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Small But Mighty: Minor Bulbs Make Major Impact In Any Spring Garden

The heavy hitters in the spring garden are tulips, daffodils, crocus and hyacinths.  There are, however, hundreds of flowers that bloom between February and May in the
Midwest and northern states that are exceptionally hardy, inexpensive and adapt to a number of soil and climatic conditions. Most of these bulbs naturalize over time, meaning that once planted, the gardener enjoys an ever-growing display throughout the years.  More gardeners should consider these “minor” bulbs for inclusion in landscaping plans.


The common thread running through these minor bulbs is that most of them originated in the rugged climes and thin soils associated with mountain regions. For example, Muscari and Ornithogalum originated in the mountains of Turkey and Greece. Scilla siberica is native to Russia, Siberia and the Ukraine. Cold winters and brief summers are candy to these flowers, and many begin to bloom before the last of the fallen snow disappears. The minor bulbs thrive in growing zones 3 through 7; south of Tennessee, they tend to peter out due to the extended period of high temperatures.

New Tulip varieties available at Nature Hills Nursery. Order your bulbs today for a glorious display next spring!

One of the more well-known minors is the grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.). These dainty beauties come in colors that include pure white and delicate pink and a range from azure blue to deep purple; one variety starts with light blue florets and grows progressively darker as the bells closest to the stem open.   Grape hyacinths are mildly fragrant, love full sun and spread like wildfire. Luckily, rampant as these flowers are they are also very shallow rooted; the bulbs sit just about an inch below the soil’s surface. This allows them to share space with lawn grass, shrubs and perennials. The foliage dies down once the weather turns warm and blends in easily with bark mulch.

Another, not so well-known minor is Chionodoxa, commonly known as “glory of the snow.”  These tiny flowers come in shades of blue; some are bi-color blue with white highlights, and they bloom in very early spring.  The plant only reaches 4” tall and 25 bulbs will fit nicely into a 1 foot square plot.

Similar in appearance to Chionodoxa, but fragrant in addition is Ipheon.  These bulbs range from white to periwinkle blue and bloom in April or early May; the plants reach 6 to 8 inches in height.

Scilla (squill) and Hyacinthoides (Spanish bluebells) are spring beauties that are also woodland flowers. Ideally suited for partial to deep shade, these two genera look like a very loosely-packed hyacinth. Scilla generally hosts deep blue pendant flowers, while Hyacinthoides come in deep blue, pale blue, white and pink. A spectacular spring display can be had by planting drifts of scilla and hyacinthoides under spring-flowering trees such as dogwood, redbud or crabapple.  Scilla is known to be an aggressive ground cover plant, and reproduces by bulb divisions and seeds; keep it contained by trimming off spent flower heads after they bloom.


Anemones (Grecian wind flowers) are ground-hugging plants with daisy-like flowers. In the midwest these flowers bloom around the end of April, flowering best when the sun starts to radiate the first glimmers of summer's warmth.


Planting minor bulbs is actually much easier to do than working with the larger daffodils and tulips. Most of the minor bulbs are less than one inch in size; the planting hole, then, needs to be only deep enough to accommodate the bulb. A good planting trowel or dibble is the only planting tool needed. Also, the planting area can be very compact, as bulbs need only be spaced a maximum of 6" apart.  Over the years, these minor bulbs will fill in nicely.  Once planted, apply a bulb-booster fertilizer at the per-square foot rates recommended on the package, water the plot well if rain has been scarce, and mulch after the ground is frozen.  Planting time for these bulbs begins in late September in the Canadian provinces and northern United States and goes through November; these bulbs are hardy enough to go into the ground as long as it isn't frozen.


Minor bulbs offer tremendous returns for a minimal investment in time and money, and are the pinnacle in maintenance-free gardening. Set them, forget them, and watch the garden erupt in early spring.