Northern Shade Gardening

Small Bulbs for Early Spring Charm

Monday, November 2, 2009 Category: Bulbs
Galanthus Puschkinia Scilla bulbs

Galanthus Puschkinia Scilla bulbs

I’ve been adding more of the smaller spring bulbs to my garden this fall. These are easy to tuck into a garden bed, in between perennials. When the bulbs die back by summer, the perennials will take their place, extending the flowering time. I’ve expanded some established groups of bulbs, adding more for a splashier spring show. In the photo above, you can see the Galanthus (snowdrops), Puschkinia (striped squills) and Scilla (squills) bulbs from left to right.

I did most of my bulb planting in September, before my zone gets much frost. This gives the bulbs a chance to settle in before the cold temperatures stop the growth. During the past few weeks, the temperatures went above freezing, and I saw some bulbs on sale. I planted some more of my favourites in the garden. November is a little late in the season to be adding bulbs in zone 3, but the ones I added late last year survived, so I’m optimistic again this year.

Scilla siberica squill flowers May

Scilla siberica squill flowers May

Many of the little bulbs have smaller foliage that fades away quickly, like these Scilla. After the blooms have gone, the bulb leaves need to photosynthesize, but larger leaves can look messy as they decay. The short, narrower leaves of the littlest bulbs are more easily hidden by surrounding perennials, and also die back quickly. They can store up energy for next year, without looking too unkempt.

small bulb packages

small bulb packages

The smaller bulbs look especially charming in spring, when very few plants are blooming. Before the attention grabbing perennials start to flower, you can appreciate the elfin charm of the dainty blooms. The Puschkina scilloides are less than 15 cm (6 in) tall, and at any other time of the year they would be hidden in the garden, but they stand out when there is very little foliage around. They look eye-catching when planted in large groups, but can be appreciated in a small group, if they are planted next to the steps, or in a corner near a path.

Galanthus elwesii snowdrop bulbs

Galanthus elwesii snowdrop bulbs

I added some more of the earliest bulb of all, Galanthus elwesii (snowdrops), with the charming white petals. The tiny snowdrop bulbs can be planted fairly close together, and these definitely need a large group, or tight planting to show up well. These are planted at the edge of a larger group of Galanthus.

Galanthus elwesii flower closeup May

Galanthus elwesii flower closeup May

Here is a snowdrop flower from last May. As the first blooms in the spring garden, the Galanthus get lots of attention. Those bright outer petals, hide the little green markings, unless you get down for a closeup look. In earliest spring, you can appreciate the subtle details.

Puschkinia libanotica striped squill flower May

Puschkinia libanotica striped squill flower May

The Puschkinia scilloides var libanotica (striped squills) bloom after the Galanthus in my garden. These Puschkinia  are some of the showiest of the petite bulbs. They have large clusters of small blue and white petals. I have some Puschkinia scilloides ‘Alba’ that bloom in all white too. They are nice, but I prefer the lively little blue racing stripes of these bulbs.

Puschkinia libanotica striped squill bulbs

Puschkinia libanotica striped squill bulbs

The Puschkinia bulbs can be planted close, a few cm apart, so the flowers almost touch each other, and display well. In the photo above, I’m adding these between Brunnera plants, next to an established patch of striped squills. The group looked great last spring, but I thought it could be larger. I dig a shallow hole, and put about 20 of  the bulbs in it, with their points up. Then dig another hole between the next perennials. They get covered up with soil, watered in, and next a layer of fall leaves over top.

Scilla siberica squill bulbs

Scilla siberica squill bulbs

The blue Scilla siberica (squills) bloom soon after the striped squills. These look fantastic paired with other white or blue flowers. Even the bulbs themselves have a purplish blue covering when you plant them. The actual flowers have have a true blue colour, as shown in the picture second from the top.

Puschkinia libanotica and snow May

Puschkinia libanotica and snow May

Here is a typical spring picture from a northern garden, little Puschkinia snow cones, from last May. The tiny flowers of the small bulbs usually recover quickly from a spring snow, and continue to look good when the sun shines again. This is probably one of the best reasons for planting these hardy bulbs.

