In Part 1 of Matchmaking with Bulbs, I covered some ways of choosing flowering and foliage partners to create beautiful combinations with bulbs. Another way to choose companions is consider them from a practical angle: plants that will look good when the bulbs aren’t at their best, or that will support or protect slender bulb stems and blooms.
Bulb Buddies in Succession Plantings
Because hardy bulbs are generally around for only part (or parts) of the growing season, you also want to think about partners that will fill the above-ground space they leave when dormant. Spring-flowering bulbs, in particular, call for companions that leave room early in the season and then spread out to carry the show for the rest of the growing season. Otherwise, you’re just wasting valuable garden space–and if you don’t fill that space, weeds will.
The challenge is to choose partners that will come along soon after the bulbs are done blooming, to minimize the “down time,” but slowly enough that they don’t smother the ripening bulb foliage, which can eventually weaken the bulbs. Ideally, a companion should also complement the bulbs in some way; at the very least, it shouldn’t detract from them. Meeting all of those conditions is a tall order, and it can take several years of experimentation and observation to find bulb buddies that work well in your specific conditions. That said, there are a few time-tested favorites that work well in many areas.
Hostas, for instance, are dependable partners for spring bulbs in sites that get some shade in summer. Different species and hybrids emerge at different rates, and the exact timing of their appearance depends a good deal on that year’s weather conditions. Usually, though, the new growth of hostas isn’t a garden feature until mid- to late spring: after the earliest bulbs, such as snowdrops (Galanthus) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), are done flowering but often in good time to complement later kinds, such as mid- to late-season daffodils, tulips, and checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris). The expanding hosta leaves then do a terrific job spreading out to cover the yellowing bulb foliage.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis) are another excellent companion for spring bulbs. Colorwise, their contribution is mostly shades of green, and texturally, they’re very similar to the grass-like or strappy leaves of many hardy bulbs, but from a timing perspective they are top-notch, emerging gradually enough to leave plenty of room for bulbs in spring and then filling in with lush foliage for the summer and fall.
Medium-sized to large hostas and daylilies can also match perfectly with late-spring and summer-blooming bulbs, such as true lilies (Lilium), Sicilian honey garlic (Allium bulgaricum), and tall, globe-flowered alliums (Allium). They’re particularly good with the alliums, which tend to start developing yellowing leaves right as the dramatic flowers are reaching their peak. The lush leaves of hostas and daylilies do a super job of covering up the declining allium foliage while creating a beautiful setting for the showy flower globes.
Ornamental grasses, too, work very well as partners for many hardy bulbs. Warm-season grasses–those that don’t start growing until the weather warms up–are still dormant when early to mid-spring are blooming. Some, such as prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), are sprouting by the time later daffodils and hybrid tulips are in bloom; others, such as switch grasses (Panicum) and miscanthus (Miscanthus), may not appear until most spring bulbs are finished flowering and starting to turn yellow. Once they start growing, though, they tend to fill out quickly, so you don’t have to look at “empty” space very long.
I particularly like prairie dropseed, purple moor grasses (Molinia caerulea), and common fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) as bulb partners, because their crowns stay in tight, distinct clumps. As much as I adore switch grasses (Panicum) in general, I’ve found them to be a bit problematic because of their sharply pointed rhizomes, which can skewer right through the bulbs. Even if you originally leave a foot or so of space between the grass and the bulbs, the grass is likely to expand and possibly engulf the bulbs after a few years, unless you’re diligent in regularly dividing the grass or moving the bulbs if they’re in danger of getting engulfed..
With any warm-season grasses, you need to make sure to finish your garden cleanup in late winter or very early spring, so their dead top growth is gone before the bulbs get going. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to trample the emerging bulb shoots when you’re cutting back the grasses, and it’s tough to salvage the bulb flowers if you are so late that the flowers have come up through the dead grass blades.
‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) is another of my favorite partners for spring bulbs. It starts growing very early in spring, about the same time as many spring bulbs emerge, and is well along enough to have a nice presence as soon as the bulbs are finished flowering.
Over the years, I’ve found some other plants that can make good succession partners for spring bulbs. Perennials with rosettes of “evergreen” leaves, such as foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) and many heucheras (Heuchera), add some color even in early spring and do a super job filling the space once the bulbs are done. They work best with spring crocus (Crocus), snowdrops (Galanthus), squills (Puschkinia and Scilla), and other small bulbs.
Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) crowds out all but the sturdiest bulbs, but our native Allegheny pachysandra (P. procumbens) is an excellent match for all sizes. Its persistent leaves tend to recline by early spring, leaving plenty of space for even small bulbs to come up in between. Its brushy, white blooms flower around the same time as those of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), then its fresh new growth emerges to make a handsome carpet from early summer through winter.
