Although officially classified as minor bulbs, the spring-blooming miniatures you plant in fall are certain to have a major impact next spring. Their delicate beauty cannot be matched by the major bulbs such as large Dutch tulips and hyacinths. Many of the less familiar minors -- the nodding, checkered bells of a snake's-head lily (Fritillaria meleagris), for example -- will intrigue even the most jaded.
The greatest virtue of the minor bulbs, though, is their timing. They are precocious bloomers and include among their number the earliest spring flowers. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), snow crocus (Crocus chrysanthus), and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), for example, commonly flower before the snow has melted, at a time when a gardener craves color the most.
Because their only common characteristic is size, the miniature bulbs are an eclectic group that includes compact cultivars of familiar garden flowers and a variety of wild or nearly wild flowers. In Martha's garden, for instance, there are throngs of miniature narcissi -- a group that includes both wild species and hybrids -- and white-and-pink-flowered dogtooth violets (Erythronium dens-canis), identical to those found carpeting an English woods, as well as grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum), whose blue-purple flower spikes are much like those covering the Anatolian grasslands each spring.
Dwarf narcissi, often called miniature daffodils, are among the most familiar of the minor bulbs, and Martha grows a wide-ranging collection of them in her East Hampton, New York, garden. This group includes several species as well as hybrids. All are spring blooming.
'Minnow,' a 5-6-inch tazetta narcissus, is white with a bright-yellow center and 4-5 flowers per stem.
'Jack Snipe,' a cyclamineus daffodil, is 8-10 inches tall with white petals and a yellow trumpet.
The Petticoat Daffodil ( Narcissus bulbocodium and Narcissus cyclamineus) are species with unusually elegant blooms.
'Tete-a-Tete' is a 6-inch-tall cyclamineus daffodil with fragrant gold flowers.
These spring-blooming bulbs overwinter reliably in northern New England and the upper Midwest; most in this group flourish in the upper or mid-South, and they thrive in different exposures. Crocus, glory-of-the-snow, and Turkestan onion all prefer full sun; dogtooth violet thrives in part shade or shade. The rest are more flexible, adapting to sun or part shade.
Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda) is 3-8 inches tall and comes in white, blue, or pink.
Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica), at 4-6 inches, can be blue, bluish-white, or pure white.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) is 5-6 inches tall with dark-blue flowers. Its close relative, fringe hyacinth (M. comosum 'Plumosum'), has feathery plumes, and there are also white and paler blue cultivars of the more typical grape hyacinth.
Dogtooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) at 6-12 inches high, comes in white, pink, or purple.
Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) a very early bloomer, has 4- inch lavender and white flowers; the species C. sardensis is vivid blue.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), at 5-8 inches tall, have winged white flowers.
Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) produce 15-20-inch spikes of pink, blue, or white bells.
Turkestan onion (Allium karataviense) has pale-rose flowers in 3-inch-wide clusters on 4-10-inch stems.
Climate plays a significant role in determining which miniature bulbs you should plant. Most of the traditional Dutch bulbs do not thrive where winters are warm, but gardeners in these regions have many other choices. Gardeners in southern California can select from South African bulbs such as corn lily (Ixia maculata), baboon flowers (Babiana), and homeria (Homeria collina), or from Mediterranean bulbs such as Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which like the California climate, as do the miniature narcissi, whose ancestors originated in the same part of the world.
In the Deep South, lovers of compact narcissi can rely on the jonquil (Narcissus jonquilla), which bears a cluster of golden-yellow flowers on 12-18-inch stems, and its cultivars. The Lent lily (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), also reliably perennial in much of the South, bears rich-yellow trumpets on 10-inch stems as early as February. Southern gardeners can expand their fall planting to include bulbs that bloom after the hot weather. The Fall daffodil (Sternbergia lutea) bears clusters of crocuslike golden blossoms in mid-September, and the schoolhouse lily (Rhodophiala bifida) bears rosy-pink or red trumpets on 10-12-inch stems just as school opens in fall.
