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Each fall we plant the promise of spring. We look forward to the beauty and diversity of spring flowering bulbs and fortunately, with the versatility of these little gems, we can do some strategic planning and incorporate them into even the smallest space garden. Instead of planting them just on their own we need to combine them with other plants to enhance their effect in our gardens.
Learning the art of creating winning combinations is one of gardening’s greatest opportunities, and one of the most rewarding. A few years ago I was lucky to spend some time with Adrian Bloom, one of Britain’s most well-known garden personalities. I took him to see Van Dusen Gardens. As we quickly walked through, he would frequently stop, look at a plant, and ponder how to best enhance the look and beauty of the plant and extend its performance period.
So before you buy any bulbs, make a list of the areas in your garden that could use a little help with four to five months of spring flowering bulb colour.
Low growing shrubs like spreading junipers, winter heather, dwarf rhododendrons, azaleas and even roses could all use a lift. February blooming crocus planted in colour blocks or as a mix of all five colours would work well under all of them. I like to use the early blooming Tete a Tete miniature daffodils, especially around roses, for contrast when the new dark green rose foliage appears. Early blooming rhodos like Christmas Cheer, PJM, and Snow Lady would all benefit from a little colour added around the base.
Winter flowering heathers, in all their shades of pinks and purples, really pop when surrounded by early snowdrops or bright yellow winter aconites, eranthis cilicica. White heathers can be greatly enhanced with purple crocus, later blooming grape hyacinths or muscari, and blue scillas.
My favourite heather, the very low growing Golden Starlet, with its stunning yellow foliage and white flowers, is a natural to pair with purple crocus, grape hyacinths and blue and white puschkinias. Ericas Eva Gold and Jenny Porter, with their pink and purple flowers would play well with snowdrops and white muscari. Sometimes it’s a good idea to plant some winter heather just as a prop to showcase an assortment of minor bulbs.
Early blooming perennials can always use a little colour support too. The low growing white arabis and pink and purple shades of aubrieta really shine when combined with any colour of crocus, and the purple tones will give you a “before and after” display with snowdrops, white crocus, and white muscari.
Following the arabis and aubrieta, yellow alyssum is vibrant on its own, but the addition of blues and purples would certainly add some sophistication to your plantings. I particularly like alyssum Yellow Spring, which has smaller, neater foliage with a more compact growth habit, and a far longer blooming period. Blue and striped blue crocus, chionodoxa, and muscari armeniacum would all be good companions.
Low growing day lilies, like Stella d’Oro, are a natural to plant with a wide range of narcissus. You could also use early daffs like Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, Tete a Tete and Flower Carpet for a succession of colour.
One of my all-time favourite plants for those troublesome hot dry areas is the evergreen sedum, Angelina’s Teacup. I used to plant purple crocus in among the sedum and they put on a beautiful show that only got better with each passing year. Dark blue muscari worked well here too, and the benefit is that when the blooms finished, the old flowers and leaves were concealed by the sedum foliage.
I love the fact that the upright sedum spectabile varieties are already out of the ground in February with their diverse colours of foliage. Botanical tulips in colours ranging from pinks and reds to yellows and oranges surround them beautifully. They are wonderfully vibrant, and they will repeat bloom each year.
The hottest early blooming perennial today is the ever-improving white Candytuft or iberis. Many of the new varieties like i. Snowsation can now bloom as early as February and continue until April. Growing to about 20 centimetres in height and partnered with early tulips like kaufmanniana chrysantha, Guiseppi Verdi, or the single red, Coleur Cardinal, creates a spectacular show on a bed of white blossoms.
Many folks have thyme as a ground cover, and they work very well with snowdrops, winter aconites and crocus scattered throughout.
Even shady areas where ground covers like Japanese spurge (pachysandra) are used, taller growing early, mid-season, and late blooming narcissus are ideal to bring some life to these lower colour areas.
Ornamental grasses also offer a unique habitat for bulbs. Available in a wide range of colours, evergreen grasses like the carex make an ideal home for any bulb that reaches 20 cm. or taller. All narcissus that naturalize, botanical tulips and muscari are suitable here. Herbaceous grasses that leaf out later, are perfect to marry with the broad range of alliums which start blooming in June. One particularly effective combination is Phalaris, nestled in with allium giganteum. It creates a striking display. The more compact pennisetums like Hameln and p. Burgundy Bunny make great homes for smaller alliums like a. moly and a. drumsticks. Even compact miscanthus like m. Yaku Jima would be greatly enhanced with allium sphaerocephalon and a. Sensation.
Lawns also make a great permanent location for early blooming minor bulbs. If you do plant them, use a narrow trowel to dig a good planting hole, into which you can put a mix of sand and soil so the bulbs have good drainage in heavy winter rains, and a spot they can remain drier during their late spring and summer dormant period. Snowdrops and crocus are your best bulbs for this purpose because they finish blooming early and their leaves, which make next years’ feed for the tiny bulbs, have enough time to mature before being mowed along with the lawn grasses.
A little planning now can make a dramatic difference in your garden this winter and next spring. The beauty of these bulbs is their vibrant show the first year, followed by an even better display each following year as they spread and multiply.
Please note, I would recommend picking up your bulbs a little earlier this year as a drought in Holland this spring has reduced the number of bulbs available in some Canadian garden stores. So get them while you can.
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Brian Minter: Colourful plants to add to your fall garden
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