Earlier this fall I wrote about planting some crocus bulbs, pairing the small Muscari (grape hyacinth) bulbs with tulips, and underplanting shrubs with Chionodoxa (glory of the snow) bulbs. When there is very little new green foliage in early spring, it is fun to wander around the garden, looking for the latest bulbs to bloom. I’ll be ready for spring to burst with colour, after the monotones of winter.

12 Responses to “Small Bulbs for Early Spring Charm” »

  1. Rebecca @ In The Garden :
    November 2, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Terrific post, you must be very dedicated to still be planting bulbs this late in the year. I really enjoyed seeing the spring pictures. You’re right about spring being the perfect time for these little ones, they would get lost later in the year, but are so charming when they can stand out.

  2. Northern Shade :
    November 2, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Rebecca, this is probably the finish for any outside bulb planting. I do have some bulbs chilling for indoor forcing, though. Now I’m checking to see that the garden beds are all covered with a layer of fall leaves. I enjoyed looking back for pictures of the flowering bulbs that I hadn’t posted before.

  3. Dave :
    November 2, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Hi Northern Shade:

    Good to learn that you had good luck with late bulb plantings last Fall, although that was a long, warm autumn if I recall, unlike this year. My Dutch bulbs finally arrived on Friday and went directly into the ground (and a dozen and a half to pots in the greenhouse – which may stay warm long enough to give them time to develop some roots). I’m hoping most will bloom, although it seems unlikely that they will have established well enough to form good-sized new bulbs next Spring.

    I’m making a couple of resolutions – no more Dutch bulbs (maybe I’ll try one of the BC growers next year) – but lots more pictures in the spring so I can enjoy the flowers again in the fall as you have in your charming post.

  4. Northern Shade :
    November 2, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Dave, those Dutch bulbs sound like they took the slow boat to Edmonton. Let’s hope we get another long fall, and the bulbs get the weather to settle in. I ordered some bulbs from BC, which arrived in September, but bought most of mine locally. I did the bulk of the bulb planting in September and early October, but added a few groups later. It will be interesting to compare the early and late plantings next spring.

  5. The Garden Ms. S :
    November 2, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Your spring garden will be a place of joy! I planted my first bulbs ever this weekend so I’m very glad to hear that I am not the only one out there :)

  6. Northern Shade :
    November 2, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    The Garden Ms. S, it’s tempting to add more bulbs, as the garden becomes more barren with winter approaching. Burying the spring bulbs underneath piles of leaves, is one of my favourite garden tasks at this time of year.

    You will have spring flowers to anticipate in your garden too.

  7. Noelle (azplantlady) :
    November 3, 2009 at 10:53 am


    I love how you combine your bulbs with your perennials. What a great way to hide the fading leaves of the bulbs. I hope the bulbs that you just planted come up in the spring.

  8. Northern Shade :
    November 3, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Noelle, it works especially well with perennials that come up late, like Hosta and ferns. They can time share the space easily.

  9. Pomona Belvedere :
    November 8, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    I enjoyed your photos of the bulbs – I’ve really gotten to appreciate the varieties of shapes, textures, and colors bulbs come in. I have planted bulbs quite late, I have planted bulbs when it was snowing and the top layer of ground was freezing, I have planted bulbs that were languishing in brown paper bags in a back room way too long – and mostly they come up. Bulbs are very forgiving, luckily for us, and as you say, very exciting in the earliest phases of spring.

  10. Northern Shade :
    November 8, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Pomona, I had the urge to plant more bulbs this weekend, but contented myself with rearranging the leaves in the garden, over top of the perennials. I’ve set aside some bulbs to chill, and will bring them out later for forcing. Watching the bulbs emerge indoors in winter keeps a gardening connection until spring.

  11. Tallulah :
    March 23, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    I’m looking for scilla bulbs, but haven’t had much luck in the Ottawa area or online. Would there be any suggestions on a good source for ordering? Thanks!

  12. Northern Shade :
    March 23, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    Tallulah, I’ve ordered other bulbs from Fraser’s Thimble Farms (in BC) in the fall before, and was pleased with them. They have some Scilla siberica on this page.

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