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MINTER: Tiny flowers will be the harbingers of spring

T he garden giants of spring 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 garden giants of spring 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.

Snowdrops and crocuses are growing in popularity because they are old fashioned favourites and easy to plant.

They 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 and it is rapidly growing in popularity. Its touch of yellow is a true spring inspiration in the cold gray months of January and February.

It multiplies nicely among ground covers but looks particularly nice together with dark ajugas, like black scallop, dark foliaged thymes and compact, almost black heucheras, like obsidian.

In recent years, more varieties of grape hyacinths (muscari) have been introduced 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 with snowcapped white tops. In clusters they look sensational as do the similar M. neglectum with their 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 a couple of quite pleasing later varieties. Muscari plumosum is a very large blue flowered variety that is very unique and M. comosum is a lavender coloured wispy variety that is so late it blooms with the alliums. Muscari valerie finnis is a very unique 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 (the variety well 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 with pin striped blue flowers 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 spice up 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. No garden should be without A. schubertii and A. christophii for sheer wonderment of their intricately woven flower heads that last for weeks.

It's okay to show off a little 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 feesey's form. They will also draw the most admiring comments about your garden.

If you have a slightly shady deciduous woodland garden, then erythroniums are lovely. Their soft yellows and whites are perhaps the most striking and E. white beauty is the one we love best in our gardens.

I love beautiful displays of narcissus and tulips but in today's smaller space gardens they can look unsightly after flowering. I must say we've discovered a yellow tulip called Garant that has absolutely striking yellow and green variegated foliage and is simply breathtaking before, during and after flowering.

I'm also very fond of the mini daffodil golden bells, which is about the bulb size of a crocus and flowers with three to four flowers per bulb. It's a must have on your bulb list.

Take a good look now at all the botanical bulb opportunities in your garden for a simply dashing display in next spring's garden.