In the Garden: Small bulbs but big colour

The giants of spring bulb colour are giving way to their smaller cousins that actually repeat their performance year after year and leave a very soft footprint of dying and unsightly foliage.

The giants of spring bulb colour are giving way to their smaller cousins that actually repeat their performance year after year and leave a very soft footprint of dying and unsightly foliage.

Yes, the big tulips, narcissus and hyacinths provide a great splash of colour and are important in the right locations but minor bulbs offer us a subtle accompaniment to so many other spring plants and can make our gardens truly spectacular.

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Snowdrops and crocuses are old-fashioned favourites that perennialize readily almost anywhere in the garden to create an ever-expanding display each year. The tiny yellow buttercup-like winter aconite (Eranthis cilicica) is one bulb that sneaks ahead to bloom even before snowdrops. Its touch of yellow is a true delight during the cold gray months of January and February. It multiplies nicely among ground covers but looks particularly pretty together with dark ajugas, like ‘Black Scallop’, dark foliaged thymes and compact, almost-black heucheras.

In recent years, more varieties of grape hyacinths (muscari) have been reintroduced into the marketplace than perhaps any other bulb. Blue is a refreshing contrast colour for so many other plants and bulbs, especially those with golden or red foliage.

There are some recent innovations that I think are truly spectacular. Muscari ‘Mt. Hood’ has clear blue flowers capped with snowy white tops. Planted in clusters, they look sensational, as does M. neglectum with its dark blue flowers rimmed in white. If you love a little perfume, the first yellow variety, M. ‘Golden Fragrance’, is quite an attention-getter.

These are all long-blooming, mid-season varieties. There are also some quite pleasing later varieties. Muscari ‘Plumosum’ is a large, unique blue flowered variety and M. comosum is a lavender coloured wispy variety that is so late it blooms with the alliums. Muscari ‘Valerie Finnis’ is a lovely soft blue that lifts any combination. All muscari need to be planted in groupings for the best effect and they look great underplanted around dwarf forsythia and corylopsis (known as buttercup winter hazel).

We love scillas in our gardens simply because they bloom in May when most other bulbs are finished, providing a refreshing lift. The blues are nice but I must admit that the white and pink Scilla campanulatas are fabulous. The pink, in particular, adds a new and important colour to our gardens. They multiply well too and yes, they even have a perfume.

So many folks who ask for old-fashioned English bluebells are not quite sure what to request in terms of getting the right bulb. Well, Scilla nutans is the true English bluebell that thrives best in light shade and blooms over a long period of time.

One personal favourite is the little bulb puschkinia. These tiny pure white bulbs produce pin-striped blue flowers and are incredibly bright and cheery in March landscapes. They look great with miniature yellow daffodils or dwarf red tulips and they bloom a long while. From a distance, they look like soft blue clumps that add charm to any border or rockery.

Alliums are such a treat in June and July gardens, adding another fresh look as summer annuals get settled in. There are so many varieties but the yellow Allium moly luteum, the bell-like pink and fragrant A. bulgarium and A. ‘Drumstick’ (A. sphaerocephalum) are my favourite tiny flowered varieties. Allium schubertii and A. christophii are sheer wonders for their intricately woven flower heads that last for weeks. A little showing off is okay and no June garden should be without a few of the big guys like A. giganteum and the even larger A. ‘Globemaster’.

They look magnificent blooming among variegated grasses like Miscanthus ‘Variegatus’ and Phalaris ‘Fersey’s Form’. They will also draw the most admiring comments about your garden.

I’m very fond of the mini daffodil ‘Golden Bells’ which is about the bulb size of a crocus and produces three to four flowers per bulb. It’s a ‘must have’.

Treat these bulbs as perennials and coordinate them well for a display next spring that will only get better year after year. 

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