Perennials that form tight crowns but spreading top growth also work well with many spring bulbs.
As you experiment with various bulbs in your garden and observe how they grow, you’re sure to find many other excellent partners for them. It’s simply a matter of matching their vigor, so the companions don’t crowd out the bulbs.
Small bulbs have an easy time coming up through low-growing groundcovers that form relatively loose mats, such as creeping thymes and sedums. They look good proportionally as well. Large-flowered daffodils, tulips, and alliums match better with catmints (Nepeta), hardy geraniums (Geranium), and other sturdy partners that can withstand (or quickly recover from) getting a bit smothered by the ripening bulb foliage.
Late-summer and fall-blooming bulbs are particularly challenging to match with suitable companions, because you need to consider the timing of their spring leaves, their summer disappearance, their later-season flowers, and then their after-bloom appearance (or disappearance). Finding partners that will complement them–or at least not detract from them–in bloom while not interfering with them the rest of the year can take a good bit of experimentation. With surprise lily (Lycoris squamigera), for instance, I’ve not bothered with finding a companion for the spring foliage, and I just try to ignore the yellowing leaves in May. They disappear within a couple of weeks.
Placing colchicums (Colchicum) can be particularly tricky. Their foliage comes up quickly in spring, and the large, vigorous leaves look quite handsome when they are fresh.
When those lush leaves start turning yellow and brown in May to June, though, you’re stuck looking at them up close for several weeks, and they’re large enough to weaken or even smother delicate companions. No problem, you’d think: Simply move them back a bit, so they’re not right at the front of the border, or else use taller, bushier companions to hide the ripening colchicum leaves. Ah, but don’t forget that the flowers are usually in the range of just 4 to 6 inches tall, so they do need to be near the front edge, where you can admire them up close.
Ok, then, moving on…two more ways that well-chosen companions can benefit your favorite bulbs. First: The flowers of tall, large-flowered alliums and true lilies (Lilium) are lovely, but their big blooms atop skinny stems can look a bit awkward if they’re off by themselves, and they tend to be top-heavy and prone to sprawling in windy conditions. There’s an easy solution, though: Plant them behind or between good-sized, bushy perennials (those that are ideally 1/2 to 3/4 of the height of the bulbs in bloom, so the bulb flowers can really show off).
While covering up some of the uninteresting parts of the bulb stems, bushy perennials and compact shrubs can also help to hold up those beautiful bulb blooms.
I’ve already covered the value of pairing bulbs with lower-growing companions for aesthetically pleasing pairings and for succession planting too. Groundcovers provide yet another practical benefit: protecting the delicate petals of low-flowering spring and fall bulbs, which could otherwise be battered or besmirched by soil splashed up by heavy rain on bare earth.
Bulb companies are already starting to send out emails and print catalogs offering all kinds of gems for planting this summer and autumn, so if you’re thinking you’d like to add some bulbs to your beds and borders, now is a great time to start planning!
10 thoughts on “Matchmaking with Bulbs – Part 2”
Hi Nan, What a great blog post. Thanks so much for taking the time to put them together with your thoughts on so many topics that stem from your beautiful garden. That are always packed with information and of course your excellent photos. Really, your posts can easily replace garden magazine subscriptions with all the topics you cover!
I’ve had issues with drumstick allium flopping, but your pairing with liatris is genius. I really like that combo with the same purple tones. Very unexpected and subtle. If I can get the voles to stop devouring the liatris, I could try that combo!
What is the plant against the fence in the photo of your ajuga example of what doesn’t work with tall alliums and short groundcovers? I can’t quite make that one out?
Hi Susan! Ugh…good luck with keeping the voles away from your Liatris. The spikes of pink flwoers behind the Allium atropurpureum in that shot is Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ (well, some ‘Amazone’ and some self-sown seedlings, which look identical to me).
I was wondering if it was phlomis, but the only place I have seen it is in botanic gardens and it was always yellow and very large, almost shrub-like. Or maybe it wasn’t phlomis that I thought I saw in the gardens? Although the flower form of yours was such that it reminded me of what I had seen. That tall purple/pink is wonderful.
You’re right too, Susan: You’re thinking of Phlomis russeliana. I wish I could grow that species but can’t manage to get it established. P. tuberosa loves it here, though, and seeds around. I’m happy to have it wherever it puts itself.
Thank you Nan for another wonderful post! I learn so much from you every time, and I have so many of them Bookmarked. I have gone back and read all of your posts again! I know……but I always see something I missed before! It’s so giving of you to share your passion with all of us!
Happy May Day!
