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.
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.)
Or, you could plant them around the base of shrubs with colorful stems.
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.
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.
As the spring progresses, the colorful shoots of emerging perennials can also make terrific partners for your early bulbs.
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.)
As the season progresses, it’s increasingly easier to find flowering perennial buddies for bulbs.
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.
The bold blooms of true lilies (Lilium) are also sure to grab attention, especially when contrasted with smaller- or spiky-flowered partners.
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.
Mounded or upright foliage companions can provide charming harmonies or striking contrasts for taller bulb blooms.
If you delight in working with color echoes in your combinations, the blooms of hardy bulbs offer some excellent possibilities.
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.)
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.
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25 thoughts on “Matchmaking with Hardy Bulbs – Part 1”
I think there’s enough inspiration here for another book by itself! Many thanks for lots of wonderful ideas.
It certainly wouldn’t be difficult to give bulbs a book of their own. I had to leave out lots of combos to keep just to two parts — and then there are all of the tender bulbs that could have been included….
A beautiful post, Nan. Your lilies are especially good to see at this early time of the growing season. They are my new favorite since for some reason the deer have stopped eating them. I wonder if that’s because of the many alliums I’ve planted in the last few years.
How interesting to hear that, Marcia. Whatever the reason, it’s A Good Thing. And hey, congratulations on the show of your watercolors!
My morning stops. Rather than rushing through my usual routine of start the laundry, do my hair and make-up, start frying the bacon for the six children soon to arrive at my daycare home, it was “oh look! A post from Nan at Hayefield!” Pour another cup of coffee. Sit down and read!
And later tonight I look forward to really savouring your post, taking notes in my garden journal, and this weekend once again reading it as I carry my iPad open to your post around the gardens making notes and adding to my fall bulb order.
You never fail to delight, inspire, and inform me! Thank you, Nan!
Oh dear, Liz; should you really be thanking me for disrupting your morning routine? I hope you didn’t actually read so much as skim through the pictures on the first perusal. Have fun adding to your bulb wish list when time allows. (Hm…I should be getting a commission from the bulb companies for this.)
I love your garden and your combinations! Made my morning!
Spring is right around the corner🎉
Happy April to you, Karen! Spring is certainly here today, but it looks to be retreating again next week. What a crazy time of year.
Just lovely, thanks so much for all the ideas. You are a color wizard!
Thank *you* for reading and commenting, Jen. Hope your spring is progressing well!
I have a nice little stand of alliums now. It took several tries to find some that like it here. So many more beautiful combinations you have shown here. I like that bulbs are so easy to plant. Simply beautiful. Happy April.
It does take a bit of experimentation to find the right fit, doesn’t it? I too have had mixed results with the alliums, but I’m glad we both kept trying and found some that do well. Thanks for stopping by today, Lisa!
I am a loss of words – you are an artist with plants.
Aw, thank you, Niren; you’re very kind.
Some nice combos here to think about.
Hey there, Alejandro. Oh yes, a little snowflake icon is showing up multiple times in our 10-day forecast, with a predicted low of 23 on Tuesday night. That does not bode well for all the treasures that have been hurried into growth by the multiple warm spells we’ve had already. Ah well, it’s always something….
Hi Nan, gorgeous combos. You are an artist working with live paints. Have you had any requests from artists who want to set up an easel and paint your beautiful garden?
“Live paints”: I like that! Nope, no one has ever asked to paint here. I guess they could do it from the many photos I have posted. Either way, it’s a nice thought.
Thank you as always for an amazing post. Such inspiration for the upcoming gardening season here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota zone 4! I just purchased your latest two books and was stunned by the beauty and helpful information in the Perennial Matchmaker. I was really glad that except for a few plants, almost all were good for zone 4. Nan, I have purchased every one of your books and became aware of you through your Grasses book. I can’t tell you how much I have learned and how you have made me a much better gardener. Just your exquisite pictures alone raise my gardening to a new level. Thank you.
Thank *you* for your thoughtful comments, Pat. It means so much to know that my work has been useful to someone. But there wouldn’t be much use in writing if there weren’t readers like you! May you enjoy a rewarding growing season in your garden.
