You’ve earned spring flowers. After what you went through in winter — with all its brrrr and blah — you deserve a blast of bulbs big time. And maybe you had the foresight to tuck in some tulips and daffodils last fall to deliver a pop of color straight into your backyard.
Spring is the time to start thinking about bulbs for fall planting, and bulb catalogs are coming out now. It’s never too early to start planning for fall, when you can plant bulbs again. Sure, the better-known bulbs are a great start, but did you plant some of the smaller, less-popular buried treasures as well?
Even before daffodils do their thing, you could be wading through fields of crocus, grape hyacinths, snowdrops, and Siberian squill. You could be the talk of the neighborhood with a sea of blue scillas or foxtail wands of color-coordinated hyacinths. Everyone knows about tulips and daffodils, but it’s time the “special bulbs” got their moment in the sun. Although some nurseries call them “minor bulbs,” the thrill is definitely major.
Margaret Mikolenko of Pound Ridge Nursery is a cheerleader for chionodoxa, alliums, crocus, and fritillarias. “They are the prelude to spring,” she says. “They pop out of the ground with that infusion of color that gets you excited. When the first snowdrop opens, the end of winter is in sight.”
We asked Mikolenko for her favorites, and she gave us a generous handful. And speaking of quantities: You’ll want to plant these little guys by the dozen to make a statement — hundreds wouldn’t be a bad idea. In most cases (with the exception of crown imperials and hyacinths), onesies and twosies won’t be sufficiently impressive. But the good news is that most of these mini bulbs are reasonably priced. Bury your assets (of the bulbous kind) in fall, and reap the rewards later. Here are some wise investments:
With nodding white and green flowers, snowdrops are incredibly intricate flowers with antifreeze in their veins. They laugh at the cold. “Plus, snowdrops are one of the first to perform,” notes Mikolenko. “You could plant them in front of the border or just tuck them into the lawn.” It’s true: These ultra-early little nuggets do their thing as soon as the snow starts thawing. They are custom-crafted to survive a late blizzard and conveniently designed to die and disappear from sight before you need to mow the lawn.
Although Mikolenko warns customers that crocus can be a brief affair if a blast of unseasonably warm weather is part of the usual spring yo-yo in Westchester County, they are so easy, early, and inexpensive, most gardeners indulge nonetheless. Available in colors through the white, purple, and yellow spectrum, they can be seen from a distance. If you have problems with squirrels nibbling the bulbs, try Crocus tommasinianus and its cultivars. Squirrels generally leave the “tommies” alone. Sprinkle them into the lawn and watch them multiply (and move) over the years.
Muscari were dubbed grape hyacinths not only because their tiny flowers are clustered on their stems like bunches of grapes but also for their grapelike fragrance. Available in white, yellow, or shades of purple and baby blue, they perennialize easily. Mikolenko suggests combining muscari with ‘Tête-à-Tête’ daffodils for a simultaneous performance of color complements. “And nothing eats them,” she says.
Scilla siberica is such an electric shade of cerulean blue, you can’t miss it even from a distance. Great for a lawn and prone to multiplying prolifically — especially if you wait to mow until after seeds set — Siberian squill flowers might be tiny, but they make a major impact. Mikolenko suggests Siberian squill for locations beneath shade trees, “because they’re okay with root competition and perform before trees have leafed out.”
Although chionodoxa species are modest flowers, ‘Blue Giant’ ramps up the size and number of blooms so significantly that it becomes a head turner. Mikolenko has seen the flowers courageously popping through the snow, and she often suggests combining them with snowdrops, Siberian squill, and muscari. Their flowers are a wonderful blue that is almost indigo, with a glowing white center. Plus, glory of the snow is a robust, maintenance-free harbinger of spring.
Hyacinths are the show-offs of spring. These plumes of racy color compete favorably with the biggest tulips on the block. Keep in mind that, unlike most of the special bulbs, hyacinth bulbs are as large or larger than daffodils, requiring deeper burying than most of the bulbs mentioned here. Wear gloves when handling to avoid getting an itchy skin reaction. The color spectrum includes magenta, pink, wine red, peach, purple, true blue, navy, whisper pink, canary yellow, and snow white. What Mikolenko loves best about hyacinths is their “absolutely incredible fragrance.” Add the fact that these poisonous bulbs and flowers are not bothered by any critters and you have a keeper.
Although most of the taller alliums kick in later, a few notable dwarf versions make an early spring appearance. Standing only about 3 inches tall and topped by a baseball-size orb of pale lavender flowers, Allium karataviense is the best-kept secret of the bulb world. Not only is it compact, but the blue-green pleated foliage doesn’t die back before blooming, like its larger cousins. “And they’re long-lived and multiply prolifically,” Mikolenko has discovered. They are the best of
Fritillaria imperialis is the overachiever in the special bulb spectrum. There is nothing minor about this plant: It stands over a foot tall and produces clusters of raging orange flowers dangling from topknots of upturned leaves. This is definitely a look-at-me conversation piece. “They are such a pleasant surprise,” Mikolenko says when Pound Ridge Nursery customers ask for recommendations. Another interesting trait is that crown imperials emit a decidedly skunky smell. Mikolenko suggests combining them with tulips to help repel nibbling animals. One caveat is that crown imperials are sometimes so precocious that they can be dinged by late frosts. But Mikolenko has some advice, “Plant the orange varieties; they are hardier than the yellows.” Like all the other early risers, “They get you overwhelmingly excited for spring.”