A John Deere Publication
Closeup of bright pink flower bud

When gardeners think of early blooming spring flowers the tulip is often the first one that comes to mind. However there are many others they can choose from. All early blooming species must be planted in the fall.

Rural Living   March 01, 2024

First Blooms of Spring


Hardy perennials provide early color.

Spring is all about new beginnings. People have always associated the season with rebirth and renewal. It's a fresh start when the dormant natural world comes alive again after a long dark winter. It will officially arrive (astronomically) in the Northern Hemisphere at 11:06 PM (Eastern) on Tuesday, March 19th in 2024. By then it could easily have climatically been spring for weeks in much of the U.S. and parts of British Columbia. At this time it's still far too soon to predict if it will have come to Nancy Landrigan's yard in Chateauguay, Quebec, near Montreal, but she knows that winter will be over soon.

"I'll run out to my garden day after day as soon as the snow starts to melt, and our long bleak winter is coming to a close to see if I can see the first signs that my garden is coming alive," Landrigan says. "I'm like where is it? Where is it? I know it's here somewhere. I'm looking for that first little flower poking out of the snow. In my yard, that's the crocus. It's not necessarily my favorite flower to look at, but it's my favorite because it's the first one out of the ground."

Out of the darkness. The last months of winter can be psychologically hard on some people but there is comfort in knowing that with a bit of advance planning you can create a visible feast to lift you out of the gloom that can permeate this time of year almost before the last snow is gone. Landrigan says for her, those first shoots are a sign of spring; a signal that better things are coming soon. She's not the only person who thinks this way, there are literally all kinds of sayings in the English language that reference it. The saying, hope springs eternal, might have been coined by Alexander Pope in his 1732 work, An Essay on Man, but the concept that hope carries you through dark times, has been a common belief since ancient times.

Usually when people think of early spring flowers the first that come to mind are tulips. These bright, long-blooming, popular flowers, grown from bulbs, have spread a long way from their native range in Central Asia. They're now grown in all temperate zones around the world. They've been prized and bred for so long that they are now available in a broad range of colors, usually in warm shades of red, orange, pink, yellow, and white. But tulips aren't the only choice for spring blossoms, there are all kinds of hardy early spring flowering perennials to choose from. Like tulips, nearly all grow from bulbs that have been planted in the fall so they're ready to explode out of the ground as soon as the sun starts to warm the soils.

Two of the earliest ones are the common snowdrops, (Galanthus nivalis) and crocuses. Under the right conditions both are known to push up shoots through the snow as it's melting. Snowdrops have small bell-shaped white blooms and can form impressive carpets of flowers. Crocus flowers bloom almost as early as snowdrops and come in a variety of different colors. After you plant the bulbs in the fall, about two to three inches deep, they're almost trouble-free to grow. They're very hardy and can withstand winter temperatures as cold as -30°F.

Glory-of-the-snow is another low-growing, early blooming bulb. They're another species that are so hardy that they're practically effortless to grow. Typically, their small star-shaped purple blossoms will grow a little taller than snowdrops and crocuses. They spread quite aggressively.

Above. Nancy Landrigan says she has gained more knowledge from other gardeners than from all the books she's read. The Crown Imperial is native to the Middle East. It's been a favorite of gardeners since ancient times. Irises have long been one of gardeners' favorite perennials. Primrose. The bee is feeding on a hyacinth flower. Bethlehem lungwort.


Lots of choices. Beyond that gardeners can choose from a huge variety of daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, irises, and anemones. Flowering herbaceous shrubs such as adonis (Adonis amurensis) are another option. Shorter lived perennials like columbine are yet another alternative.

"When we bought our first house 30 years ago it didn't have much of a garden at all," Landrigan says. "But after seeing the flowers all the other houses in our neighborhood had, I wanted to have something, too. I went down to the garden center and bought some annuals. But after that first year I realized that buying annuals year after year was going to get expensive, planting perennials would be a better way to go because they would come back every year."

Landrigan went down to the local garden center and bought a columbine, dug a little hole in the grass and planted it. She remembers thinking about how this one plant was going to make her yard look glorious that next year as she planted it. It didn't even come back; she never saw one flower on that plant.