I echo Pauline’s sentiment: another book, please! I also really enjoy trying to get as much out of every square inch of planting space by layering the plantings with bulbs. Lucky you, getting A. christophii to reproduce. The only allium we have which has done so is the white ‘Everest’, which has gone mad in our clay rich soil and temperate climate. So much so that we have been trying for 2 years to eliminate it. I do love it though. Makes a wonderful cut flower, too, lasting for months from the bud stage right through to the dried spent bloom. In terms of tulips, my current fave raves are the lily flowered forms. Lovely shape and minimal foliage which quickly disappears among emerging perennials. ‘Ballerina’ is my current pash. Thanks for another inspiring post, Nan. Barbara, Victoria, BC.
Hi Barbara! Believe me, I’d be very happy to write another book, but no one seems interested in seeing proposals at the moment. How interesting to hear about ‘Everest’ seeding for you. That was one that didn’t last too long for me. (You may notice that the same setting for the photo with white ‘Everest’ globes shows purple ‘Gladiator’ a few years later.) I’ve never had the heart to cut any of the large-flowered alliums, so it’s good to hear your experience with them as cut flowers. I love tulips too, but my voles love them more, so I have only a few now. I understand your passion for ‘Ballerina’; that one would be worth protecting with a bulb cage, I think!
Don’t be too quick to assume failure of self-seedng with some alliums! I was disappointed for several seasons that nothing seemed to be happening beyond my original planting, and then — pow! — they were in lots of new places. A. cristophii has wandered the farthest (helped out by my placing the dried-up starry balls in random spots for decoration during the summer), but ‘Mt. Everest’ has also colonized some new areas, and a stand of drumstick allium (A. sphaerocephalum) that seemed to be barely holding its own or even declining thickened up in place in a most encouraging way. Some combination of summer and fall weeding in areas between large perenials followed by a long and unusually cold winter, and a spring with more even moisture and temperatures than usual. Most startling has been the spread of some white A. rosenbachianum into a somewhat shady area (not shaded v much until after their bloom period in early May).
Good point, Nell. Baby alliums look like blades of grass and are easy to miss (or to pull out by accident)!
Hi Nan, what a pleasant surprise to get a great post on bulbs. Very apt as I have been sorting out a large number of bulbs (over 50) which I ordered and planted up in pots last Autumn, to place in herbaceous borders, your post has given me some great ideas, of how to use them. With such a mild Winter here in NW England, many bulbs are well ahead of themselves, I have tulips, flowering alongside narcissi, grape hyacinths, some alliums in bud, this has never happened before. We just need some warmth now to bring the rest of the garden on.
That’s a brilliant way to approach making combinations with the early bulbs, Allan! Having them in pots means that you can find the perfect partners for them when they look their best and pop them into the ground for instant results. If only we were all so organized. Sounds like your spring weather has been as odd as ours. I’m almost glad to know that it’s supposed to get cool again here, since we are still 5 weeks away from our usual last frost date, and the longer we stay warm, the greater the damage will be when we do freeze again.
Thanks for all the wonderful ideas you’ve shared here! I have to admit I often find bulbs confounding.
I hear you, Alison. It’s so easy to get tempted by the glossy bulb catalogs, but by the time the bulbs actually arrive, when the growing season is almost over and you’re tired of everything, it can be tough to get excited about making combinations that you won’t get to see for many months.
Thanks for all the great ideas. Would love to hear your thoughts on hiding brown daffodil foliage.
Stay tuned for Part 2, Marian; that’s one of the things I plan to cover.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match… You are a splendid one, Nan! Great bunch of photos, too.
Or maybe a couple dozen matches? Thanks for visiting, Ginny!
Thanks for providing another chapter on plant matchmaking, Nan! Now that I’ve finally removed all my lawn and planted a good many shrubs and perennials, I’m giving more thought to how and where to add bulbs so your advice gives me ample food for thought. Tulips and even lilies aren’t the best investment in my climate but freesias, sparaxis, ixia and ranunculus do well here – and I’ve had considerable luck naturalizing Hippeastrums in the past so I’m trying that again in my current garden. I love the alliums but have had mixed success with those but, after seeing them in glorious bloom at the Getty’s garden nearby, I’m determined to try them again (even recognizing that the Getty may well replace all their bulbs each year).
