Small Signs of Spring

Warmer winter days bring forth welcome flowers.
Linda C. Askey
Seasons don't change with the ringing of a bell. Spring undermines winter's grasp at a slow, measured pace. The erosion begins in the earth's depths, where sleeping bulbs come to life and push through the frigid soil.

The smallest seem to be the toughest of all, bursting into the sun on a warm day and daring the inevitable cold to return. Because flowers are few this time of year, these small beauties are more welcome than the blooming boughs of April. Many a gardener kneels nearby to enjoy these gifts more fully, and among them is Douglas Ruhren, whose garden of little bulbs in the front of his Durham, North Carolina, home has been known to stop traffic when most other plots are just beginning to awaken.

Douglas's garden demonstrates that, while each flower is small, the impact of hundreds can be big. Although he has planted many, Douglas builds on success. "The reward of growing these small bulbs is that they multiply," he explains. "I divide them every three to five years." When clumps become large and crowded, Douglas lifts them while they have foliage so he can see what they are and replant them for the best effect.

It all began in 1987 with a Christmas gift of four types of hardy cyclamen from garden friend Nancy Goodwin. All prospered, but he came to love Cyclamen coum, which blooms from Christmas to March. "If I could only have one cyclamen," says Douglas, "it would be coum. It is the workhorse of the winter garden."

Having moved to North Carolina from New Jersey, Douglas realized, "Winter doesn't have to be a downtime. You meet one of these charming creatures, and you want to meet more." Those seductive gifts were only the beginning.

This garden is more than just cyclamen. Usually there are crocus and snowdrops. Douglas recommends giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii), which blooms in December and January; 'S. Arnott' snowdrop for flowers in late January and early February; and common snowdrop (G. nivalis) for a late February show. Living up to its billing as a snowdrop, 'S. Arnott' was in bloom when a 2-foot blanket of snow covered Douglas's garden a couple of years ago. When the white cover melted, it continued to flower.

For early daffodils Douglas recommends 'Golden Bells' (Narcissus bulbocodium 'Golden Bells') a recent introduction that is very vigorous. Also, try 'Mite,' which looks like a badminton shuttlecock frozen in flight. 'W.P. Milner' is "200% charm and grace, my absolute favorite hybrid," says Douglas. And don’t forget the popular 'February Gold' for flowers that live up to their name.

Others that complete the early show include Anemone blanda. The selection 'White Splendour' is the most vigorous. Iris reticulata joins in, and is easy and perennial, unlike I. danfordiae. For perennials to complement the bulbs, Douglas plants Lenten roses, variegated Solomon's seal, and Japanese roof iris.

Because Douglas is head gardener at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, it is easy to understand why his summer garden is quiet. "A garden of green is nice to come home to," says Douglas of the warm-weather carpet beneath a huge oak tree. He doesn't let the blanket of English ivy there grow too deep for the little bulbs. About the time the bulb foliage starts to yellow, he mows the ivy and removes the Lenten roses and Japanese roof iris that have grown into the bulbs.

Then as summer becomes a bit too secure in its green cloak, Douglas's fall bulbs push through the soil, and the edges of the seasons melt one into another in a seamless progression of bloom.