Multiplying Minor Bulbs
As summer edges out spring, fading bulb foliage can seem to detract from the garden’s good looks. However, since nutrients from foliage are directed back into the storage bulb, removing those floppy leaves will weaken the plant and diminish next year’s display. (This is also true for lilies.) If you can’t stand to look at them, gently cover browning leaves with loose, airy mulch or tuck them behind an emergent neighbor.
Where spring bulbs clumps are crowded, or when you’d like to spread minor bulbs around the garden, it’s best to carry out these tasks ‘in the green’. That means doing the moving and dividing while the foliage is still more green than brown. (This is less important with tiny bulbs like crocus, which may already be dormant: simply sift them out of the soil and replace them where you want to see them next season.)
A Splendor Of Snowdrops
One great advantage of moving in the green is that you can see where the bulbs are so you don’t chop them with a roving shovel or fork. For larger bulbs, moving in the green also ensures a smoother transition, especially for snowdrops, which, though happy spreaders when undisturbed, can be fussy about sudden moves. Most winters, snowdrops appear in January, their tightly sheathed buds poking through frosty ground, spreading in small white wings at the first thaw. For all their delicacy of modeling, their toughness is impressive. On a cold morning after a hard frost, the flowers collapse, seemingly melted to mush. A few hours later, the warming sun revives them and they rise again, crisp and faintly fragrant.
Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, grow up to 7 inches tall, with bell-shaped blossoms that boast no petals, having instead three larger, outer tepals and three smaller, inner ones that form a sort of slender, inverted cup. The blossoms have the substance and texture of slubbed silk, and the inner tepals are marked on their fronts with green fish or hearts and neatly penciled with green inside. A larger cousin, G. elwesii, is known as the Giant snowdrop, stretching 10 or 11 inches high, with plumper flowers that usually have showier green markings. The Crimean snowdrop, G. plicatus, gets even taller (as much as a foot), while a Mediterranean species, G. reginae-olgae, blooms leafless in fall.
A Flurry Of Snowflakes
Larger and later blooming, snowflakes are European amaryllis kin that have naturalized in parts of the US. The nodding white flowers are formed by six tepals, making an open bell shape, each tepal marked with a green dot. The Spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum, which blooms from February into March, can stretch well over a foot in height. After the flowers fade, the lush foliage droops over everything around it, making it a good candidate for rustic woodlands and back-of-the-border placement.
The Summer snowflake, L. aestivum, blooms (usually) from April through May, though this year mine were spent by the end of March. The flowers are similar but smaller, on stems that can reach 2 feet. Here in the States, it seems most often represented by the large flowered form called Gravetye Giant, which commemorates William Robinson’s famous home and garden in West Sussex, England. Robinson, equally famous for his mid-Victorian garden writing and his pioneering garden designs, wrote one of my own favorites, The Wild Garden (1870), perhaps the first garden book to promote naturalistic design.
Making Them Multiply
To divide early blooming bulbs in the green, fork up clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage is still sturdy. Split each clump into clusters of 3-5 bulbs, then replant these a foot or so apart. Unlike those lovely, flashy border tulips, minor bulbs like snowdrops and crocus are reliable perennials, often multiplying quickly when their modest needs are met. Like most bulbs, they want plenty of light and water from winter into mid-spring, but once dormant, bulbs must rest dry and undisturbed, well away from shovels and summer irrigation.
Both snowdrops and crocus look lovely spangling the lawn or meadow, but if they are to naturalize, their hosting turf can’t be mown until their foliage withers and seed ripens. Since this typically occurs between mid April and mid May, lawn mowers must leave the grass surrounding the bulbs until then. Otherwise, the bulbs won’t store up the energy they need to make next year’s flowers and foliage, and will soon dwindle away altogether. Yet another example of the positive power of Benign Neglect!