I’m always thrilled when I see the first bees poking about. Yesterday as I worked with the Friday Tidies, I was removing grotty old foliage from the hellebores (an important task if you want to keep black mold off your plants). I heard a gentle buzzing and noticed two sleepy bees bumbling about the blossoms. They were also snuffling around the first crocus to appear, called golden bunch or Crocus ancyrensis.
Like me, many ardent gardeners strive to have something in bloom every day. Fortunately, gardeners in the maritime Northwest can rely on a luxurious roster of plants that perform during the garden’s off-season. Among the earliest are the snowdrops and snow crocus, faithful bloomers that frigid temperatures may delay but never defeat.
Much More Is Much Better
I am very fond of what are called “minor bulbs”, little treasures that are often overshadowed by their bigger border beauties siblings. Unlike those lovely, flashy border tulips, minor bulbs are reliable perennials, and many multiply 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.
To enliven your garden in winter, make note now of bare spots where a sunny splash of crocus or a handful of silvery snowdrops would be welcome. Skip ahead in your garden journal and leave yourself a reminder to add them to your autumn bulb order. Since small bulbs are most effective when planted lavishly, buy dozens or hundreds rather than fives and tens. Happily, such extravagance comes cheap, for a hundred snow crocus cost around $15, while common snowdrops are only a bit more.
Making The Most Of Minor Bulbs
For the greatest impact, plant generously and group the little bulbs amongst evergreen ground covers or drought-tolerant perennials that receive little or no summer water. Run them in wide ribbons beneath trees and shrubs, along hedges and paths. Circle them around evergreen grasses and perennials, where they can shine early and their browning foliage will be masked by companionable new growth.
I often plant in partnerships, surrounding a clump of small daffodils or species tulips with a lacy ruffle of windflowers (Anemone blanda). These willing workers have open, starry flowers in white, blue, or pink, followed by fluffy seedheads that self-sow abundantly. Never a pest, these charming little flowers spread slowly, spangling the borders with bloom in late winter and spring, then going quietly dormant in early summer.
The Secret to Naturalizing Minor Bulbs
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 late April and Mother’s Day, 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.
The Heart Of A Snowdrop
In mild winters, snowdrops often appear in January, their tightly sheathed buds poking through frosty ground, spreading their small white wings at the first thaw. Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, have the substance and texture of slubbed silk. Their inner petals are marked on their fronts with green fish or hearts and neatly penciled with green inside.
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.
Making Them Multiply
Snowdrops are easy garden plants, equally happy in sun or shade, and thriving in heavy soils as well as light ones. Check your favorite local nursery for species and good garden forms like the double ‘Flore-Pleno’, ‘Mighty Atom’, a robust, big-winged beauty, and the extra-early species, G. elwesii.
To spread them through the garden, move snowdrops “in the green,” after the flowers have faded but while the foliage is still lush. Dig up a clump and split them into clusters of 3-5, then replant a foot apart.
Early Bird Snow Crocus
Snow crocus are a group of small but early blooming species which often beat their big Dutch hybrid cousins into flower by as much as six or eight weeks. Most are multi-flowering as well, boasting six or eight blossoms from each bulb. In my garden, golden Crocus chrysanthus arrives in January or February, appearing in increasingly fat clusters nestled between bumps of moss and running thymes.
This species offers many colorful forms like the chalky, sweet-scented ‘Blue Bird’ and ‘Violet Queen’, Easter egg purple with a slate grey eye and red-gold stamens. ‘Advance’ is a lively combination of bronze and thundercloud purples when closed on grey days, but when the thin winter sun coaxes it open, pure lemon yellow spills from its deep cups.
The fragrant, butter yellow petals of ‘Cream Beauty’ are faintly feathered with bronze on their backs, while ‘Gypsy Girl’ is sun yellow with bolder, brassy stripes that partner well with bronze Carex comans and rosy sedums. Like a floral chickadee, dapper little ‘Lady Killer’, clean white heavily barred and brushed with midnight purple. It combines strikingly with black labrador violets and tufts of black mondo grass or white winter heathers and hellebores.
Squirrel Defeating Crocus
Perhaps the most prolific multiplier is Crocus tommasinianus, which will quickly colonize border or lawn if allowed to ripen seed as well as foliage. Tommies, as they are affectionately known, run from lavenders to purple-blues in nature, making them good company for blue and purple flowered lungworts (Pulmonaria species) and the mauve and misty purple Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis).
Tommies also come in named varieties, among them the grape jelly colored ‘Whitewell Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’, a vinaceous red. Tucked between pink primroses and rosy hardy cyclamen, any or all will give you and your garden a lovely late winter lift. Best of all, squirrels don’t eat Tommies, so they spread unmolested, increasing year after year.