Spring bulb flowers for rocky terrain, don’t let gravel deprive you of blooms!

Single tulip, red, in a bed of white gravel

Rocky gravel beds often look a bit drab in winter and at the beginning of springs. Perennials are still dormant, just barely starting to bud. Small spring bulb flowers – be they botanical varieties or more classic ones – have an uncanny ability to thrive in this type of context.

Fall is when you have to remember to put the bulbs in the ground, so that they can take root before it freezes. Try to plant them 3 weeks before the earliest frost dates.

1- Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

The white color of its bells, with their cute green dashes and dots, makes flowers beds feel bright and lively, seeming to answer back to any snow that hasn’t yet melted away. Don’t delay, plant these as soon as you purchase them. Place large numbers of them together – several dozens at the very least – and the result will look spectacular.

Planting tips:

Galanthus nivalis snowdrops emerging from a bed of gray gravelSnowdrop favors cool, clayish soil, eventually amended with peat. It will do just as well in full sun and in part shade. When clumps grow to dense and tight, dig them out right after the blooming, and plant them back further apart immediately. Snowdrop will help create very beautiful gardenscapes at the foot of rock garden conifers, or with other dark-colored ground cover perennials such as ivy or alpine rock cress. The 6 to 8 inch stems (15 to 20 cm) won’t have any trouble surging through the ground cover plant.

  • Blooming period: February, March
  • Planting distance: 4 inches (10cm)

2- Winter aconite, Eranthis

The small golden cups ,circled with a bright green rosette truly enhance snowy landscapes and leaf-covered areas with dots color as early as January-February. The flower looks like a spitting image of the cute buttercup flower, the only difference being that it blooms so low on the ground because the stem is short. Plant Eranthis hyemalis or winter aconite higher up so that you can easily look at the cute flowers and smell its divine scent!

Planting guide:

Eranthis, or winter aconite, sprouting like a helleboreGroup bulbs in clusters of 7 or 8, and set them in soil that’s rich with humus and well drained. For this plant, choose full sun exposure, or part shade.

  • Blooming period: February, March
  • Planting distance: 6 inches (15 cm)

3- Botanical tulip

These small-flowered tulips spread thanks to underground rhizomes. They’ll cover large surfaces quickly. Tulipa polychroma is one of the first flowers to bloom right off the bat at the end of spring, with white-colored cups that boast a bright yellow center. T. turkestanica is slender and elegant. Its 8-inch stems (20cm) bear 5 to 8 star-shaped cream-colored corollas with dashes of yellow. Early March is when both bloom.

Three blooms of the 'Little Beauty' tulipTulipa ‘Little Beauty’ and ‘Little Princess’ are two recent cultivars with very bright colors, Tyrian pink for the first one and Spanish orange for the second. Each bulb will send out 3 to 4 stems. With its thin leafage, it easily rises above surrounding perennials that are just barely emerging from their clump.

  • Try these out in pots, they’ll do great since they don’t need much soil!

Planting tips:

Best plant them in full sun in a spot where the soil is cool in spring but drains well. Press the bulb down about 4 inches deep (10 cm), so that it doesn’t dry off in the summertime.

  • Blooming season: from end of February to April
  • Planting distance: 6 inches (15 cm)

>> To learn more, read: All there is to know about Tulip

4- Iris danfordiae and reticulata

Iris reticulata, blue dwarf irisThese two small iris varieties, one native to Turkey and the other to the Caucasian mountains, won’t ever grow any taller than 2 or 4 inches (5 to 10 cm). They bloom very early in spring, even before setting out any leaves from the sheath they overwintered in. Iris danfordiae has a fragrant, bright yellow corolla, whereas reticulata displays various shades of blue and violet, dotted with white and orange dashes that look like a patient painter hand-painted them.

Planting tips:

Plant them in full sun in soil that drains perfectly well.

  • Blooming period: February, March
  • Planting distance: 4 inches (10 cm)

Cluster of bright yellow Danford iris

5- Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae)

This small bulb hailing from the mountains of Turkey shines its thin-petaled purple corollas when snow starts melting away. Its white heart is truly a gift! One species in particular, luciliae never exceeds 6 inches (15 cm). It is simply perfect to fill in a miniature valley landscape, sided by moss-covered rocks. The blooming occurs at the end of March – beginning of April with 2 to 3 flowers per stem. It lasts about 2 weeks. Cultivated variants usually come from another species: C. forbesii. The stems of these cultivars are a bit taller, about 8 inches (20 cm), and bear a dozen flowers each.

Planting guide

Glory of the snow emerges from a bed of leaves Chionodoxa will re-seed spontaneously and, in time, will form stunning wide carpets of blue, white or pink flowers. Plant this in light, rich soil with lots of organic matter, either in the sun or in part shade. Cold climates suit it best.

  • Blooming season: March or April
  • Planting distance: 4 inches (10 cm)

>> To learn more, read: Glory of the snow, one of the top 8 blue flowers

6- Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica)

Vast swaths of Siberian squill will always stand out with their unique blue hue. Flowers appear in loose clusters on 6-inch tall scapes (15 cm), over the first half of spring. Plant bulbs in groups, it’ll reach the end result of cover the ground faster. Propagation occurs naturally through bulblets and through seeds. Leaves quickly wilt away after the blooming.

Planting guide

Thin and rocky soil won't keep siberian squill from growing lush!These squills love a cold winter to bloom with even more panache. Ordinary soil suits them fine, either in full sun or in light shade. Pair it with Erythronium americanum which has pale yellow flowers.

  • Blooming period: March-April
  • Planting distance: 4 inches (10cm)

More small bulb flowers to look into

Crocus, Narcissus and botanical tulip (like Tulipa polychroma, turkestanica), Ipheion uniflorum, Anemona blanda, Grape hyacinth, Puschkinia, Cyclamen coum, Erythronium pagoda, Leucojum vernum

Eva Deuffic


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Tulip in gravel by Manfred Richter under Pixabay license
Snowdrop in gravel by KANENORI,
Nature & Garden contributor
single yellow bloom by Kerstin Riemer under Pixabay license
Pink tulip by Amanda Slater under © CC BY-SA 2.0
Yellow iris by Andrey Zharkikh under © CC BY 2.0
Blue dwarf iris by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work
Sprouting through leaves by Sirounian Armen under Pixabay license
Bells of siberian squill by Vahe Martirosyan under © CC BY 2.0