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Small bulbs add charm to flower beds

By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I see lots of bad-looking foliage on some cherry trees around the city. What has affected them?

    A. For many weeks in spring and summer we had a lot of rain. This constant moisture at just the right warm temperature led to development of fungus. Dark spots marred the leaves, which began to fall off earlier than normal. This cherry leaf spot is related to weather conditions. It would be helpful for next year if you rake up the leaves and dispose of them this fall.

Small flower bulbs often get overlooked because they are, no doubt about it, small. People shop for bulbs with tall, stately tulips and big blooms of daffodils in mind. That’s good, but it is not quite enough to make a lovely garden from late winter into spring.

Small bulbs such as snowdrops, crocuses, bluebells and Dutch irises should not be overlooked, as they bring lots of charm and color to flower beds. They make easy additions to a bulb collection because, among other reasons, they are small.

This makes them natural choices for odd spots here and there in a flower bed. Add them to vacant corners and little pockets of bare space between shrubs and perennials, or use them in front of tulip and daffodil displays. Bare spots may not seem like such a big deal now, especially when you work hard planting the bigger bulbs. Come spring, you may be asking yourself, “Why did I leave that corner blank?”

Fortunately, the small bulbs don’t require so much effort, chiefly because they don’t have to be planted so deeply and because you can put them much closer together. The bed will require some light digging, but only 4-5 inches, not the 8 inches or deeper recommended for big bulbs. If the ground was already prepared, most small bulbs can go in with the help of a small implement such as a hand trowel.

These bulbs look best when placed randomly rather than precisely, as you might do with hyacinths and tulips. The effect should be casual instead of formal for the most natural effect. The number of bulbs planted should be large enough for a good showing. This means at least 8 to 10 bulbs set 2 to 3 inches apart.

The range of choices is good and there is a nice selection of colors, including pastels, vivid colors and white.

A top choice is the crocus, a bulb that can stretch the bloom season and offer the best range of colors. The early, species crocus produces several flowers, mostly of pastel hues, from each little one you plant. They bloom early, about mid-winter, and lead the way for the bigger, single-flowered Dutch crocus, which blooms around late February to early March. These come in more vivid colors of blue and purple, just the thing to tell you spring is nearly here.

The best white among these little gems is the snowdrop, which blooms in January. The little nodding bells rise a few inches on nice green stems and give a real lift to a flower bed in midwinter. A third choice is Spanish bluebells, which can get taller, 12 inches or so, and bloom with most of the tulips in April. These bulbs, which bear the botanical name Hyacinthoides hispanica, are mostly shades of bluish-purple, pink or white. A smaller bluebell belonging to the genus scilla is shorter, 5 inches or so.

You can round out the season with Dutch iris bulbs, which produce iris-like blooms on tallish stems. The flowers come in many colors, including white, yellow, blue and purple. They look very pretty when planted in front of daffodils. The stems, leaves and flowers shield the maturing foliage of the daffodils, and that’s a practical reason for adding them to your collection.
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