Nothing signals the end of winter like the first crocuses poking their heads through the last of the melting snows. Few plants are as easy to grow, or as rewarding, as the early-blooming bulbs. The only challenge is remembering to purchase and plant the bulbs--during the excitement of the summer and fall gardening season, it's hard to imagine just how bleak the garden can look in late winter. Plan now for fall planting, and come spring you'll be glad you did!
Following is a selection of early-blooming bulbs. Since many of these are small in stature, they look best planted in relatively large numbers. Don't be intimidated by the thought of planting 100 or more bulbs; the tiny bulbs take just seconds to plant, especially if your soil is relatively loose. Simply make a slice in the soil with a trowel about 4 inches deep, wiggle it a little to make a hole, and, holding the soil back with the trowel, drop in the bulb. As you slide out the trowel, push any scattered soil back into the hole, then water the area to settle the soil.
Scilla is one of the earliest spring flowers to bloom. Flowering for a remarkably long time they bear clusters of bloom spikes that offer scented deep blue flowers. Exquisite when planted under spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias.
Crocus ring in the spring in a range of colors from blue to yellow to white. The bright colors are wonderful planted in masses so you can enjoy a carpet of color from a distance. In the case of crocuses, more is definitely better! And like snowdrops, crocuses will multiply each year, especially if they are planted in the very well-drained soil they prefer.
Sometimes called Glory of the Snow, these beauties will blanket the ground with blue in early spring. Each bulb produces multiple star-shaped, sky-blue flowers. Just 4 to 5 inches in height, they look best planted in large drifts, and will multiply rapidly. Ideal for naturalizing on lawns in light shade or for planting in between perennials, as well as between larger spring bulbs, such as daffodils.
Grape hyacinths aren't true hyacinths, but instead are in the genus Muscari. However, if you look closely at these flowers, you'll see the resemblance to hyacinths in the clusters of tiny flowers atop strap-like foliage. Grape hyacinths are so eager to multiply that they can become weedy--that is, if you consider a plant with such beautiful flowers a weed. Plant them where they can spread freely--in the lawn, under shrubs--rather than in a formal bed.
If the above flowers, with their diminutive stature and often muted colors, gently announce the arrival of spring, true hyacinths fairly yell it from the rooftops. And not only are they extravagant in appearance, they are also wonderfully fragrant. Add these to the fact that hyacinths are very easy to grow, and there's no reason not to include at least a few of these beauties in your garden. They are also excellent for forcing indoors, where you can enjoy their scent each time you pass by.
Q. The hyacinth bulbs I forced indoors are droopy. Is there anything I can do to make them stand up?
A. It's likely that the room is too warm or the plant ins't getting enough light. Hyacinths like it on the cool side, around 60F, and should be kept in a bright room but out of direct sunlight.
Q. After some heavy rains last spring, my grape hyacinth (Muscari) bulbs, which have been in the ground for a number of years, started popping out of the ground. What happened?
A. Soil erosion, frost heaving, or overcrowding could be the cause. Since these bulbs are planted only a few inches deep, freezing and thawing of the ground, coupled with the soil washing away during spring rains, could have eroded soil around the bulbs and made it appear as if they had popped out. Simply push the bulbs back into the ground. To avoid this problem in the future, in fall after the ground has frozen, mulch the planting with 2 to 4 inches of bark.
Q. My crocuses are becoming very tall and falling over. Should I cut them back?
A. Don't cut them back. Always let the foliage on the bulbs die back naturally, so the bulb can replenish its food storage in preparation for the next season. Bulbs tend to get floppy if they are not getting enough sun and/or if the weather is too warm. If they are growing in shade, you might move them to a sunnier location. If the weather's been unusually warm, there's not much you can do.
Q. Is it true that saffron comes from the crocus flower? Can I grow the crocus in my garden?
A. Saffron comes from the dried stigmas of a fall-blooming crocus, C. sativus. If your crocus are C. sativus, you can harvest your own saffron. Pick the stigmas--the yellow threads in the center of the flower--as soon as flowers open, air-dry them, then store them in an airtight container to be used to flavor foods. You'll need about 100,000 blossoms to produce one pound of saffron, but only a dozen to flavor a family-sized paella.