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.
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!