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The Homeowners Column
Planting Lesser Known Spring Bulbs
Extension Educator, Horticulture
They are called minor bulbs but they put on a major show when the landscape has a brown color scheme. Spring flowering minor bulbs should be planted now through October. Bulbs are a perfect lesson in delayed gratification.
Since they flower early, most of these upstarts are only 6-8 inches tall. If those persistent big leaves of tulips and daffodils bother you, than the small leaves of minor bulbs are perfect.
As soon as the soil warms, Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis pops up. It is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom appearing in February to March. Winter Aconite will even stand up to sleet and snow. Like many of the early bloomers the flowers close until the weather improves. The one inch flowers are bright yellow buttercups. They have an aura of formality with their green Elizabethan collars. Winter Aconite is lovely in rock gardens or massed in large naturalized areas. Allerton Park in Monticello has a large patch of them at the main entrance.
Winter Aconite tubers look like something that got left in the refrigerator way too long. If they are particularly dry and wrinkled then soak them overnight then plant immediately. Bulbs don't come marked "this side up." With most bulbs the pointed tip is planted upwards. Winter Aconite have an ambiguous top and bottom. Look for a small round scar on the tuber which is the bottom where the roots will emerge. If you still can't tell, then plant them on their side and let the tuber figure it out.
Soon after the Winter Aconite, Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis will appear often before the snow has melted. The small nodding white flowers appear in late February and March. The dark green strap-like leaves appear with the flowers and continue to grow until midsummer when they fade to yellow. There are several cultivars available such as the double flowered 'Flore Pleno'.
A tough little bulb is the grape hyacinth, Muscari spp. Leaves appear in fall, winter over and die back in early summer. Flowers appear from March into June. The blue purple clusters of small urn shaped flowers look beautiful with yellow daffodils. Grape hyacinths produce many offsets (baby bulbs) so they can be transplanted even when they are in flower to other areas of the garden. Grape hyacinths tolerate wet areas better than most bulbs.
Other bulbs to consider are the early spring pastel colored flowers of Grecian Windflower Anemone blanda; Giant snowflake, Leucojum aestivum (April and May) nodding white flowers with a kiss of green on each petal; Checkered lily, Fritillaria meleagris (April) red purple checkerboard flowers; Striped Squill, Pushkinia scilloides (April, May) blue white spike of flowers; and Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica (March, early April) intense deep blue flowers.
Generally all the spring flowering bulbs need moist but well drained soil. Wet soils in winter will lead to bulb decline or death. At planting time compost or 5-10-10 fertilizer (at a rate of one pound per 100 square feet) may be added to the soil. Small bulbs should be planted at 2-3 inches deep in masses of at least 6 bulbs. If squirrels are a problem then place a section of chicken wire over the soil and cover with mulch.
Don't think you have room in your flower garden for bulbs? Just remember in spring all those perennials are small. Plant bulbs next to peonies, hosta, daylilies or ornamental grasses. Eventually they may get a bit crowded but the bulbs can be lifted and divided after bloom as the leaves fade then moved to a new spot. Spring flowering bulbs can also be added to ground covers such as vinca. Most don't compete well with lawn grass. Plan now for a touch of spring color. Check out the website http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/bulbs/springbulbs.html