How to grow early flowering bulbs

Purple iris flower blooming in snow
Winter flowering bulbs bring a welcome sprinkling of early colour
Image source: Shutterstock

It’s time to plant bulbs and corms to brighten the dark days of late winter and early spring. These heartwarming splashes of colour take up so little space that they may be grown in a pot on a doorstep or balcony, or in a window box. Even better, they can be lifesavers for early emerging bees.


crocus tommasinianus display
Winter-flowering crocus herald spring’s approach
Image source: Shutterstock

In February, bumble bees plunge head first into the flowers of Crocus tommasinianus, and rest there, bottoms skywards. The flowers close at sunset, sometimes enveloping a bee. It will stay there overnight, swathed in petals, ready for breakfast in bed. Plant the corms 10cm (4”) deep and 7cm (3”) apart in containers, or in swathes through gravel, or in a lawn.


A mix of purple scilla flowers
The star-like flowers of glory of the snow are tougher than they look
Image source: Van Meuwen

Scilla (often listed as Chionodoxa), is a dainty, yet tough plant, capable of withstanding winter weather, as its common name,‘Glory of the Snow’, suggests. The bright blue flowers of Scilla forbesii are spectacular in zinc or grey coloured containers and hold their own, like tiny early bluebells, in borders and grass.

For a splash of pink in borders or pots, plant Scilla ‘Pink Giant’, or for little white starry flowers, try Scilla luciliae (Boiss.) ‘Alba’. Plant bulbs 5-8cm (2-3″) deep and 5cm (2″) apart.

Scilla mischtschenkoana has exquisite pale blue star-shaped flowers with a darker blue line along the petals. It may be just 15cm (6”) high, but it is hugely valuable to early bees. Grow in groups for maximum impact in sun or part-shade. It brightens containers in February, and looks wonderful combined with white silver birch stems.


Close-up of a purple iris blooming
Iris reticulata graces your garden as early as January
Image source: Van Meuwen

Iris reticulata can burst into flower as early as January, and with careful selection it is possible to enjoy these Iris in flower through February and into March. Grow in containers, in large groups along a path to the door, or under a window so they can be seen from the house.

These little gems, just 10-15cm (4”-6”) tall, may appear to be delicate, but they are robust, and their flowers look amazing peeping through snow. Plant them 10cm (4”) deep and 5cm (2”) apart in humus-rich soil for a display every year. The leaves push through the soil in December, offering hope of spring when winter has barely begun.

Whether creating rivers of blue Iris along a path, or planting containers in strong or subtle colours, there is an early flowering Iris that will fit the bill. Look out for the bright yellow flowers of Iris danfordiae, the deep purple blooms of ‘Pauline’, or the rich purple, white and deep indigo flowers of ‘Blue Note’. For a more muted display, try light blue ‘Cantab’, the pale lemon and blue flowers of ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, or soft blue and ivory ‘Natasha’.


Yellow cluster of winter aconite flowers
Winter aconites are most vibrant at the end of an icy winter
Image source: Van Meuwen

Arguably the best thing that can be said for a very cold winter is that winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) flower more brightly. Winter aconites establish more reliably when planted in the green, so wait until spring and plant them when they are in active growth. Although snowdrops are said to be more reliable in the green, I have found no difference between autumn and spring planting.

Caring for early flowering bulbs

Close up of geranium brookside
Geranium ‘Brookside’ make a good companion plant to early flowering iris
Image source: T&M

All of these early flowering bulbs require very little care. Any grown in containers should be watered when they are in active growth and they will benefit from a high potassium fertiliser such as tomato food until six weeks after they have flowered.

Foliage should be left to die down naturally after flowering to allow the bulb to store energy for a good display next year. Although the wait for later flowering bulbs to die back can seem eternal, it never seems to be such an issue with early flowerers.

In lawns, the foliage tends to die back before mowing is in full swing. The leaves of early flowering bulbs grown in containers and borders are easily masked by combining them with hardy perennials or deciduous shrubs.

This is particularly worth doing for Iris reticulata, as it is more reliable when it has light during the growing season and drier shade during dormancy. I find the emerging leaves of hardy geraniums useful for mingling with and camouflaging bulb foliage, particularly the leaves of Iris reticulata, which elongate after flowering.

Early-flowering bulbs may be tiny, but their impact is huge. They are uplifting, and bring colour and vital nectar to our plots and pots when there is so little else in bloom. Plant now, and look forward to a beautiful display in winter and early spring.

Sarah Shoesmith

Author: Sarah Shoesmith

Sarah Shoesmith was awarded the Centenary Prize by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003, and gained a Distinction in the Diploma in Garden Design from The English Gardening School. She is passionate about gardening for wildlife and growing food, and writes about gardening for magazines and other sites.

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