. Theire flowers are dark blue or white.

Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.), on the other hand, really do look like small bunches of grapes. Purple, blue, white or pink, grape hyacinths flower later than other small bulbs. They are very durable.

Less known are glories of the snow (Chionodoxa spp.), probably because their unpronounceable botanical name scares gardeners off a bit! However, they are widely available on garden center shelves. The plant bears beautiful large starry flowers with a center that is always a little paler than the rest. And they come back faithfully year after year!

Others Minor Bulbs to Try

I’ll only give the snowflake (Leucojum vernum), although it’s very cute, a brief mention. At up to 1 foot (30 cm) in height, however, it’s too tall to belong to the select club of minor bulbs.

I’d also like to invite daring gardeners to discover the marvelous miniature fritillaries such as snake’s head fritillaria (Fritillaria meleagris) or Michailovsky’s fritillaria (F. michailovskyi). The latter have taken up residence in my flowerbeds for more than 15 years now and they keep company with a few alpine plants.

Better known are the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), which, with their tiny, dangling white flowers with a little touch of green in the center. This somehow gives a delicate appearance, even though they are, in fact, tough as nails. These dainty little bulbs are among the earliest bulbs of all!

More experienced gardeners can try growing winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and Greek anemones (Anemonoides blanda). For my part, I have had limited success with both.

Beautiful Little Combos With Perennials

By observing the succession of bloom in spring bulbs and other plants in the garden, you’ll discover other plants that bloom at the same time. And that opens a lot of possibilities.

Since snowdrops and crocuses are the first to flower, it’s quite difficult to find blooming friends for them. So, have fun combining them with evergreen groundcovers, such as lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) or bugleweeds (Ajuga spp.). Small carpets of thyme are also good hiding places for crocuses.

Crocus popping out of a carpet of thyme. Image: Julie Boudreau.

The foliage of deadnettles (Lamium spp.) makes them interesting hosts for glories of the snow. As for wandering squills, they cause a sensation at the foot of forsythias (Forsythia spp.), large shrubs with golden flowers. Finally, the foliage of heucheras (Heuchera spp.) promises very beautiful marriages with most small bulbs and in particular grape hyacinths. The latter are also perfect for slipping into carpets of moss phlox (Phlox subulata), whose flowering coincides with that of grape hyacinths.

Beautiful Combinations With Large Bulbs

Of course, you can allow some small bulbs to mingle among the big boys (tulips, daffodils, etc.) too. This is the case of squills which can accompany miniature narcissus. Glories of the snow coexist well with botanical tulips, such as the Turkestan tulip (Tulipa turkestanica). Then, at the very end of the early spring floral program, plant grape hyacinths between early tulips. In short, don’t hesitate to mix small bulbs and tall ones!

This is just a small overview of what you could do with minor bulbs, other than planting them in the lawn. So, this fall, stock up and plant them everywhere, everywhere, everywhere…yes, even in the lawn.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

2 comments on “Ode to Minor Bulbs… NOT Planted in the Lawn

  1. When the pods are dry, simply cut the stem low to the ground. You can shorten the stem later if desired. For example, to match the height of your vase or other https://9apps.ooo/download/ container.

  2. ?udmila Koš?ová

    Hello, yes! I have them all in my garden. They bring joy in early spring and colours. My favourit is iris reticulata/harmony, blue and purple hill, katharine hodgkin, painted lady, blue planet, dijt, cantab, clairette…../ and I have beautiful collection of them in my garden. Together with crocus, snowdrop,
    eranthys, muscari, chionodoxa, scilla and puschkinia are awesome welcoming flowers starting at the end of march in our location-middle europe, zone 6A.

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