Small Bulbs Produce Big Color

Master gardener Maureen Gilmer issues a reminder of the beauty that small bulbs can produce.

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Tiny Muscari armeniacum is commonly known as grape hyacinth. (All photos courtesy of Maureen Gilmer)

What do viruses, atoms and diamonds have in common? They are all tiny things capable of generating great impact.

Do not underestimate the power of small bulbs, either. For the garden lover blessed with only a few square feet of precious earth they are every bit as bold as their larger cousins. Attention urban gardeners: this bulb's for you.

What makes these little fellows so great? They are early bloomers, often the very first flowers of the season. Their bold jewel-tone colors virtually leap out of winter's drab landscape. Bulbs so small can be packed in together to magnify their color, and after they fade you can replant above them with early spring annuals.

Scilla siberica is a very cold hardy carpet for spring.
Drifts of crocus bloom while turf is still dormant.
Capture the beauty of iris with these dwarf forms less than a foot tall.
Dwarf Iris reticulata bears big flower color.
Jewel-tone Crocus tommasinianus "Giant Ruby."
Crocus will persist forever in chemical-free home lawns.

The shorter small bulbs make a great palette for creating swaths of intense, solid color. You can create a virtual Oriental carpet on a small, postage-stamp-size space. Planting with colors and textures is great fun because your visual ideas, planted now, will surprise you come spring.

There's another old garden tradition that involves using these small bulbs. Before the advent of lawn chemicals, it was a common practice to stud the lawn with tiny bulbs in the fall. These would sprout and bloom while the lawn is still dead and fully dormant in spring. An ugly patch of ground would suddenly come to life in bright and cheerful frost-resistant flowers.

Later on, after the lawn begins to green, you can mow the bulb foliage with the grass until it gradually disappears. Yet these same little bulbs will come back again year after year to brighten the landscape.

Sadly, many lawn products used today discourage or kill these bulbs. So the practice literally died out. But for those who are going back to growing an all-organic lawn, this old idea has become new again.

The key to this whole idea is finding a bulb house that carries these lesser-known small varieties. McClure & Zimmerman's catalog doesn't sell you with lavish pictures because it caters to the knowledgeable bulb aficionado. Its website isn't showy either, but they are nonetheless a great place to start. Shop online at www.mzbulb.com, or order a catalog by phone: 800-883-6998.

Crocus is by far the best known of the mini-bulbs and is cherished as the first color of spring. You can find them locally in garden centers and even supermarkets in the fall. They tend to feature a large percentage of pastel hues, so shop carefully by variety to get bold jewel tones that stand out. Be sure to stock up on golden yellow and white to offset the blues and purples.

Grape hyacinth resembles a cluster of blue grapes. "Muscari armeniacum" and its cultivars, as well as a few other Muscari species, are just six inches tall. This is the best source of rich Dutch and cobalt blue. And they are so irrepressible they are often found naturalized in older home sites.

Dutch iris are spring bulbs cold hardy to zone 3. The varieties developed from "Iris reticulate" offer bold yellow, orange, purple, blue and white blooms on plants just four to six inches tall. Another group from "Iris histrioides" are primarily purple and white with varying combinations.

Siberian squill, or "Scilla siberica" offers intense blue coloring on tiny bluebell-shaped flowers. Very cold hardy to Zone 1, it is the best choice for extreme northern gardeners.

A smaller snowdrop, "Galanthus nivalis," is a white flowered romantic holdover from Victorian days that naturalizes well.

Shakespeare's English bluebells, "Hyacinthoides non-scripta," and their cousins, the Spanish bluebells, "Hyacinthoides hispanica" also are worth a try.

Remember to buy gobs and gobs of these little guys to ensure you get a really big show. Just as microscopic atoms changed the world and flecks of diamonds have funded entire nations, a raft of tiny bulbs may drive out the mighty winter blues next year.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit www.moplants.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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