Fall is the perfect time to think spring blooms; when summer’s winding down and there’s a nip in the air, we begin to plan and plant for spring. Chances are you’re helping clients and customers choose the best plants for their gardens, and right now they’re probably thinking about bulbs. And when they ask, what do you recommend?

The unusual, two-toned bloom of Muscari latifolium offers a pleasing but subtle contrast.

For over 23 years I sold flower bulbs to the Midwestern market, at both the retail and wholesale levels, or simply at a client’s request. During this time, I watched many trends come and go. But one practice remained fairly constant: Only a few bulb types were consistently purchased and planted – those being tulips, daffodils and maybe some hyacinths. Knowing the wide array of other versatile, beautiful and hardy flower bulbs that were available, I found this practice to be very disappointing.

Many years later, I find that the wide world of “minor bulbs” has still been widely ignored. In fact, I wrote about this topic in 1998, right here in American Nurseryman (August 15, 1998: “Minor Bulbs, Major Impact”). And although I think we’ve made some progress, these bulbs really deserve greater attention for all they provide to the landscape.

When I say minor bulbs, I’m talking about an entire group of bulbs that do not fit into the “major” categories of the three mentioned above; early flowering gems that bring delight to the garden and those who inhabit them.

Perhaps the reason that these bulbs are overlooked is a lack of basic understanding. When asked why these bulbs are not being purchased or included in landscape designs, most people simply say that they are not sure how to best use them; when in doubt, plant what you know. There is a “comfort zone” of growing plants that we are already familiar with because we know what to expect. But that familiarity need not limit your choices. You just need to be better informed, to become aware of the ways that minor bulbs can actually enhance your garden settings. It’s well-worth a little extra effort.

Densely clustered, pure white, pearl-like flowers are proudly displayed atop 4- to 6-inch stems of Muscari botryoides ‘Album’.

Minor bulbs offer a vast variety of form and color, for use as groundcovers and accent plants for woodlands as well as sunny borders. Most are very economical, and thus, can be used in grand numbers to provide a showy alternative or a welcome addition to traditional plantings.

Major value with minor bulbs

Here are just a few “minor” bulbs that are more than worthy of your consideration.

Allium moly (lily leek, zones 3 to 9) If you want a bright, cheery yellow addition to your sunny site, this is a good choice. The ½-inch, deep yellow flower heads float above 6- to 9-inch stems and seem happy to accent other plants, rather than dominate them. They naturalize freely, and are an ideal addition with ornamental grasses, such as Seslaria and Sporobolus. They bloom in May to June and are extremely hardy and resistant to deer and squirrels due to their oniony aroma and taste. There are many other wonderful Allium species and cultivars that are great additions to any garden.

Anemone blanda (windflower, zones 5 to 8). This is, perhaps, one of the most versatile – but underused – minor bulbs available. It blooms abundantly, with small daisy-like flowers atop attractive, cut-leafed foliage.

There are many ways that minor bulbs can work in just about any garden. Here are just a few.

Underplanting. If you observe Mother Nature’s “garden design,” one thing to notice is that there are usually many layers of plant varieties, from the shade tree canopies to the midstory ornamentals, then the shrub layer, and then the lower herbaceous layer. In typical designed landscapes, this layer is achieved by planting a groundcover as a border – or facing plant – to the shrubs.

Many designs incorporate bulbs such as tulips or hyacinths in this application, but why not take it one step further by underplanting this layer? There are many low-growing bulbs that provide an additional layer of color beneath the rising stems of tulips and daffodils, and this layer can highlight the colors and forms of other flowers. There are many excellent choices.

Interplanting. I’m sure many of you have experienced a similar dilemma: You installed a mass planting of Vinca minor, and it looks great for the first few years. But then, sure enough, lots of bare patches begin to appear. The bed doesn’t look bad enough to dig it out and start from scratch, but it sure doesn’t look good, either. Plus, who wants to incur the expense of replacement?

This is a great place to experiment with minor bulbs. Treat these bare patches as an opportunity to interplant the groundcover with some early spring flowering Crocus. If it’s in a shady spot, try some groups of Galanthus. If you need some fall color, try Colchicum or fall-blooming Crocus. The planting bed will look great, and you can say you planned it all along.

Another interplanting method involves combining bulbs with perennials to extend the bloom season of the bed. For example, hostas are wonderful foliage plants that are used extensively, but their flowering period is brief, and it’s often not dramatic. If you interplant, let’s say Anemone blanda among the hosta, their showy, daisy-like flowers will appear and brighten the garden before the hosta foliage emerges, adding color and form to an area that would otherwise be just a bed of mulch. It is a very effective way to enhance a planting and extend the season of interest.

