The Little Bulbs

Fall is bulb planting season, and while many gardeners focus on the showy blooms of tulips and daffodils I have a personal preference for what people call the little bulbs. (Some people call them minor bulbs, but that doesn't seem fair, considering how lovely and low maintenance they are).

These petite, unusual bulbs aren't always found in garden stores, so you may need to mail order them -- and now's the time!

Generally, bulbs should be planted three times as deep as they are tall. That's another reason to appreciate the little bulbs, which are no more than a half inch to one inch in diameter. Digging two inches into rocky or heavy clay soil is a lot easier than digging the six inches required for some jumbo bulbs.

But I don't just love them because I'm a lazy gardener. The little bulbs look so natural and appealing in the garden, especially when planted in large sweeps. If you'd like to plant something a little more unusual this year, consider these little bulbs that are small in size but big in garden impact.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) (pictured) has a unique form: a bright yellow blossom sits perched on a ruffled collar of foliage. It's one of the earliest bulbs to flower and often blooms through snow. Hardy to zone 3, winter aconites grow well in part to full sun and are deer resistant. Plants are 3 – 6 inches tall.

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) also often blooms before the snow has melted, bringing hope and encouragement to the heart of every winter-weary gardener. Delicate white flowers marked with green at the neck dangle from 10 inch tall plants. There are many cultivars available, including double flowered forms (G. nivalis 'Flore Pleno') and giant snowdrops (G. elwesii) that bloom even earlier than common snowdrops. Most are hardy to zone 4, grow best in part shade, and are deer resistant.

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) is hardy to zone 2 and is one of the most shade tolerant bulbs. It is also deer resistant. Blooms start out as hanging bell shapes and open wide as they mature. The cultivar 'Spring Beauty' has especially bright blue blooms, while 'Alba' has lovely white flowers. Plants are 3 – 6 inches tall and flowers open after those of snow drops and winter aconite.

Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa species) are hardy to zone 4 and come in many different colors. C. luciliae 'Violet Beauty' has pale purple blooms with white centers. C. sardensis produces bright purple/blue flowers, and the flowers of C. forbesii 'Pink Giant' are the faintest pastel pink. Plants grow to be 4 - 6 inches tall and are happiest in full sun.

Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris) is delicate, with tulip-shaped flowers that hang facing downward. The petals are marked with a checkered pattern in shades of purple. The cultivar F. meleagris 'Alba' is less common and has white flowers. Checkered lily is hardy to zone 4 and grows best in part shade and moist soil.

For a naturalized effect, scatter a handful of little bulbs on the lawn, and plant them where they land. It's quick work with a sharp trowel. You'll be in for a treat come spring, when a lovely swath of bloom appears as if by magic.

Bulb foliage should be left to yellow on the plant, sending as much energy as possible back to the bulb for next year's flowers. Since the leaves of the little bulbs are smaller than those of larger bulbs, they won't look quite as messy as they yellow. Resist temptation to braid the foliage or loop it neatly with elastic bands. The leaf surface needs to be exposed to the sun in order to photosynthesize and store food to support next year's blooms. If you plan to naturalize bulbs in a lawn area, keep in mind that you'll need to forgo mowing until the bulb foliage has died back. Yes, you'll have to tolerate a little natural messiness in the garden, but it's worth it…the rewards of these little bulbs is great indeed.

Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (, a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. She lectures at garden shows and events across the country.

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