‘Gladiator’ allium (Allium) with ‘Silver and Gold’ yellow-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), ‘Edith Wolford’ bearded iris, and–in the back–Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) [May 22, 2013]
When I was writing The Perennial Matchmaker
, my original plan was to include an entire section devoted to combinations featuring hardy bulbs, but as the pages filled up with other perennials, I was lucky to keep even a few set aside for alliums and lilies. Now, though, seems like an excellent time to indulge in an in-depth appreciation of these little bundles of beauty, so think of this as a bonus chapter.
Crocus chrysanthus with winter-colored ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre) [March 14, 2009]
Though they are among the easiest plants to succeed with — think of how often you see clumps of daffodils thriving in spots where they obviously get no care at all — hardy bulbs can be challenging to use in combinations, because of the advance planning involved. You’re planting most of them in fall, when your garden looks very different than it will when the bulbs are growing and blooming. If you’re good at keeping written or visual notes about how your garden progresses through the seasons, though, and if you can tolerate a bit of delayed gratification, hardy bulbs provide many opportunities for elegant and eye-catching seasonal partnerships.
There are a couple of ways to approach planning combinations that include hardy bulbs. If they’re already growing in your garden, make a note of when they’re in bloom each year and observe your own and other gardens in your neighborhood to see what else looks good right then: perhaps some evergreen shrub or perennial, some persistent foliage that takes on interesting cool-season color, a showy-stemmed deciduous shrub, or another early-blooming plant. Then, make a note to move or add those that appeal to you at the appropriate time, so they’ll be in place to flower with their bulb buddies next year. The tricky part of that is not damaging the bulbs when you dig to add the companion — particularly if the bulbs have already gone dormant.
Another approach is to note which herbaceous and woody plants you already have and then add bulbs that will complement them. It’s generally easy to tuck dormant bulbs close to the crown or into a carpet of an established plant without causing damage to either.
One way or the other, once you get the combination right, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be enjoying it for many years to come.
The earliest bulbs are so welcome whenever and wherever they appear that giving them an equally pretty companion is just “gilding the lily,” so to speak. They are so short that groundcovers with persistent foliage make excellent partners. (This sort of partnership also serves several practical purposes; more on that in Part 2 of this post.)
Reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) coming up through the winter-colored foliage of ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre) [April 14, 2015]
Reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) with the winter-purple leaves of creeping bramble (Rubus pentalobus [R. calycinoides]) [March 11, 2015]
Or, you could plant them around the base of shrubs with colorful stems.
Common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) with the stems of ghost bramble (Rubus thibetanus) [April 7, 2015]
‘February Gold’ daffodil (Narcissus) with ‘Bud’s Yellow’ dogwood (Cornus sericea) [March 20, 2012]
While you’re waiting to find the perfect plant partners just for your extra-early bulbs, you could always cheat a little and use a garden ornament to add instant height and color to complement the bulb flowers. If you leave the ornament in place, it also makes a handy reminder for where the bulbs are once they have gone dormant for the season.
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) [March 9, 2013]
Common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) [April 1, 2014]
‘Snow Bunting’ crocus (Crocus) [March 10, 2013]
Crocus tommasinianus [March 11, 2013]
Eventually, some of the earliest herbaceous perennials join the show, offering options for bloom-based pairings. Hellebores, with their varied colors and long flowering period, are perfect matches for many of the small late-winter and spring bulbs.
Crocus tommasinianus with bearsfoot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) March 8, 2016]
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) with bearsfoot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) [March 22, 2012]
‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodil (Narcissus) with hybrid Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) [April 12, 2014]
Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris) with hybrid Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) [April 21, 2013]
‘Ocean Magic’ grape hyacinth (Muscari aucheri) with hybrid Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) [April 25, 2015]
‘Gravetye Giant’ summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) with hybrid Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) [April 26, 2015]
As the spring progresses, the colorful shoots of emerging perennials can also make terrific partners for your early bulbs.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) with white-variegated sweet iris (Iris pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’) [March 31, 2016]
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) with ‘Isla Gold’ tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) [March 31, 2016]
‘Blue Spike’ grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) with the new shoots of an herbaceous peony (Paeonia lactiflora) [April 23, 2005]
You can also pair bulbs with bulbs, of course. As with perennial partners, their exact bloom times can vary widely from year to year, depending on the weather, but if you see established bulbs blooming together once, there’s a very good chance that their flowering times will overlap at least a bit in other years. (I qualify that with “established,” because the bloom times of bulbs can be a couple weeks later in their first year than in the years after that.)
Reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) with ‘February Gold’ daffodil (Narcissus) [March 11, 2012]
‘Yellow Queen’ Dutch hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) with grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) [March 31, 2016]
‘Rendezvous’ Dutch iris (Iris) with giant starflower (Ornithogalum magnum) [May 22, 2012]
As the season progresses, it’s increasingly easier to find flowering perennial buddies for bulbs.
Midseason daffodils (Narcissus) with epimediums (Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ and E. x rubrum) [April 30, 2015]
Sicilian honey garlic (Allium siculum [Nectaroscordon siculum)] with Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) [May 23, 2013]
‘Semiplena’ (front) and ‘Sacajawea’ (back) great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) with ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta), ‘Brookside’ hardy geranium (Geranium), and Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) [May 28, 2015]
So many beautiful bulbs to choose from! But if I had to select just one genus as a favorite for matchmaking, it would probably be the alliums (or “ornamental onions,”, if you prefer). Their clustered blooms add a touch of distinction to any combination.
‘Mount Everest’ allium (Allium) with ‘Screamin’ Yellow’ yellow false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa), ‘Edith Wolford’ bearded iris, Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), and silver willow (Salix alba var. sericea) [May 23, 2011]
‘Ivory Queen’ Turkestan onion (Allium karataviense) with dwarf white fan columbine (Aquilegia flabellata var. pumila ‘Alba’), ‘Marcus’ perennial salvia (Salvia), ‘Frosty Fire’ pink (Dianthus), and ‘Brookside’ hardy geranium (Geranium) [May 27, 2008]
‘Gladiator’ giant allium (Allium) with Knock Out rose (Rosa ‘Radrazz’), golden European cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum opulus ‘Aureum’), and giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) [June 6, 2013]
Tumbleweed onion (Allium schubertii) with woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), pink (Dianthus), and ‘Brookside’ hardy geranium (Geranium) [June 15, 2009]
Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) with ‘Karley Rose’ Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) [July 7, 2011]
Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) with ‘Isla Gold’ tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and ‘Taurus’ mountain fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis) [July 7, 2008]
The bold blooms of true lilies (Lilium
) are also sure to grab attention, especially when contrasted with smaller- or spiky-flowered partners.
‘Lollypop’ Asiatic lily (Lilium) with ‘Cramers’ Plum’ love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) and Mexican feather grass (Stipa [Nassella] tenuissima) [June 4, 2012]
‘Orange County’ Asiatic lily (Lilium) with Clematis viticella, blue-leaved rose (Rosa glauca), and ‘Sun Power’ hosta (Hosta) [June 25, 2015]
‘Monte Negro’ Asiatic lily (Lilium) with ‘Diamonds Blue’ delphinium (Delphinium grandiflorum) and golden meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’) [June 20, 2015]
‘Robina’ Orienpet lily (Lilium) with ‘Old Spice Mix’ sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) [July 12, 2009]
‘Black Beauty’ Orienpet lily (Lilium) with giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) [August 6, 2014]
‘Freya’ Longiflorum-Asiatic Hybrid lily (Lilium) with nettle-leaved mullein (Verbascum chaixii) [June 25, 2015]
‘Conca d’Or’ Orienpet lily (Lilium) with ‘Erica’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) [July 4, 2012]
Pairing flowers with flowers is just one way to go, of course. I already mentioned the value of foliage companions when other blooms aren’t available, but lovely leaves are so much more than a “when you can’t find anything better” option. Groundcover-type foliage plants can make excellent matches with relatively short bulbs.
Star-of-Persia (Allium christophii) with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’) and giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) [June 10, 2013]
‘Violet Queen’ autumn crocus (Colchicum) coming up through Chocolate Chip ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Valfredda’) [October 24, 2010]
Double white autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale ‘Alboplenum’) over woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) [October 18, 2014]
Mounded or upright foliage companions can provide charming harmonies or striking contrasts for taller bulb blooms.
