By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops
Specialist University of Vermont
The old saying, “good things come in small packages,”
is especially true for the spring bulb garden. Although
large Dutch tulips and yellow daffodils certainly have
their place in the garden, spring-blooming miniatures–called
minor bulbs in the nursery trade–add pizzazz. Most
are prolific bloomers, with some, like snow drops and
snow crocuses, among the first to flower in the spring.
The rules for planting these miniatures are the same
as for any spring-flowering bulb. You need to get them
in the ground in the early fall. This allows them to
develop a strong root system, before the ground freezes.
But because the blooms are tiny, you will need to plant
them fairly close together, en masse, to provide impact.
Their small size also makes them the perfect plant for
a rock garden or to use along a path or edge of a small
Because these bulbs are perennials, it’s to your benefit
to spend time getting the soil ready. They need a well-drained
area though don’t worry too much about finding a sunny
At the time of their bloom, deciduous trees haven’t
leafed out yet, so there’s adequate light filtering
through the leafless branches to keep these plants blooming.
By the time the tree canopy has formed, the miniatures
have already gone dormant.
With a spade or pitchfork, loosen the soil to a depth
of about ten inches. If you are planting under trees,
take care not to harm the roots. I tend to plant close
around tree trunks. Not only does it look nice, but
it provides a buffer to protect from weed trimmers and
Work in plenty of compost, shredded leaves, or other
organic matter to add nutrients. If your soil is heavy
clay, adding sand with the organics will loosen it up
and improve drainage.
If you are preparing the area well in advance of planting
time, you could add a slow-release fertilizer. But if
you plan to fertilize when you plant, use an organic
fertilizer or compost to avoid fertilizer burn. Products
designed especially for bulbs are available at commercial
garden centers. Avoid using bone meal as this will attract
skunks and other rodents who will dig up the bulbs.
Plant the bulbs three times as deep as the bulb is
high. A one-inch bulb should be planted three inches
deep. While many gardeners use a bulb planter to dig
holes, a trowel often works better for the smaller bulbs,
especially if you are planting them densely for a stronger
splash of color. Instead of individual holes, dig a
wider one for several bulbs. I often dig a zigzag trench.
Place bulbs in the hole with the growth point (pointed
end) facing up. Then carefully backfill, replacing the
soil you removed. Tamp down gently, then water thoroughly.
Mulch with a one- to two-inch layer of shredded pine
bark, shredded leaves, or straw for protection against
fluctuating soil temperatures.
Bulbs are available at many garden centers and through
mail order catalogs, which will offer a larger selection
and many unusual varieties not found locally. Although
it’s probably too late now to order by mail, you
may want to get on the mailing list for catalogs. Place
your order in early summer for best selection and to
ensure you will receive the bulbs in time for fall planting.
Here are some ideas, listed by color, of what to try
in your garden. Check garden catalogs or ask the experts
at your local garden center for suggestions for other
miniature bulbs suitable for your area.
BLUES AND PURPLES–grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum),
eight to 10 inches tall, dark blue flowers; striped
squill (Puschkinia scilloides), four to six inches,
blue or bluish-white, also comes in white; glory-of-the-snow
(Chionodoxa), bright blue four-inch blooms; Grecian
windflower (Anemone blanda ‘Blue Star’), three to eight
REDS AND PINKS–snake’s-head or checquered lily (Fritillaria
meleagris), eight to ten inches, checkered maroon pattern;
Grecian windflower (Anemone coronaria), three to eight
inches, red; Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda ‘Pink
Star’), three to eight inches, pink.
WHITE–striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides), four
to six inches, also comes in blue; snowflake (Leucojum),
white bells, blooms late spring, one foot or less (more
commonly comes in a giant form with larger flowers);
glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Alba’), early
bloomer with four-inch flowers; dwarf narcissus (narcissus
‘Thalia’), less than one foot high, has several small
white flowers per stem.
YELLOW–crocus (Crocus angustifolius ‘minor’), four
inches, deep orange-yellow color with bronze stripes;
dwarf narcissus including the petticoat daffodil (narcissus
bulbocodium), five inches, yellow trumpet-like blooms;
and tête-à-tête (narcissus tête-à-tête),
six inches, deep yellow flowers, one to three flowers
Next spring, as new growth emerges, top-dress with
bulb fertilizer. After the bloom period, do not cut
back the foliage. The leaves manufacture and store food
in the bulb to create blooms next year. Many gardeners
will plant other flowers among the bulbs to hide the
dried and withering foliage. Or naturalize in a lawn
area that you can wait to mow until late June when foliage
on bulbs dies back.