This method can be used with numerous combinations, and eventually you will find yourself experimenting and creating wonderful combinations on your own. Careful observation of successful plantings will help, and you can find great examples at botanical gardens or other show gardens.

Naturalizing. This is a style that many of you have already put into practice, with quite successful results. At DeVroomen, we filled many repeat orders for naturalizing bulbs of all sorts – predominantly Narcissus, but also, after much coaching, for some of the minor bulbs.

Bold and bright, the sunny yellow flowers of Allium moly happily bloom from May through June, and are resistant to both squirrels and deer.

The reason the minor bulbs work so well is that if they’re used to naturalize in lawn areas, their foliage usually fades by the time of the first spring mowing. This is important, because the whole purpose of naturalizing is to allow the bulbs to perennialize – thus ensuring a repeat performance year after year. By letting the foliage go dormant before mowing, you encourage the bulb to store its reserves for the following season.

Another ideal area to introduce naturalizing bulbs is in woodland settings, where I find that white or light-colored flowers brighten up a shady site. Natural choices are Galanthus, Eranthis and Chionodoxa.

Borders. A great way to add a layer of color to the spring garden is to border or rim a planting of tulips or other taller flower bulbs with a shorter layer of minor bulbs. Grape hyacinths, anemones or crocus are exceptional choices. This provides a lovely accent to the flowerbed, and also adds definition. It’s especially useful for a formal planting, but it fits nicely in most garden styles.

Crocuses are ideal for naturalizing in lawn and woodland areas, and for underplanting other, taller bulb plantings. Crocus chrysanthus-snow crocus-is a smaller version of its Dutch cousin.

A. blanda makes an excellent groundcover or border; in March and April, the flowers also provide an ideal lower layer of color for underplanting the usual beds of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. Later, you can overplant the same beds with annuals for a summer flower show. This same application can be used with perennials and shrubs, mimicking Mother Nature’s example by planting several layers of color and form.

These all-purpose bulbs prefer full sun to light shade, and come in shades of white, pink and blue with yellow centers. The most vigorous variety is ‘White Splendor’, which is ideal to plant with virtually any other color in the garden.

This adaptable minor bulb perennializes readily, and should be left in the ground undisturbed. The foliage fades away in mid-June.

Take care when planting not to mix the tubers with your bark mulch. They resemble small chunks of bark, and it’s hard to distinguish between the two!

Crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus, zones 4 to 8) and Crocus vernus (large flower or Dutch crocus, zones 4 to 8). It seems that crocus were meant to welcome the spring, and for many people, they are among the first flowers recollected from childhood.

Snow crocuses bloom in March through April, and at 2 inches to 4 inches tall are basically earlier, miniature versions of Dutch crocuses, their larger cousins. Both have goblet-shaped blossoms in shades of white, purple and yellow; many also bear stripes and other variations. Long, slender, grass-like leaves bisected by a silver-gray, vertical stripe grace both species.

Crocuses are ideal for naturalizing in lawn and woodland areas, and for underplanting other, taller bulb plantings. They can also be used to interplant among groundcovers and low perennials to extend the blooming season. Plant crocus in clumps in sun to partial shade. They are relatively inexpensive bulbs, so plan to use them in abundance to provide a grand show.

These versatile bulbs do have on major drawback: Squirrels love them! If a large squirrel population is present, you’d be wise to try Crocus tommasinianus, or Tommy crocus – these lovely, lavender flowers with a silvery sheen rise up above the ground on slender whitish stems and are recommended as “squirrel resistant.” If you have an area where you would like to have crocus, but it’s inhabited by a herd of squirrels, give this wonderful type a try – actually, I highly recommend them even if you don’t have squirrels!

Squirrels love crocus bulbs, so if the critters pose a problem, plant Crocus tommasinianus; it’s reported to be squirrel-resistant.

Chionodoxa forbesii (glory of the snow, zones 3 to 5). This early blooming charmer has clusters of star-like blue flowers with white centers. As many as six to 12 flowers bloom on each stalk, forming a spray of color on 5- to 6-inch stems. Like that of many minor bulbs, the deep green basal foliage is slender and grass-like.

The simple, nodding white bells of Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop) brighten a shady, wooded garden.

Glory of the snow naturalizes easily, and it’s a wonderful choice for lawns and woodland plantings. You can also use it for underplanting and rock gardens, and the blooms provide a good alternative to Scilla siberica when a blue flower is desired. Plant in sun or partial shade.

Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite, zones 5 to 8). Winter aconites are among the first bulbs to flower in the garden, showing off their yellow, buttercup-like flowers atop a collar of deep green leaves. They are ideal for moist, shady areas and will naturalize freely. Flowers appear in March through April atop 3- to 4-inch stems.