Oh yes, May Day–thanks for the reminder! It’s a rainy one here, and the plants are celebrating. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the post. I think I’ve said everything that’s been on my mind about hardy bulbs…for a while, anyway. Looking forward to May’s Bloom Day: should be a good one!
Beautiful images, as always! Thank you for providing inspiration. I must admit my eye wandered for a moment when I noticed the solar panels.That led to searching for more info on your blog and found the picture of “the boys” resting in the shade of the solar panels. Currently trying to comprehend how I might incorporate solar. Can you recommend and sources? Thank you.
Mary Tarasovich aka Carmelita Carmen
Hi Mary. Always happy to chat about my experience with the solar panels; I’ll email you directly.
Hmmmmm. I have that Dark Towers…it needs a a companion.
Aw, I should have included a shot I have of ‘Dark Towers’ (after bloom) interplanted with Lilium ‘Purple Prince’: another possible partner for that beautiful perennial!
I’m glad you showed some combinations that didn’t work out. I found those very instructive. You have some really nice Colchicum speciosums. They look exactly how they’re supposed to.
Now there’s an idea for a post: “Don’t Try This at Home,” featuring some of the really bad combinations I’ve made over the years. (Well, not all were horrible, but many were disappointing for various reasons.) And thanks for the compliment on the quality of my colchicums. Oh…did I mention that all of them came from you?
It’s always a treat to find a new post from you, Nan. Your posts are so much more comprehensive than many other blogs and always provide the eye candy as well with your stunning photos.
Your website is such a great resource! I have just picked up your new book THe Perennial Matchmaker to fill the gaps between posts! It is chock full of great ideas.
Thanks so much on all counts, Sheri! “Comprehensive” sounds much nicer than “really long.” I like that you see the book as a filler for the blog, rather than the other way around. I’m very pleased with the book, but with the blog, I can say everything I want to without being constrained by the book design or page counts–and I can include as many BIG photos as I like. In case you don’t know, I have a gallery of many more perennial combinations on Pinterest, at https://www.pinterest.com/hayefield/.
Your posts are always so timely. I agree with other posters that your “mistakes” are so enlightening. And followed by how you solved the problem makes it even better! Definitely a topic for another post, if not a book!
I missed the first post on this topic and hope it’s okay to comment on it. Are the tulips in your combos perennial for you? Especially Antoinnette, which I adore, but have to replant every year.
I’ve never used Asiatic lilies in the garden for some reason. You’ve given me a reason to check out the catalogues!
What daffodils do recommend to bloom with Hellebores? I know this is a tough question, but what should I start with?
Can’t imagine why no one has ever come to paint your garden. It would be perfect for a Plein Air event!
Thanks for keeping us gardeners grounded. You tell it like it is and I thank you for that.
Good morning, Lorraine! Sure, comments and questions are always welcome.
The tulips: ‘Antoinette’ lasted only 3 years for me. The few that have been truly perennial for me (lasting more than 5 years) are ‘Spring Green’, ‘Yellow Spring Green’, and ‘Fire of Love’. Oh, and some species: T. whittalii, T. batalinii, and T. clusiana.
I avoided Asiatic lilies for a long time, thinking that they were too stiff and “blobby-looking.” Giving them softer companions, like the Stipa tenuissima and Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’, really helped.
The two daffodils I depend on for blooming with hellebores are ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and ‘February Gold’ (the former is my particular favorite, as it seems to withstand any kind of weather).
Let’s hope for some sunshine soon!
Thanks Nan for giving us an up close snapshot of your spring companion plantings. I’m going to run out and take a look/see on what other plants I might squirrel in between my bulbs right now. They’re gorgeous but a little stiff and staged looking. Your inspiring ideas for combos are terrific. When do you think is the best time to put out Columbine seed? I think the foliage of that plant is so pretty this time of year when it first comes out. This blog and your books are invaluable to seasoned gardeners as well as new ones. You help us to zero in on the perennial snapshot the plant makes in our gardens and how to show it to its best advantage. Sometimes…move it on as it’s not earning its garden real estate.
It’s a perfect time to move or add plants to create combinations for next year’s bulb display; have fun with that, Julia!
As far as the aquilegia seeds: It kind of depends on whether they’re fresh or old, and whether they’re from a species or hybrid, but basically, I’d say try sowing them now (if they’re in a packet) or soon after you collect them (if you’re planning to gather seed from your own plant this summer).
I agree with so many of the comments above. I enjoy your comprehensive writing and suggestions. I always appreciate your up-close along with farther back views of companions. I always learn a lot. I usually am reading near the window, so when I learn something new, I look up and try and find a spot in my garden to test my new lesson. Thanks for posting
It’s great to hear that, Shelley; thank you so much! Comments like your make this all worthwhile.
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