In the Southeast and Southwest, gardeners should not expect the kind of springtime crescendo common in colder climates. In mild-winter regions, bloom times are dictated by seasonal patterns of rain and drought as well as by temperature; bulbs there tend to bloom in repeated flushes of color throughout the growing season.
Unless noted, these minor bulbs require a frost-free climate to overwinter outdoors. In colder regions, they can be planted outdoors during the growing season in harsh-winter areas, then lifted and stored indoors in a cool basement until the following spring.
Autumn daffodil (Sternbergia lutea) is 6-12 inches high with yellow flowers.
Baboon flower (Babiana stricta) has fragrant bicolored cream, blue, lilac, or carmine flowers in spring and is about a foot tall.
Corn lily (Ixia), at 18 inches tall, produces white, yellow, orange, pink, red, or green flowers in spring to summer.
Homeria (Homeria collina), at 18 inches high, produces yellow-to-orange flowers in spring.
Schoolhouse lily (Rhodophiala bifida) has 12-inch-high clusters of bright-red or rose-pink flowers that bloom in fall when school reopens.
Minor bulbs have few needs: The simplicity of these flowers, a large part of their charm, is also the secret of their practicality. If their needs are met, these bulbs perform as true perennials that persist in the garden for decades and often multiply, spreading through seed or offsets to expand into self-maintaining colonies.
When choosing a planting site, remember that well-drained soil is essential because these bulbs are liable to rot in waterlogged sites. Most miniature bulbs will grow in full sun -- a few such as the crocus require it -- but many, because of their seasonal pattern of growth, adapt well to the shade of deciduous trees. In spring, when the bulbs are actively growing, the trees' leafless branches allow the sun through; by the time the trees have spread their leafy canopy, the bulbs are going dormant again. This shade tolerance makes the bulbs ideal for wooded suburban landscapes, and their habit of going dormant at spring's end makes them well suited to regions with hot, dry summers. They sleep through the droughts that wither other perennials.
Compact bulbs are ideal for small properties and rock gardens, where a full-size daffodil would spoil the illusion of a miniature landscape. Their diminutive size also means that the bulbs must be planted in broad brush strokes, not in dabs. Alone, a miniature has little impact, so Martha plants several dozen of one kind together, arranging them in large informal drifts resembling natural colonies. Even so, minor bulbs are best appreciated close up. In Martha’s garden, the colorful drifts follow the edge of a lawn or run alongside the garden path, where passersby can also appreciate their perfumes.
Whatever the climate, miniature bulbs benefit from a good launching. The earlier the bulb blooms in spring, the earlier it should be planted in fall. In general, plant bulbs as soon as they arrive from the supplier so they have more time to spread their roots before the ground freezes.
Before planting, prepare the soil well: Using a spading or border fork so the roots of overhanging trees are not severed, turn soil to a depth of at least a foot. Martha adds bonemeal at a ratio of 2 pounds per 100 square feet to provide the phosphorus that stimulates root growth; a commercial bulb fertilizer supplies the other nutrients. A bulb planter is ideal for planting most bulbs, but a narrow trowel or a dibber is more convenient for really small bulbs. When planting large numbers of bulbs together, excavate the entire bed to the proper planting depth, arrange the bulbs with their growth points facing up, and then backfill.
Planting at the proper depth is crucial. As a rule, the hole should be three times as deep as the bulb's diameter, but suppliers generally include information on planting depths with shipments. In northern gardens, plant at the deeper end of the recommended range, since shallowly planted bulbs may otherwise be subject to a harmful cycle of thawing and refreezing through their winter dormancy.
Caring for minor bulbs is simple. In Martha's garden, the bulbs are top-dressed with bulb fertilizer in early spring, as soon as new growth emerges from the ground, and again in fall. Bulb foliage is not cut back after the flowers fade -- a common mistake --but instead left to wither of its own accord. This is important, because it is the amount of food that the leaves manufacture and store in the bulb that determines the quality of next year's blossoms. For that reason, the foliage should be left intact as long as possible.
In Martha's garden, hostas and ferns are planted among the bulbs. As the bulb leaves yellow and droop, the fern fronds and broad hosta leaves spread over to hide them. In that way, the seasons knit together seamlessly.