‘Antoinette’ tulip (Tulipa) against Limemound spirea (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Monhub’) [May 9, 2006]
‘Queen of Night’ tulip (Tulipa) against ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) with red campion (Silene dioica), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), and Chocolate Chip ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Valfredda’) [May 13, 2011]
Drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) against red orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra) [July 7, 2005]
If you delight in working with color echoes in your combinations, the blooms of hardy bulbs offer some excellent possibilities.
Not a perfect match, perhaps, but from a distance, the near-white tip blooms of ‘Ocean Magic’ grape hyacinth (Muscari aucheri) make a reasonable echo for the pure white flowers of ‘Thalia’ daffodil (Narcissus). [April 30, 2015]
As the weather warms up, ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre) gradually loses the orangey tints it has in winter, but it usually keeps a hint of them through tulip time. Here it makes a pretty underplanting for the orange-and-yellow flowers of Tulipa whittallii. [May 1, 2011]
The moody blooms of ‘Queen of Night’ tulip (Tulipa) are an obvious echo for all sorts of purple-leaved partners. Here it’s matched with the young foliage of ‘Erica’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), along with some cheery pink red campion (Silene dioica) to keep things from getting too gloomy in such a happy season. [May 13, 2011]
Later in the growing season, true lilies (Lilium) supply a wide range of rich shades and pastel tints to work with. I was very pleased with this practically perfect color match of ‘Landini’ Asiatic lily with ‘Marooned’ coleus (Solenostemon [Plectranthus] scutellarioides). [July 8, 2013]
Matching white flowers with white-variegated foliage is a simple formula, but it’s a winner. This duo includes ‘White City’ Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and ‘Patriot’ hosta (Hosta). [May 13, 2012]
Don’t forget to consider features beyond the blooms of your bulbs. Some true lilies, for instance, have dark markings or a solid dark shading on their stems. This is Lilium leichtlinii against the burgundy foliage of ‘Red Majestic’ contorted hazel (Corylus avellana). [June 13, 2012]
Some species and hybrid lilies produce dark spotting on their petals, which is easy to echo with equally dark foliage, as in this partnership of Lilium leichtlinii and red orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra). [July 19, 2014]
While the seedheads of most hardy bulbs don’t have much ornamental value in combinations, alliums are an exception. Some of them can last for many weeks or even months, adding interest long after their flowers have faded. Sure, you could buy “everlasting allium” ornaments,
but the real things are so much more interesting, and less expensive too. (You could even spray-paint the dried heads if greens and browns aren’t to your taste.)
Their bold shape makes the seedheads of ‘Gladiator’ allium (Allium) a standout in this otherwise quiet scene with ‘Silver and Gold’ yellow-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), Mexican feather grass (Stipa [Nassella] tenuissima), giant fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha), and silver willow (Salix alba var. sericea) [June 6, 2013]
If your summers aren’t too wet, the large-flowered alliums can dry well and last a surprisingly long time. This shot includes the seedheads of ‘Ambassador’ allium (Allium) and ‘Saucy Seduction’ yarrow (Achillea). See what can happen when you forget to deadhead? [August 11, 2011]
Star-of-Persia (Allium christophii) is even more interesting post-bloom than it is at its peak. The developing seedheads are garden art at its finest. [June 24, 2014]
Granted, leaving allium seedheads to dry in the garden also means leaving allium seeds in your garden — and then dealing with the admittedly weedy-looking young seedlings. But if you can tolerate a bit of untidiness, you can eventually build up a generous patch of these beauties from a relatively small initial investment. I started with just three bulbs of star-of-Persia (Allium christophii) and now have over a dozen, with new ones reaching flowering size each year. The bedmates in this shot include ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) and ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa), which also happens to produce striking seedheads. [July 30, 2015]
Once they’re dry, star-of-Persia (Allium christophii) seedheads are study enough to simply pluck out of the ground and move elsewhere. One year, they didn’t work with the summer planting I wanted to use in their bed, so I tossed them into a clump of ‘Karley Rose’ Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale) across the path. [September 27, 2011]
Well, that’s an overview of some ways to plan bulb combinations with aesthetics in mind. There are a number of ways to choose practical partners too, so I’m already working on Part 2 of this post.