Tips for Lasting (bulb) Marriages

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Lorene Edwards Forkner

Few gardeners can resist the siren call of flowers. Perhaps at no time of the year are they more welcome than when they signal the imminent arrival of spring. Just when we think we can’t take another week of icy rain and dark skies, early spring blooming bulbs appear bringing color, fragrance, and even cut flowers into our grey days to awaken winter-dulled senses.

Visit any nursery this month and you’ll likely be beset with shelves groaning beneath an enticing array of hardy spring bulbs while each day’s mail presents yet another tempting catalog filled with treasured heirlooms and promises of the newest introductions. Such colorful assaults coupled with fond memories of our annual vernal reprieve—that day we saw the first golden daffodil *sigh*—has caused more than one of us to dream big and spend lavishly. We lay out our hard-earned garden dollars and commit to spending many a rainy autumn hour burying unremarkable brown bulbs, corms and tubers—the promising insurance of another growing season on the other side of winter.

Yet too often, those muddy sodden hours on our knees result in a colorful, albeit fleeting, spring show only to be followed by gaping holes in our planting schemes and the disappointing sense that our resources have been squandered. Here are some cultural tips for savvy returns on your garden investments.

In addition to a cold winter dormancy, dry summer conditions are crucial to bulb longevity, especially tulips, as this replicates their native environment. This is generally in conflict with the needs of most summer perennials and may require rethinking where you site your bulb plantings. Areas without summer water, while inhospitable to many plants, are perfect for establishing tulips, hyacinths, alliums and other spring beauties. Other measures you can take to ensure many happy returns are providing a well-drained soil; amend clay with large doses of compost or consider raised beds. Fertilize bulbs at planting time and with the emergence of growth in spring, and after blooming always—ALWAYS—allow bulb foliage to mature all the way to yellow.

NOTE: please don’t braid, twist or otherwise adorn fading bulb foliage in an effort to disguise a less-than-attractive, yet inevitable phase of bulb culture. It is during this phase, delicately referred to “ripening,” that the leaves are taking in and storing the energy needed to produce next year’s flowers. There’s no denying that this is not their finest hour, but braiding, binding and otherwise fussing with them only lessens the leaf surface exposed to the sun and robs them of valuable photosynthentic hours —plus, you’re not fooling anyone.

Creative (and acquisitive) gardeners quickly learn to layer complimentary plants forming compositions that morph throughout the season to support the bulb (bloom) time/space continuum. New plants unfurl to divert attention and fill gaps left by fading performers in a sort of floral sleight of hand—“don’t-mind-that-man-behind-the-curtain” sort of thing. Our inclination is to place bulbs at the front of a deep border for easy viewing. In practice, I have found that the back 1/3 of the border is actually the best place for a spring bulb show, allowing groundcovers and crowns of dormant perennials to take up the foreground and carpet the soil from which the bulbs emerge to do their thing. Later these same plants fill in to disguise and veil the holes left behind once the bulbs are finished. Here are some of my tried and proven favorite marriages for combining garden perennials and spring bulbs as well as further cultural tips to insure these unions are lasting.

The tightly coiled noses of hosta begin to emerge mid-spring to clothe the garden with medium to large, paddle-shaped leaves. These bold and lasting perennials prefer partial to full shade and are surprisingly drought tolerant once established, making them an excellent choice for planting beneath deciduous trees whose canopy provides shelter but thirsty roots often create competitive, dry growing conditions. However, most trees don’t fully leaf out until mid- to late-spring providing the perfect exposure for daffodils, tulips and most other early-blooming bulbs that actually appreciate dry summer conditions. Hosta foliage is also tops for disguising the ripening foliage of these same bulbs which can be such an eyesore.

I’m particularly keen on the blue-green, emerging cabbage-like foliage of Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ in combination with ‘Princess Irene’ tulips. The foliage of this sun-loving, drought tolerant perennial expands to form a “ruff” around the blooms and supports their stems during inevitable spring storms. Another duo that has proved enduring is the brilliant orange of tall, ‘Ballerina’ tulips coming up through a stand of Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’. Single early, single late and lily flowered tulips are known for their years of garden performance and little species tulips are truly perennial. I love tiny Tulipa batalinii ‘Bronze Charm’ and ‘Apricot Jewel’ (to just 6 inches) coming up through groundcover sedums and creeping thyme.

A classic combination we should all effect is that of daylilies and daffodils. Most gardens have at least one daylily and who doesn’t love daffodils! The foliage of the two being nearly identical, the fresh daylily foliage serves to camouflage fading daffodil leaves. Before the daylily blooms, lightly “comb” the foliage clumps with your fingers to remove the ripened bulb foliage. Both plants can remain in place without dividing for some time and will only increase in impact with passing years.

“Minor bulbs,” a ridiculous name for snow crocus, reticulated iris, snowdrops, wind flowers and other small early performers, are the easiest to integrate among perennials and established shrubs. Planted in generous numbers these beauties bloom beginning in late winter or earliest spring, multiplying over the years to create ever larger drifts of color when most garden plants aren’t even considering a break in their dormancy. Picture a bare lilac underplanted with dozens of crocus, creating a pool of rich blue or purple foretelling the bloom-to-come by months to satisfy the eye of a color-starved gardener. Weave these tiny bulbs among dormant crowns of perennials, along pathways, in gravel, even between the stepping stones of a pathway. As ripening bulb foliage goes, these tiny gems are pretty innocuous as most have delicate grass-like foliage less likely to foul an otherwise pristine spring planting.

Every year I look forward to the glossy foliage, beautifully mottled in burgundy, of Trout Lilies (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’) when they appear among the ferny, blue foliage and pearly white blooms of Dicentra formosa ‘Langtrees’. The 12- to 14-inch narrow stems of the erythronium produce several pale yellow lily-like blooms with a brown ringed center. The grassy stems and pendant bells checkered in cream and purple of the Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) complete a pretty picture pleasing from a distance, and mind-boggling up close where the cumulative intricacies of pattern, texture and color in this triad can be appreciated.

With considerably less subtlety, the giant Fritillaria imperialis explodes on the scene in April and May. Their 3- to 4-foot stems, topped by up to ten brilliant yellow, orange or red bell-shaped blooms are capped by a top knot of leaves resembling the crown of a pineapple! Showy, to say the least. I’ve placed them among several clumps of miscanthus where they serve as a welcome distraction from the spring crew cuts of these ornamental grasses which later fill in to effectively plug the gap left by the summer dormant bulbs.

In early summer the starburst blooms of ornamental onions (Allium) begin to show their stuff. In an awkward development, allium foliage appears and ripens off before the bloom stem emerges. Placing these bulbs where they will come up through mounding perennials and small grasses not only hides the fading foliage but provides a context and foil for the amazing firework-like blooms that would otherwise appear somewhat bereft and naked.

Many spring blooming bulbs are seen as garden bunco artists, here for a costly, one-time-only, flash in the pan display before vanishing into the great compost heap in the sky. In a tight economy, lasting value may be the wisest investment of all. With these tips and strategies I hope you’ll find the welcome—some would say desperately needed—appearance of spring blooming bulbs well within your garden budget.

Lorene Edwards Forkner plans on spending her precious pinched pennies on fritillaria, species tulips and hardy glads this fall. Follow along at 

Allium karataviense and a flowing carex create a sophisticated combination. photo

The colors of Allium giaganteum and Geranium phaeum echo one another. photo

Species tulips and heuchera are an understated combination. photo

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