Mid-Atlantic Regional Reports

How to Plant Minor Bulbs for Major Impact

Brighten your early spring garden with exuberant swaths of color

minor bulbs
A mix of small, spring-flowering bulbs creates a charming vignette anywhere it is planted.

After a long winter nothing brings more joy than seeing the first signs of spring. With a little planning and patience, you can amplify and enhance this feeling of delight by incorporating masses of minor bulbs into a lawn or garden bed. Here are a few of the tiny, lesser-known treasures that can be used to flood almost any garden with color before the trees leaf out in spring:

Outlining bulb planting areas with spay paint
Outlining planting areas with spray paint can help you plan where different bulbs will go.

Minor bulbs look best en masse

Because the flowers and foliage of minor bulbs are small, aim big when you plant them. Larger bulbs are often purchased and planted in groups of dozens or perhaps hundreds, but minor bulbs planted by the hundreds or even thousands will make the biggest impact. Most of the varieties listed will produce seed and naturalize to create dense carpets of vibrant color over time. Plant a single species to create a dramatic effect, or mix different varieties together to create dynamic combinations that become richer over time as seedings take root and increase the number of flowers. If you wish to create specific combinations of bulbs that blend together, it may be useful to outline your planting areas with different colors of spray paint.

close up of golden garlic
A garden bed or a lawn that will not be mowed until early summer is a great location for golden garlic and other minor bulbs. Photo: Jennifer Benner

Find a location where your bulbs will thrive

A great place to site your planting is under the canopy of large deciduous trees, where the turf may be sparse due to a lack of light in midsummer. Another ideal location is in large or even small lawn areas, a planting style sometimes known as a bulb meadow. One caveat when incorporating naturalized bulbs into a lawn: in order for the bulbs to proliferate, you’ll either need to avoid mowing until the bulb foliage senesces or adjust your mower height to a minimum of 4 inches to avoid cutting the majority of bulb foliage. Minor bulbs work equally well in mixed border plantings where other later emerging and blooming perennials will help to cover up the declining bulb foliage.

scattering bulbs before planting
Scattering bulbs by the handful and planting them where they land is a great way to help your bulb display look more natural.

Planting minor bulbs is a simple process

Due to their small size, shallow holes are all that is needed. The rule of thumb for planting all bulbs is that the distance from the top of the bulb to the soil surface should be two times the height of the bulb. For example, if a bulb is 1 inch tall, it should be planted in a hole that is 3 inches deep.

using a soil knife to plant bulbs
A soil knife is ideal for digging planting holes; the sharp blade is the perfect width, it easily cuts through turf or garden soil, and many soil knives have depth indicators on the blade to make measuring easy.

When spacing small bulbs there is no need to be fussy. After blending a bulb combination together in a large bucket, simply scatter handfuls of bulbs across the designated planting area and tuck them into the ground where they fall for a naturalistic effect.

handful of bulbs
Many garden centers offer minor bulbs in fall. However, if you need large quantities of specific varieties, it may be best to order from a reputable source in early summer so you will have exactly what you need for fall planting.

With the wide selection of minor bulbs on the market the sky is the limit when it comes to creating dynamic tapestries of early spring color. I encourage you to be bold, be creative, and try a few unusual combinations of these little garden gems that pack a large punch.


—Adam Glas is a garden supervisor and rosarian at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Photos, except where noted: Adam Glas


To see a reader’s garden filled with early color, check out Margot’s Winter Garden

For more information on planting and designing with spring-blooming bulbs, check out these articles:

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