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Lesser-known bulbs

By Jennifer Fishburn, University of Illinois Extension

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[October 29, 2012]  Bulbs can add color to the garden from February until June. Most gardeners are familiar with the well-known spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, but there are many more. Early flowering spring bulbs such as snowdrop, winter aconite, crocus, glory-of-the-snow, netted iris and common grape hyacinth give us the first signal of spring.

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are the first bulbs to be up, emerging in January or February. Growing only to 4 to 6 inches tall, they make a nice edging plant in full sun to shady areas. Snowdrops have snow-white, bell-shaped hanging flowers. They should be planted in masses for the best affect.

Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, blooms shortly after snowdrops. This rapidly spreading bulb has yellow flowers supported on 3- to 6-inch stems. Once planted, the bulbs should not be disturbed. Winter aconites are attractive interplanted in ground cover and also combine well with crocuses. Before planting, soak tubers overnight to increase growth rate.

Crocus, Crocus chrysanthus or Crocus vernus, is perhaps one of the most popular small bulbs. Crocuses look great naturalized in grassy areas or planted at the front of a flower bed. Many varieties are available, offering a large color selection, including yellow, white and violet-white striped. Crocuses do well in full sun or partial shade.

Glory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa luciliae, blooms before the leaves fully develop, allowing eyes to focus on the flower. Use in low ground cover, as a border or in a rock garden. While the majority of the bulbs available are blue with splashes of white, there are also pink and white forms. Glory-of-the-snow blooms from March to April.

Netted iris, Iris reticulate, grows best in a full-sun location. This early spring bloomer grows 3 to 9 inches tall. Violet purple, blue or white fragrant flowers appear in very early spring.

Grape hyacinth, Muscari sp., is a great accent plant that combines well with other spring flowering perennials and bulbs. Blue or white flower clusters resemble a bunch of grapes. If planted in large masses, grape hyacinths make a beautiful blue blanket of color.

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Selecting a good-quality bulb for planting is important. Bulbs should be firm and have a protective papery skin. They should be free from soft or rotting spots, cuts, mold or other signs of disease. Generally the larger the bulb, the bigger the flower.

While early October is the best time to plant spring bulbs, planting can be done until the soil freezes. Select a garden location that has a rich, well-drained soil

The general rule of thumb for planting spring bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. (Planting depth is measured form the bottom of the bulb.) This means most large bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, will be planted 6 to 8 inches deep, while smaller bulbs will be planted about 3 to 4 inches deep. When planting bulbs, incorporate bone meal or superphosphate in the soil below where the bulbs will be so the fertilizer can be used.

Bulbs may be incorporated in the landscape almost anywhere except under evergreens, such as pine trees, or other dense shade areas. Sunlight is needed to trigger proper growth in the spring. Light is also needed for the period after flowering when the foliage manufactures food to be stored in the bulb for the following year's growth cycle. A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs of one variety or color in a mass, as this will have greater visual impact. The more bulbs planted together of one variety and color, the greater the impact.

Plant bulbs now for a surprise in the spring. For more information on bulb basics and descriptions of various spring bulbs, visit the University of Illinois Extension Bulbs & More website at

[By JENNIFER FISHBURN, horticulture educator, University of Illinois Extension, Logan-Menard-Sangamon Unit]

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