The little bulbs (as they are called) are far more exciting to the gardener than any new gardener would think, until he plants some.
I guess the "big bulbs" are those like the large-flowered daffodils, hyacinths and tulips.
But the little bulbs include crocuses, grape hyacinths, chionodoxas, scillas, small daffodils and tulips, snowdrops. There are many more, but these will do for starters, and they are important because all of them bloom and finish before the azaleas begin flowering (Kurume azaleas usually begin on April 15).
A fine gardener, whose name I wish I could find, once said he liked the little bulbs because they were so decent and steady. You plant them and they set about the work of raising a family. You accidentally dig them up and no harm done, you just plant them back, and they rarely take any offense.
Now they are not much use, really, in huge gardens where it would take many thousand to show up well. But they are priceless for small city gardens where space is so limited, and where the gardener does not have room for masses of broad-leaf evergreens and shrubs with ornamental bark, interesting branching and the like.
And in small gardens, where at best we are likely to have a smallish holly, maybe one oak too big for the place, a fat box bush and maybe some yews that have to be clipped to keep them from turning into trees, the bulbs are worth far more than their modest cost.
Everyone should have some common snowdrops. They don't grow well farther south, usually, so it is a particular joy to southern gardeners who have been plopped down up here to have snowdrops, which seem exotic indeed to those from Spanish-moss country.
These nodding white bells with little ears sticking off them may bloom from January to March, depending on the site. Mine -- I have only a few clumps -- are nestled almost beneath some azalea bushes and here and there on a small flat piece of land beneath a dogwood, and in the lee of a row of bushes by the sidewalk. It depends a little on the weather, but usually mine are out about Feb. 5, and go on for three or four weeks.
They do not make a tremendous show, but the gardener never lived who did not find them exciting on a cold gray winter morning, or a soft mild spring-feeling winter morning. They should always be where you will see them every day, because nothing is more reassuring that spring is almost here.
Equally cheerful are the crocuses. I used to turn my nose up at the big crocuses, the kinds the Dutch bulb merchants raise so well. I liked only the smaller wild kinds, along with their varieties. But now I like the big ones, too. They come in white, yellow, purple, some of them striped. And some of the smaller ones come almost in blue. Crocus seiberi is lavender with brilliant tangerine-colored stamens, and over the year this crocus in one or another of its several varieties always blooms before the end of January.
The many hybrids of the wild Crocus chrysanthus are splendid. Some are soft butter yellow, others are blue, while yet others are white with bright yellow stamens. Some have the petals alternating in cream and brownish lavender. All of them (and fortunately many kinds are common now, though when I first started growing them they were extremely hard to find) are worth having.
Maybe I should say something about the summer snowflake, because if you didn't know better, you'd suppose it bloomed in the summer. It blooms in March: foot-high stems with nodding roundish bells touched with green. In Tennessee country people often call them granny bonnets. The spring snowflake, on the other hand, blooms in winter, several weeks earlier. It is not so tall and is harder to find. The bulbs of snowflakes are as large as daffodil bulbs and could easily be confused with them.
Among scillas, by mid-March you should have the electric-blue Siberian squills in full bloom. They may start in February -- all these late winter flowers may vary their peak bloom depending on how much sun they get, how much protection from wind, etc.
A bit later the rich blue chionodoxas bloom, little open saucers of sky blue on five-inch stems. Sometimes they seed all over the place, sometimes not.
Another early small flower is the Greek anemone, Anemone blanda, the best form of which is rich blue, but with a little gray in it. The flowers open only in sun, and are about the size of quarters or half-dollars, sitting only an inch or two above the ground. They seed themselves.
For years I have grown a variety of Crocus tomassinianus called 'Whitewell Purple,' a wine-colored flower, and it never seeded about so I assumed it was sterile, but now I am told that for other people it seeds all over the place.
About this time -- let us say that March 1 is about the height of bloom for these small bulbs, though some are earlier and a few are later -- come the Persian scilla, S. tubergeniana. These start blooming as they emerge from the ground, a pale milky blue that turns almost white as the stems lengthen, until at last they are maybe seven inches high, hung with small outward-facing but sometimes somewhat hooded flowers. They are not showy, but look splendid in a clump or two among other things.
The new gardener may have heard that these small bulbs should be "planted by the thousands," and may have the idea that a clump of a dozen of one kind here and there are not worth the bother. This is wrong. I have never had more than a dozen of some kinds of scilla, just one clump the size of a saucer. But every year I have the greatest pleasure from it.
If money is short, and it usually is for young couples who have other things than bulbs to buy, it is still very well worth it to buy even half a dozen bulbs of several kinds. Even five dollars will make a nice beginning, and perhaps more can be set out next year and the year after. Just be sure to plant them where you will pass them coming and going every day. They are a good bit more exciting (and substantially cheaper) than George Washington Birthday Sales, in which one may spend a lot of money and get clobbered by the crowds. Forget the sales, stay home and admire your little bulbs in full bloom.