The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Spring Bulbs that Light up Early

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Like a sun parched desert traveler searching for water we are all craving the colors of spring and the green of new life in our gardens. Fortunately some spring flowering bulbs are early risers as our landscapes awaken from a long winter's nap.

Since they flower early, most of these upstarts are only 6-8 inches tall. If they bloomed with the crowd of other spring flowers, they would easily get lost in the plant pandemonium. But when you are the only vibrant color in the garden, minuscule becomes mighty.

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. On sunny days the plants reawaken to reveal their one-inch perky yellow buttercup flowers. Despite their Judge Judy aura of formality with their green Elizabethan collars they are at home naturalized in ground covers and flower beds. Allerton Park in Monticello has a large patch of them at the main entrance.

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. Several cultivars are available such as the double flowered 'Flore Pleno'.

A tough little bulb is the Grape Hyacinth, Muscari spp. Flowers appear from March into June. The blue purple clusters of small urn shaped flowers look beautiful with yellow daffodils. Flowers are also available in white and bicolor of dark purple and white. The deep green grass-like leaves appear in fall, winter over and die back in early summer. 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.

For something weird and wonderful Checkered Lily (also known as Guinea-hen flower), Fritillaria meleagris shows its red purple checkerboard flowers in April. Checkerboard markings on a flower are an unexpected delight.

Other early rising bulbs are the early spring pastel colored flowers of Grecian Windflower, Anemone blanda; Giant Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum (April and May) with their nodding white flowers each petal kissed with a splash of green; Striped Squill, Pushkinia scilloides (April, May) with their blue and white spike of flowers; and Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica (March, early April) with its intense deep blue flowers.

Spring flowering bulbs should be planted in October. Generally all the spring flowering bulbs need moist, but well drained soil. Wet soils in winter will lead to bulb decline or death. Since these early bulbs are small, they are easy to plant at only 2-3 inches deep. They look best in masses of at least 6 bulbs.

As our perennials awaken in spring it is the perfect time to plan where early spring bulbs could be planted in October. Once fall rolls around our gardens look too full to add bulbs; however, in spring all those perennials are small revealing the many places to add bulbs. Plant bulbs next to peonies, hosta, daylilies or ornamental grasses. Early bulbs can easily be planted behind taller perennials since bulbs flower so early. Spring flowering bulbs can also be added to ground covers such as sweet woodruff, lamium and ginger. Most don't compete well with lawn grass. Plant bulbs near sidewalks and backdoors where they can easily be seen as we rush into our homes during the chilly days of early spring.

For more information on spring and summer flowering bulbs, check out our UI Extension website

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