Planting miniature flowering bulbs in the railroad garden

Plant bulbs in the fall for early spring color
These short little irises are one of the first spring bulbs to appear. (Photo taken on the author’s former garden railroad.)
Don Parker
2. Glory-of-the-snow flowering in early spring.
Benjamin Mason
3. Spring starflower comes in a variety of colors, here a near-white.
4. Golden garlic blooms throughout spring, then off and on into fall. (Photo shot on the author’s Hoot ’n’ Holler RR)
Don Parker
5. This 1:20.3-scale figure gives you an idea of how small these dwarf daffodils are.
Don Parker
6. Grape hyacinths offer blooms with bold color and an interesting structure.
Don Parker
7. Cyclamen are evergreen all winter and bloom in February.
Réginald Hulhoven
When spring arrives every year, there’s lots of color in many gardens but not necessarily in railroad gardens—unless you’ve put in some early flowering plants. If you’ve thought about including spring-flowering bulbs, this is the time of year to get them into the ground. There is a limited number to choose from that are small enough to fit in with our trains. Those that are appropriate should be placed where they offer the most visible appeal but not where they will obscure structures or trains. Flowering bulbs and trains may not be a mix for everyone’s taste but, for those of you who would like a welcome shot of springtime color, here are some suggestions.

Iris. The smallest members of the iris family pop open in early spring before other flowering bulbs even have buds. Two of these are reticulated iris (Iris reticulata, Zones 4-9; photo 1) and Danford’s iris (I. danfordiae, Zones 5-9). They both grow 3-4" tall (in flower), with narrow, grass-like leaves that lengthen to 10-12" before going dormant and disappearing in the summer. Reticulated iris is purply-blue, with yellow stripes in the lower petals, while Danford’s is bright yellow. Both grow well in sun-to-part-shade and prefer well-drained soil. Best of all, they are deer resistant.

Glory-of-the-snow. Another very early bloomer is glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii, Zones 3-8; photo 2). Its flowers are lilac blue with white centers and are smaller and more delicate than those of reticulated iris. It grows 3-6" tall and will naturalize in an area, slowly spreading by forming small bulb offshoots. It also goes dormant in summer, making a good underplanting for small shrubs or annual flowering plants. Glory-of-the-snow is similar to Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), although the latter might be somewhat invasive.

Spring starflower. This showy little plant (Ipheion uniflorum, Zones 5-9; photo 3) grows 3-5" high, with grass-like but rounded instead of flat, foliage. The early spring flowers are small, star-like, and come in colors from near-white through blue to violet. It naturalizes and would make a seasonal groundcover in sun to part shade, planted under shrubs or among other plants that would take over in summer. It goes dormant in hot weather but reappears in the fall.

Golden garlic. This little bulb is also known as thread-leafed false allium (Nothoscordum montevidense, Zones 7b-11; photo 4) and has a longer bloom period than most others. It sports golden yellow, multiple blooms on a clump of grass-like foliage growing up to 4" high, starting to bloom in spring and off and on through fall. In northern climates, the plant can be brought inside to winter over and re-planted in the spring. However, the clump on my railroad has been outside through two winters (in Zone 6a) and still struggles back, which seems hardier than the literature states. In Zones 8a and south, golden garlic will slowly spread to make a colorful patch in partial sun to light shade. It prefers loose, loamy soil and average moisture.

Daffodils, or jonquils, are one of the easiest bulbs to grow: tough, long-lasting, slowly spreading in clumps, and quite deer and rabbit resistant. Most daffodils are too large for the railroad garden, where plants must complement trains. However, there are a few species that are naturally small and could find a useful niche in the railroad garden. One of these is a dwarf daffodil (Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, Zones 4-8; photo 5). It is one of the earliest daffodils to bloom and the flowers are held for a longer time than many others. Often there are one to three blossoms per stalk, as opposed to most standard daffodils that have only one. They will bounce back after late spring snows, will grow in partial shade, and are not picky about soil type. The flowers will lean toward the sun so they should be planted where shady areas are behind the intended view.

Hyacinths. Grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum, Zones 3-9; photo 6) are the smallest of the hyacinths, growing only 6" tall. Their foliage is droopy, interlocking as the plants spread to make a good 4-6"-tall groundcover. The foliage disappears in summer but will reappear in the fall to remain green throughout the winter and sport flowers again the next early spring. They are tolerant of most soils and are of easy care.

Hardy cyclamen.
One of these (Cyclamen coum, Zones 4b-8b; photo 7) blooms so early it could be called a late-winter-early-spring bloomer, starting in early February (in warmer parts of the country) to late February (in colder climes) and continuing through March. The blossoms come in pink or purply-red and all shades in between. The leaves are distinctive, rounded, and often have silvery spots or veining, growing 3" tall. The flowers arch 2-3" above the foliage; even when not in bloom, the plant makes a nice groundcover. Cyclamen is easy to grow, with certain considerations; it does best in full shade to dappled sun and requires well-drained, even dry, soil. Very few flowering plants are so suited to dry shade. It will do well planted around the base of a tree, where the tree helps to keep the soil dry and provide shade.

Snowdrops. Growing a bit taller (6-9"), snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, Zones 3-9) are another late-winter-early-spring-blooming plant. The white flowers have three drooping outer petals that resemble drops of snow. This one might make a nice backdrop in an area where the bulbs can spread to form drifts.

he best time to plant spring-flowering bulbs is the fall, in September or October when the soil temperature has cooled. They can be planted later but the success rate drops as the time for the bulbs to establish gets shorter before the ground freezes.

List of small bulbs

Name    Zone    Size    Color    Season    Conditions
Windflower (Anemone blanda)     5-10    4"/8"    Bl-Wh-Pk-Rd    Sp    FS-PtSh
Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa forbesii)    3-8    5"/3"    Bl    Sp    FS-PtSh
Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum)    4b-8b    3"/6"    Pk-Rd-Wh    W    PtS-FSh
Snow drop (Galanthus nivalis)    3-9    8"/5"    Wh    W-Sp    FS-PtSh
Spring starflower (Ipheion uniflorum)    5-9    3"/5"    Bl    Sp    FS-PtSh
Iris (Iris danfordiae)    5-9    3"/4"    Ye    Sp    FS-PtSh
Iris (Iris reticulata)    4-9    3"/6"    Bl-Pu    Sp    FS-PtSh
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)    3-9    9"/6"    Bl    Sp    FS-PtSh
Dwarf daffodil (Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’)    4-8     8"/6"    Ye    Sp    FS-PtSh
Golden garlic (Nothoscordum montevidense)    7b-10b    4"/3"    Ye    Sp-F    FS-PtSh
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica)    2-8    6"/3"    Bl    Sp    FS-PtSh
Species tulip (Tulipa batalinii)    3-8    6"/8"    Ye    Sp    FS

USDA plant hardiness zones
Size: The first number in inches in the table is the length of the leaves; the second number is the height of the flowers. The actual height of some of these plants is much less than the first number, as their foliage is arching or droopy.
Color: Bl=blue, Pk=pink, Pu=purple, Rd=red, Wh=white, Ye=yellow
Season: F=fall, Sp=spring, W=winter
Conditions: FS=full sun, PtS=part sun, PtSh=part shade, FSh=full shade
For more on early blooming perennials, see “Miniscaping” in the June 2007 issue of GR


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