Small Wonders

Mini bulbs are proof that good things really do come in petite packages.

LIKE MOST GARDENERS, I LOVE MY PLANT CATALOGS. I PORE OVER them, lapping up the lavish descriptions, marveling at the photographs. One fall, I ordered a dozen bulbs of a tulip called tarda, so seduced by the photo—jaunty yellow flowers striped with white—that I never noticed the size. When my tardas arrived, the bulbs were as tiny as pebbles. And when they came up, it was only barely; the starlike blooms were just a few inches tall.

But they bloomed early, when the rest of my garden was still sleeping. Plus, the little stars positively gleamed against the dark earth. And the following spring, their number had doubled—unlike taller tulips, which peter out for me after a single season.

I was in love. I scoured my catalogs for varieties of dainty tulips—and discovered an entire world of miniature bulbs.

Michael Arnum, public relations coordinator of Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, understands my infatuation perfectly. “Most people look for the largest, the biggest,” he says, “but these are for the person who can appreciate something small. We grow thousands of small bulbs. We call April our ‘blue season’ because of the carpets of blue flowers, mainly scilla and Glory of the Snow. And we have ribbons of grape hyacinths along the pathways.”

“Some of them bloom so early that it’s amazing,” says Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, president of John Scheepers, a national bulb and seed company. “It’s magical to have these drifts of color blazing in spring.”
One reason for the mini-bulb explosion may be a heightened interest in heirloom flowers. Minis resemble the original forms of these blossoms, from before hybridizers got busy. “They’re closer to the wild species,” says Arnum, “and in many cases, they are the species.” Avid plant lovers trek to the Pyrenees in northern Spain to glimpse wild daffodils, and to the Caucasus Mountains in northern Turkey in search of wild tulips. You can grow them right in your front yard.

What miniatures lack in size, they make up for in charm. There’s something impossibly winsome about a bright yellow daffodil with flowers no bigger than your thumbnail, or a creamy white crocus the size of a dime. “I love them in my garden,” says Suzanne Thatcher-Johnson, buyer for perennials and bulbs at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland. “They’re very sweet and reliable, and I don’t have as much of a rodent problem when I plant them.”

That’s proof that while these tiny plants may look fragile, they’re often tougher than the hybrids. These are, after all, flowers the way nature designed them, over millions of years. “They’re not well known, but they’re wonderful plants,” says Russell Stafford, owner of Odyssey Bulbs in South Lancaster, whose catalog is a Baedeker of mini bulbs, with more than 30 kinds of crocuses alone.

Their diminutive size invites intimacy. Thatcher-Johnson suggests tucking them in pockets and niches in courtyard gardens or around patios, or popping them into outdoor containers: “They’re always a welcome surprise when they come up.” But because mini bulbs are so inexpensive—John Scheepers sells a hundred Muscari armeniacum (or grape hyacinths) for just $14.50—they’re also perfect for mass plantings. “Species repeat well and multiply,” says Arnum. “Grow them as a carpet underneath a magnolia, a cherry dogwood or witch hazels.” To create a natural-looking mass, try laying a spreading branch on the ground and planting bulbs along its lines.

Mini bulb culture couldn’t be easier. Plant them about three inches deep; Thatcher-Johnson suggests using a small dibble to make individual holes, or simply turning over a shovelful of dirt and sticking a dozen bulbs in. Choose a spot that gets some sunshine and has good drainage. There’s no need to fertilize when you plant, but after the first year, use a balanced fertilizer without too much nitrogen, in the late fall or early spring. Don’t cut down the foliage after your mini bulbs flower; they need it to store energy for next spring. “And don’t deadhead,” Thatcher-Johnson says. “A lot of the small bulbs spread by seed.”

To force these bulbs for mid-winter bloom, pot them in fall and store them in a cellar or garage at about 40-45 degrees for about 12 weeks. Water them, but not too much, and protect them from marauding mice. “They especially love crocuses,” Stafford says. Bring the pots into the warmth starting in January.

Mini bulbs may be small, but they make très chic cut flowers. Tuck a handful into an antique egg cup, or fill those fancy cordial glasses gathering dust in your cupboard. Besides being very Martha Stewart, this brings your mini bulbs closer to your nose, which is a good thing, since many retain the sweet scents their hybridized cousins lack. Of course, you can also sniff them where they grow, outdoors. You’ll have to get down on your knees, but what gardener worth her salt was ever averse to that?