Nancy Brachey

Don’t miss the little bulbs

Early, bunch-flowering crocuses come in a range of lovely colors that brighten the winter landscape.
Early, bunch-flowering crocuses come in a range of lovely colors that brighten the winter landscape. Observer file photo

Flower bulbs that bring us such joy in winter and spring are already on store shelves.

There are so many to choose from, it is easy to overlook the smaller ones in favor of the big, bright tulips and daffodils. For many gardeners, these bulbs are their first choice for making a bold statement come spring.

But the smaller bulbs, such as snowdrops, crocuses, bluebells and Dutch irises, shouldn’t be overlooked while making your selections for planting in the coming weeks.

These bulbs make important contributions to a flower bed even when they rise just a few inches.

First of all, they stretch the season. Some crocuses bloom as early as midwinter, others, as late as March. Snowdrops bloom in January, and they make a lovely sight, especially when sprinkled by one of our irregular snowfalls. Bluebells and Dutch iris keep the season going past mid-April and into May. What could be nicer?

Second, these flowers don’t demand a lot of space. They are perfect for an odd corner or pocket in a flower bed or shrub border where they deliver a small blast of color. On a dreary February day, while you are running to the car, it is a real treat to see something bright and lovely in bloom.

Third, these flowers take less effort than do tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, which require planting about 8 inches deep. That means deep bed preparation for best results. Most of the small bulbs can go into the ground 3 to 5 inches deep. This work can often be done with just the help of a hand trowel, especially if the area is small and has been dug previously.

I prefer random planting rather than more precise, geometric arrangements. This creates a more natural, informal look. But give yourself enough space to make a good showing – say 8 to 10 bulbs set 2 to 3 inches apart.

Crocuses make a wonderful first choice because they have great range of colors from pastels to bright. The earliest ones are the bunch crocuses, which bear three small flowers from each underground bulb called a corm. Later on, in late February to early March, you get the Dutch hybrid crocuses, which bear a single larger bloom. This is a wonderful plant for a small corner or a stretch in front of a shrub bed. But know this: Rabbits can be a problem with crocuses.

Snowdrops are a delight in January, bearing little nodding bells that rise a few inches on pretty green stems. Spanish bluebells rise taller, about 12 inches or so, and bloom with most of the tulips in April. They are mostly shades of bluish purple, pink or white and are very long-lived with little attention.

The season rounds out with Dutch iris bulbs, which produce iris-like blooms on tallish stems, 12 inches or more. There are many colors, all beautiful, including white, yellow, blue and purple. This is an outstanding cut flower. It also works well planted in front of daffodils to shield the maturing foliage, which many gardeners don’t like to see.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. I have a question about pruning oak leaf hydrangeas. I seem to remember that the best time is after they bloom. Well, I missed my chance earlier this summer, and now they’ve gotten really tall. If I were to prune them now (not drastically, but just a little) would I still have blooms next spring?

A. I am afraid you missed the season for pruning oak leaf hydrangeas. Any new growth you see now will bear flowers next year. You just have to decide whether it is worth it to cut the plant back to a more appealing size or wait and see the flowers at the top of the plant next year. The overall flowering of the oak leaf hydrangea is one of its most beautiful features.

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