Hi Kris! Mmmm…all of those gems you mentioned (except the alliums, of course) fall into the tender category for me, so I envy you the prospect of enjoying them as permanent plantings.
Great inspiration as ever Nan, some combinations I particularly like and perhaps will conceptually echo in my new border area that I now have (Yay. Well at least “Yay” for my plant buying obsession, not so much for my bank balance.)
Let’s forget practicalities and just celebrate the potential of your new garden space. You’re in for a fun spring, Nick!
Thanks for another inspiring post! Last year I planted Tulipa praestans ‘Fuselier’ to come up through a carpet of Sedum ‘Angelina’… but the red, though beautiful, just wasn’t right with the orangey-bronze of the Sedum… so I moved the Tulips and replanted last fall with Tulip whittallii… thrilled to see my choice was confirmed by someone I consider a master colorist! Looking forward to seeing mine bloom and hoping the combo is as pleasing as your photo.
Well, how about that! Yes, I can imagine the effect with ‘Fuselier’: showy from a distance but a little “off” up close. I hope you’ll be pleased with T. whittallii in its place. I’ve had that combo for about 5 years now, and the tulip actually seems to be increasing in that spot, so the two plants appear to be very happy together.
Wow and wow! It’s such a blustery (or as we say here, ‘bustidy’) day here that I thought I’d spend some time catching up on posts and notices–and then I opened yours. Nan–it’s not ‘just’ the gardening, which is spectacular, but your splendid eye for images and vignettes. Breathtaking and joyous. It is truly the Art of Gardening. What a pleasure to pour through your post today. Thank you so very much!
Wonderful to hear from you today, Nora. The wind is brutal up here too. At least our power is back on now. I’m so happy that you enjoyed the tour, and I really appreciate your comments. Thanks for visiting!
What kind of soil do you grow your Ornithogalum magnum in? I planted it one fall and it never came up. I planted it again last fall, and so far no sign of it. But I am always at least 3 weeks behind you. As always, happy to see colchicums get a little mention. I don’t seem to have Violet Queen anymore, and when I did have it, it didn’t have purple tubes. I will have to try it again. Do you remember your source?
Hi Kathy. I didn’t do any special soil prep for the Ornithogalum; it’s in the same silty clay loam as everything else, though that one bed is slightly raised, so there’s somewhat better drainage than most of my garden. It has settled in well and even seems to be increasing a bit. It was just luck that I managed to find a good spot for it on the first try. Maybe the colchicum I acquired as ‘Violet Queen’ is mislabeled, or maybe the photo makes it look different? It was from Brent & Becky’s in 2010.
The ornithogalum is *just* starting to come up! I guess I picked a better place the second time around. Colchicums are notorious for being mislabeled in the trade. It is equally likely I didn’t have the true ‘Violet Queen’ the first time around. I will be thumbing through B&B’s catalog and hope they carry it this year.
That’s great news, Kathy. I hope it flowers as well.
Spectacular, Nan! Spectacular!
Thanks so much, Lee!
So well done! Thank you for so freely sharing your expertise with me. I fell in love with the Sicilian honey garlic (Allium siculum [Nectaroscordon siculum)]. I definitely want to put some in my garden.
It’s a real beauty, Mary Lou. I think you will be very pleased with it. Enjoy!
Hi, Nan. Thanks for a great post. You always have such amazing ideas about how to put plants together. Any nice combos of spring bulbs and early perennials I have happened by chance. I’m usually just tucking in those bulbs in fall wherever I know there’s space (in the midst of all the other fall chores). Now I feel motivated to be a bit more thoughtful about that. I put a link on my business Facebook page to your blog post so all my fellow garden friends can benefit from your experience. Thanks again.
Good to hear from you, Marge! Believe me, many of my combinations are chance too. Thanks so much for sharing the post on your page!
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