The Well-Dressed Garden by Marty Ross

Small but Mighty Bulbs

Tulips, daffodils and other spring-blooming bulb flowers don't have to be big to be beautiful. Small versions of our spring favorites are prized for their bewitching, jewellike blooms, and finding a place to plant them is easy. Now's the time.

Little bulbs have all kinds of advantages. They fit in small spaces -- in a corner by the patio, or next to the front steps. They're perfect tucked in around the trunk of a big shade tree, and they're naturally suited to the front edge of a flower bed, where you can't miss them. The bulbs that produce miniature tulips, daffodils, irises, grape hyacinths, crocuses and other spring flowers are themselves usually quite small, which means they're a snap to plant with a trowel. And they're almost always inexpensive, so you can indulge yourself: When you're planting 100 of anything, you naturally feel a bit extravagant, but these little bulbs will not put much stress on your budget. The reward of a few minutes' planting this fall will be a cheerful, personable display in spring. Miniature bulb flowers have outsized charm.

The parade of spring-flowering bulbs reaches its crescendo when tulips bloom in April or May, but the show actually begins in late winter, when there's still snow on the ground, as the first snowdrops push through. They can be hard to spot from the house, but they'll give you an excuse to bundle up to go outside and look for them. The moment you see their dangling, bell-like flowers -- pure or creamy white, with just a touch of green -- is a turning point in the winter garden.

After the snowdrops bloom, crocuses are not far behind. Pools of their small goblet-shaped flowers -- rich golden yellow, purple, rosy pink, white or boldly striped with purple -- sparkle like Champagne next to a garden bench or along the front walk. They're classic bulbs for planting in a lawn, tossed here and there like wildflowers. Plant several varieties, and you'll have a show that lasts for weeks. It's fine to dig a shallow hole only a few inches deep, toss a handful in, and then simply firm the soil over the top. If they're in a spot with excellent drainage and not too much moisture in the summertime, your planting will become more beautiful every year as the flowers go to seed and multiply. Crocuses are among the very first flowers to welcome honeybees searching for pollen on sunny days late in the winter.

Mail-order bulb specialists, who are busy filling orders right now for planting this fall, carry the broadest selection, but most garden shops in fall also stock their shelves with plenty of inspiration for spring gardens. Their bulb bins are likely to include a variety of grape hyacinths, which have striking, long-lasting clusters of bead-shaped blue flowers in midspring. Miniature irises and frilly scilla are also commonly available. Go ahead and experiment with several different small bulbs to get to know them up close and see how they perform in your garden.

Mini daffodils are perhaps the sweetest of all the tiny bulb flowers. The American Daffodil Society maintains a list of almost 250 officially recognized miniature varieties, but even the ADS struggles to define exactly what mini daffodils are. Colorblends, a mail-order bulb company, steps in with a definition of its own -- mini daffodils, Colorblends says, have "relatively small flowers on proportionately smaller plants, but all are very big in the cuteness category."

The definition works: mini daffodils, with flowers sometimes no bigger than a thimble, are just about as charming as they can be. Their flower stems may be only a few inches tall, but each bloom is a perfect scaled-down version of a larger daffodil. In the garden, they're irresistible in small groups of 10 to 12 bulbs, and delightful in drifts of 100. A bouquet of these winsome little treasures in a vase will take your breath away.

Mini daffodils even have cute names: Baby Boomer, Bagatelle, Bumble Bee, Minnow, Fairy Chimes, Little Oliver, and Itsy-Bitsy-Splitsy are just a few examples.

The tiny-flower season wouldn't be complete without the flash of glorious little tulips. Small tulip varieties mainly belong to a group known as wild or botanical tulips. Some, such as Turkestanica, are species flowers, with the unruly look of wild blooms in the high mountains of central Asia. Others are hybrids with star-shaped flowers -- a little more refined, but every bit as evocative of the wilds as the species. Botanical tulips naturalize easily in rock gardens and alongside stone edging or paths. They're perfect on a slope, where they're likely to spread by seed, and they're also pretty massed in front of clipped boxwood or yews, where they lend a jaunty informality to a more tailored planting.

Little bulbs truly are mighty performers in gardens of every size and style. They don't ask for much -- just a niche -- to prove that bigger isn't always better.


-- Three excellent mail-order sources for little bulbs are: Colorblends,; Brent and Becky's,; and John Scheepers,