After that disappointment Landrigan started doing more research on growing flowers. One day, while walking their dog, she met one of her neighbors around the corner who had a gorgeous garden she envied.

"I started talking to her and she said, 'oh I could give you some of this, and some of that,'" Landrigan says. "'Oh,' I asked her, 'what do I do with them?' She took me under her wing and became my mentor. She showed me how to prepare my soil and everything else. That's the thing about perennials, not only are they cheaper to buy than annuals over the long term, but they can be separated and moved so gardeners are quite willing to give some to you."

Bulb lasagna. Landrigan says her big gardening breakthrough came when she first learned about layering bulbs. Some call the technique bulb lasagna. The concept is quite similar to preparing the popular Italian dish; first add a layer of bulbs, cover it with a layer of soil and then add another layer of bulbs on top of it. Typically, gardeners will plant three different sizes of bulbs in three different layers.

"I put large bulbs like tulips or daffodils on the bottom and then cover them with a little bit of earth," Landrigan says. "I put a layer of grape hyacinth in the middle, and then I put a layer of crocus on the top. When spring comes along, and the snow starts to melt, the crocus in the top layer will pop up first. Then as they're dying back, the tulips and the daffodils will be coming up. When the daffodils are starting to die back, the grape hyacinth comes out. So, this will give you a constant display of flowers in one spot."

There are so many different types of flowering plants available that it can be a bit overwhelming to a novice gardener. It's hard to even know where to begin. The best way to start developing a garden that starts blooming in the early spring and continues throughout the summer is to just pick a few plants you think you would like and plant them.

Landrigan says you shouldn't expect it to be perfect the first time. It's important to understand that you'll go through a trial-and-error process before you'll get it the way you like it. So, it will become easier if you stop worrying about getting it right the first time. The important thing is to just get started. If you don't like how it looks when it matures, just pull it out and try something else.

Above. A poppy, one of Nancy Landrigan's favorite flowers; the star-shaped flowers are glory-of-the-snow. Early blooming spring gardens provide a refuge for wildlife such as the common garter snake. The pasque flower, (Pulsatilla vulgaris), also known as the prairie crocus, is a popular flower that can be found in many gardens. Gardeners have a broad range of early spring flowering plants to choose from besides the tulip.


Not rocket science. "Planting a spring flower garden that stays constantly blooming into the summer isn't rocket science but there is a certain art to it," Landrigan says. "You can plan, plan, plan, you can even buy plans, but they never turn out the way you expect them to. It just takes a bit of experience to figure out how to get the timing right, so you have a new species coming on that will cover up the preceding one that is dying back."

It might sound counterintuitive, but if you hope to have an early blooming flower garden in the spring, the time to plant it is in the fall. Ideally bulbs should be planted in late September or October after the soil starts to cool but before it freezes. Some can be planted well into November.

The first step is to prepare the soil where you intend to plant them. Bulbs thrive in well-drained soil, they're very sensitive to water logging. Add organic matter such as compost to improve your soil fertility and perhaps a bit of sand or gravel to improve its drainage if needed.

Once you have your soil ready to go check each package of bulbs you intend to plant for specific planting instructions. As a general rule of thumb, large bulbs like tulips or daffodils should be planted at three to four times their height deep in the soil. Smaller ones like crocuses and hyacinths can be planted slightly shallower, two to three times their height deep in the soil. Bulbs should be spread out according to the instructions on the package; usually this is going to be four to six inches apart. Make sure the pointy end of the bulb is planted facing up.

Squirrels and chipmunks will dig up your bulbs if they find them. Something as simple as sprinkling the bulbs with red pepper flakes could discourage them. But placing a physical barrier, like a wire mesh hardware cloth, above them provides surer protection.

Once finished, add a layer of mulch. This insulates the soil and will help protect the bulbs from temperature swings. It also helps in weed control. Landrigan recommends doing some research and reading a few books. But she says the best information can come from other gardeners.

"I've probably learned more from talking to other gardeners than from all the books I've read," Landrigan says. "Gardeners are incredibly generous. They'll often say, 'here take some of these and some of these.' It's really the best way to fill your garden." ‡

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