It may be way too soon to start thinking about snow — or so we hope — but seasoned gardeners know that instead of hiding one’s head in the sand about the coming of colder weather, it’s way better to place carefully chosen bulbs beneath the soil before the freezing temperatures arrive. But which ones to select?
There’s no denying the appeal the promise of big showy blooms brings.
But to enjoy those eventual stands of towering daffodils and tulips it’s necessary to dig deeper planting holes initially and wait longer, until spring has actually sprung, to enjoy them.
There are a number of bulbs, smaller in stature and size, which are among the very first to emerge, often while the frozen remnants of winter linger on and on.
Known as the “little” or minor bulbs, the delicate pops of color they provide are among the first, and most welcome, harbingers of spring.
For our area, University of Maryland Extension Service Home and Garden specialists recommend the following: Crocus, Snowdrop (Galanthus), Grape Hyacinth (Muscari), Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, Spring Starflower (Ipheion), and Winter Aconite (Eranthus Hyemalus).
The name Crocus is one of the oldest plant monikers in existence, from krokos, the ancient Greek word for saffron. Technically the Crocus is not a bulb, whose concentrated nutrient package is layered like an onion, complete with outer papery layer, but a solid component known as a corm.
The Old Farmers’ Almanac recommends planting 3 to 4 inches deep, pointy side up. The earliest Snow Crocus variety is nearly groundcover size at 2 inches in height. Rather than planting individually or in single rows, space a few inches apart but in clusters of at least 10, in lawns or meadows where they can form a “carpet” of color.
Snowdrops’ delicate beauty is underlined by their fragile undried or “in the green” state. Because they can so easily dry out, gardeners need to be vigilant and act quickly to order the bulbs, which are sold for a brief window each fall, then plant them right away.
Once safely under the soil, the good news is that they’re fairly pest-free, and unappealing to the usual munching garden varmints such as deer, rabbits, mice, and squirrels.
The Easy to Grow Bulbs company characterizes their appearance as “tiny alabaster pearls” and their hardiness “tough as nails.” Snowdrops are often slow to get growing the first year, but produce “thick patches” of blooms by the second, Easy to Grow advises.
Grape Hyacinth, though not usually grape in color or actually hyacinths, are atop many gardening gurus’ prolific growers’ lists. Andre and Mark Viette, authors of the Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Guide, especially appreciate the dramatically colorful impact when planted to produce “drifts” of 25 to 100. When cultivated this way with abundant sunlight, even dappled, in decent soil, and fertilized following blooming, Muscari bring a veritable “carpet” of primarily blue hues, with some white and purple varieties available. Said to resemble both bunches of grapes as well as the familiar elongated hyacinth bloom in shape, some do exude a mildly spicy grape scent, most notably a rare yellow specimen, Muscari macrocarpum, according to the Guide. This might explain how the genus Muscari was given the Greek name for musk.
Despite its diminutive size, the relatively petite 6-inch-tall daffodil known as Narcissus Tete-a-Tete has become the fourth bestselling daffodil bulb worldwide, according to Dr. Gerald Klingamon, a retired Extension service agent and longtime plant historian, currently Operations Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Ark.
Introduced in 1949 by British bulb cultivator Alex Gray, it’s traditionally been the earliest blooming daffodil in Klingamon’s garden, though this year the warming winter trend seems to have pushed it back along with the rest.
The “runt” of the daffodil world works well adorning rock gardens and as the front row to garden presentation match ups. It’s also a favorite for indoor bulb arrangements.
Ipheion Uniflorum, or “Spring Starflower,” a member of the Amaryllis family, brings subtle colors ranging from nearly white to violet blue, but star power in terms of easy care growing capability, requiring spots only 2 to 3 inches deep and 2 to 4 inches wide, with no serious disease or insect problems noted.
It’s possible that bugs and critters are somewhat discouraged from munching by what’s been described as a mildly spicy scent of the flowers, and a distinct aroma reminiscent of crushed onion emanating from bruised foliage. Southern Living magazine notes it’s “wildflower charm” while the Missouri Botanical Garden gives it a green “thumbs up” for being among the most adaptable to any type of soil.
Buttercups usually bring thoughts of lazy summer days, but Winter Aconite, a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) brings the same brilliant cheer to chilly late winter days, and withstanding even some frost and ice to signal Spring’s eventual arrival, appearing even earlier than Crocus.
Technically considered a tuber, or nutrient laden stem root, rather than a bulb, it does require deeper planting to a depth of about 5 inches to protect it from the harshest overwinter elements. Anne Baley of suggests spacing them no more than 6 inches apart, in odd numbered clusters which she adds best show off the inch wide, 3 to 4-inch-tall blooms most vividly.
While its flowering days are fleeting, the remaining foliage gives cover to otherwise unsightly spring mud.