Despite their unfounded reputation as collector's items, most small-scale, early bulbs aren't fussy about soil or aspect. Reliably perennial, these Lilliputians spread into nice, fat clumps.
GARDENING IS ALL about covering the ground, an elusive goal in late winter and earliest spring. Who wants to look at all that bare earth until the garden burgeons into leaf again?
Hellebores are one good answer, but so are small-scale, early bulbs. Despite their unfounded reputation as collector’s items, most aren’t fussy about soil or aspect. Reliably perennial, these Lilliputians spread into nice, fat clumps. In a few years you’ll have enough anemones, cyclamen or fritillaria to form puddles of brilliance in a still wintry garden.
You can tuck these thumb-nail-size bulbs into pots, or scatter them beneath shrubs and trees to form ribbons of color through the garden when not much else is happening out there. Many a gardener has been lured out of bed on a cold, damp morning to see if her snowdrops are blooming, or to pick a little bunch of grape hyacinths for the breakfast table.
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Daffodils and tulips are so showy that we too often spend our bulb energy and budget on these more familiar choices. Tulips bloom so late they lap into summer planting, causing you to rush their demise so you can replace them with tomatoes and sunflowers. Most aren’t truly perennial — and besides, squirrels adore tulips so much you’re just feeding the varmints your springtime dreams anyway. Predation isn’t a problem with poisonous daffodils, but that floppy leftover foliage takes such patience. Daffodils bloom for a few short weeks, yet it takes months for their leaves to die away. What a mess.
There are more satisfactions and fewer drawbacks with little bulbs. They bloom early with petite leaves that either melt away or are easily masked by emerging perennial foliage. These miniatures are perfect companions to corydalis, bleeding heart, pulmonaria and hostas because they finish blooming just as the perennials burst forth to command your attention.
Crocus are instantly recognizable, with their narrow, striped leaves and plump, cheerful flowers. Breeders have come up with crocus drama in shades of bronze and saffron yellow (C. ‘Jeannine’), snow white feathered with lilac (C. ‘Snowbunting’) and my all-time favorite, C. ‘Cream Beauty,’ with bright orange stamen centered in large, long-lasting flowers. Believe me, you can never, ever plant too many crocus. They coax early bees out of hibernation, open wide to the sun, bloom gloriously in winter and disappear in spring.
The first little bulbs I ever planted were Anemone blanda, which spread about so gratifyingly I felt like I almost knew what I was doing. These little daisylike flowers in shades of white, rose pink, blue or purple hug the ground atop fern-like foliage. With their fuzzy anthers, they look kind of like downsized clematis. Try planting them beneath Japanese maples, mock orange or lilacs for carpets of vivid color before the shrubs leaf out.
Dog-tooth violets or trout lilies (common names for Erythronium species) are elegant woodlanders, with glossy, patterned leaves and delicately recurved lily-like flowers. Cyclamen coum also has foliage as pretty as its flowers, with heart-shaped variegated leaves and tiny pink flowers in bloom for Valentine’s Day.
Checkered lilies (Fritillarea meleagris) are charmers, with wispy leaves and nodding heads checkered in mauve and cream. These aren’t the most vigorous of bulbs, so plant them where you can admire them close up, in pots or near entryways. Their intricate little patterned bells are unique in the plant world, and they tolerate damp soil and shade more than most bulbs. A favorite spot in my old garden was a small courtyard that bloomed in early spring with cobra lilies (Arisaema sikokianum) underplanted with dozens of checkered lilies, whose sweet appeal softened the hooded cobra’s slightly sinister looks.
The trick with these early beauties is to plant a great many of each kind and give them space to spread. They’re often sold in hundred lots, and you’ll be amazed at how such numbers easily slip below ground. Each individual flower is too diminutive to have much impact, but when you plant a crowd, your garden will glow.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com.