Fritillaria meleagris (Guinea hen flower, zones 3 to 8). The genus Fritillaria encompasses a broad spectrum of flower types, ranging from those best used as outstanding specimen plants to small varieties that highlight the understory in woodland settings.

Guinea hen flowers are a very effective choice for moist, shady locations. These dainty fritillaries produce solitary, pendulous, bell-shaped flowers that appear in April to May. Blooms nod from slender, 12- to 15-inch stems, and each bell is delightfully checkered with white, pale green or reddish purple. Good for naturalizing near streams or pond edges, they perform best in humusy soils that do not dry out.

Among the first to emerge in the early spring garden, Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) boasts buttercup-like flowers atop a collar of deep green leaves.

Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop, zones 3 to 8). This is perhaps the best bulb for the woodland or shady garden. Nodding white bells whose inner petals are tipped with green really brighten the shade garden. They are easy to grow, tolerate moist areas and naturalize easily. If planted to naturalize in lawns, the slender, grass-like foliage blends beautifully with emerging turf.

Choose snowdrops to plant among low groundcovers, such as Vinca, to add color and form. They perform best when planted in clumps, and especially in abundance. There is a double flowering cultivar, G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, which is quite lovely but not as readily available as the species and does not spread as quickly.

Muscari armeniacum (grape hyacinth, zones 4 to 8). Among the most popular of spring blooms but often taken for granted, grape hyacinths are another great choice for practically any garden area. Four- to 6-inch-tall flower spikes are lined with small, tight clusters of deep, often cobalt-blue flowers, which resemble tiny grapes – thus the common name. They flower later than many of the other small bulbs, providing a rich, fragrant blue blanket from April through May. In Holland, they are grown extensively as “rivers of blue” in the gardens of Keukenhof.

A stunning “river of blue” is created by mass planting Muscari armeniacum at the Keukenhof gardens in Holland.

New, bright green basal foliage will appear in fall, and then goes dormant through winter. In spring, new foliage appears to accompany the flowers. Grape hyacinths perennialize readily, and are exceptionally durable bulbs.

There are more than 20 species of Muscari available in the trade. Some of the more interesting selections include M. armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ (‘Blue Spike’ grape hyacinth), which features loosely formed, flax-blue, double flowers that appear to be softly fringed. The long-lasting, but sterile, flowers bloom atop 6-inch stalks. M. ‘Valerie Finnis’ (Valerie Finnis grape hyacinth) is a beautiful Wedgewood-blue stunner, pairing well with silver and burgundy foliage and flowers. M. botryoides ‘Album’ (white common grape hyacinth) boasts densely clustered, pure white, pearl-like flowers on 4- to 6-inch stems. M. latifolium produces an unusual, 6-inch, two-toned flower spike that provides a subtle but attractive contrast. Florets at the top of each cluster are a clear, almost chambray-blue; lower florets are a deep violet. New cultivars are exploding in the market, including pink and yellow flowering forms.

Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica (striped squill, zones 4 to 8). Puschkinia is an underused – but very reliable – early blooming bulb. Flower clusters are borne on 4- to 6-inch racemes, in a habit that recalls a loosely formed hyacinth bloom. White-blue, star-like flowers display a deep blue stripe on each petal; each flower scape is embraced by two medium-green, strap-like basal leaves.

Tolerant of a wide range of soil and sun conditions, Puschkinia is a good candidate for underplanting or naturalizing in full sun or light shade, and is easily incorporated into rock gardens. It is similar to the better-known Scilla siberica, and can be used as an alternative where a lighter color is desired.

Scilla siberica (Siberian squill, zones 4 to 8). Of the minor bulbs, Scilla has achieved some well-deserved respect in the landscape arena. The tiny bulbs naturalize quickly and easily, and the result is a beautiful carpet of blue in the early spring garden. Rich, deep blue flowers are borne in clusters along 4- to 6-inch stems, and will grow well in sun or shade.

They are perfect for lawn areas, where the slight, grass-like foliage blends nicely with early turf and is spent before the first spring mowing. Scilla also can be used for underplanting perennials, shrubs and other, larger bulbs, and it’s a welcome addition to rock gardens.

As you can see, your options when incorporating minor bulbs are virtually unlimited. And, I did not even touch upon others that are too numerous to mention. Do yourself and your clients proud by delving even deeper into the wonderful world of bulbs. Bulb catalogs and books are terrific resources for planning and inspiration. Expand your garden vision and supplement your tulip and daffodil plantings with minor bulbs. Your selection will be a major hit.

Jill Selinger is manager of continuing education and an instructor at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. She previously worked with DeVroomen Holland Garden Products in Russell, Ill., and was a partner in Summersweet Gardens. She also worked as a garden center manager for Synnestvedt & Associates for many years. She is an avid gardener and confesses to being a plant nerd. She can be reached at jselinger@chicagobotanic.com.