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.