While students back in the Stone Age, we rented a century-old shack because it was the cheapest house we could find. Though incredibly cold and uncomfortable, I will never forget that first spring when the lawn burst into bloom.

While students back in the Stone Age, we rented a century-old shack because it was the cheapest house we could find. Though incredibly cold and uncomfortable, I will never forget that first spring when the lawn burst into bloom.
    
Yes, I said the lawn.
    
Out of the dormant turf rose swaths of blooming crocus before the grass had begun to grow. It was a blessing on those cold days to discover the remnants of someone's great idea, one that went out of fashion with the invention of chemical lawn fertilizers. The neglect of that rental-property lawn was probably why the colorful odes to spring survived.
    
Is your lawn a glorified patch of grassy weeds? Have you converted to a chemical-free turf? Are you pondering a naturalistic meadow? Are you a renter looking for a fresh idea for a worn-out front yard? Repurpose that monoculture with an injection of diversity that doesn't cost nearly as much as you may think.
    
Since those early days in horticulture school, I have sought out examples of ways to integrate bulbs into lawns. Those crocuses were just one way to do it, but there are other opportunities, too. As a small-budget gardener, this idea is appealing because it breaks the rule of only buying large first-class bulbs.
    
In lawns, small bulbs sold cheaply in bulk because they are immature are the best buy for spicing up your lawn. Very young bulbs are easier to drop into a hole poked in a less-than-lush lawn. You can use a piece of repurposed metal pipe to make holes after watering the lawn to soften the soil in fall.
    
A good source: Michigan Bulb Co. (http://www.michiganbulb.com). The company sells a Crocus for Naturalizing Super Bag at $20 for 50 mixed-color bulbs. For more variety, try a Wildflower Bulb Garden Super Bag, which holds eight kinds of bulbs, 100 in all, for just under $30. At these prices you can stud an entire small lawn for an awesome early spring show.
    
Another way to use bulbs in a lawn is to dedicate a portion of it to a meadowlike planting. Once you set the dividing line, the only difference between this and the rest of the lawn is how high you set the mower. On the high-mowed side, add your bulbs into the lawn area where they blend into the taller grass come spring, creating a rather dramatic difference from the low-mowed turf. Here you can add later bloomers like anemone and wild bulb varieties.
    
A more highbrow approach and one appealing to modern-design lovers is to create squares in the lawn where you cut out the grass and plant dwarf tulips and other bulbs. These squares or circles become permanent island planters that can be planted in the fall, then over-seeded with wildflowers to fill out the space after the tulips fade.
    
For summer, install some annual color masses where the wildflowers have gone to seed. The way you organize these circles and squares in the space of the lawn has a lot to do with how dynamic the results will be.
    
These ideas are definitely not in keeping with the bulb orthodoxy, but they are a wonderful, fresh way of looking at these familiar plants. They won't always give you the big bold flowers you see in perfectly manicured gardens of magazine photos, but the surprise of seeing a dreary dormant lawn burst into flowers is hard to beat. For many of us, that's what gardening is all about.
    
Growing things is one of the most rewarding low-cost lifestyles when you're under a strict budget. Necessity is still the mother of invention, and now there's a good reason to buy too-small bargain bulbs. Why not rethink your lawn today and invest a few dollars in an experiment that may surprise the heck out of you at the end of a long, cold winter?
    
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.