Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
September, 2005
Regional Report

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Forget-me-nots eagerly provide a carpet of color that shows off most any spring bulb.

Bulb Companions

Last year my zealous planting of daffodils by our front walkway rewarded us for many weeks during our long, cool spring. Day after day, the stunning blooms welcomed me home; new buds kept opening, and the older flowers were slow to fade. It was a memorable show.

Once the flowers were gone and the bulb foliage began to fade, I wanted to replant the bed because the spot was so prominent. But since bulb foliage is busy storing energy for next year's growth, it's best to let it be -- no tying it up or trimming it, which reduces the amount of foliage that can absorb the sun's energy. So I took the labor-intensive option of dealing with fading bulb foliage and dug them all up.

I moved the bulbs -- foliage and all -- to an amended area in back of my vegetable garden where they could continue to grow and store nutrients until the foliage died back. Then I planned to dig them up and store them for the summer and replant them in the fall. So far, so good. Unfortunately, I was behind schedule and the bulbs were invisible under ground when one day my husband decided to till that area. Ouch.

There are less risky ways of dealing with yellowing bulb foliage. With small numbers of bulbs, you can temporarily move them into containers and then lift them when the foliage dies and store them until fall. But the easiest method is to pair scattered clusters of bulbs with annuals and perennials that will hide the dying foliage, or at least compete with it and catch your eye.

Camouflage Plants
Daylilies are a much-touted companion because their strap-like leaves rise early and high. Iris provide a similar camouflage, especially the foliage of Siberian iris. So do astilbes. Ornamental grasses offer lots of choices of height and shape for interplanting with bulbs. The large leaves of hellebores and lady's mantle and hostas also make good bulb companions as they will spread and take over the space.

Catmint (nepeta) planted in front of the bulbs will form a dense, flowering ground cover and 'Six Hills Giant' grows tall enough to hide most any foliage. Some salvias, especially 'May Night' bloom early and command enough attention to minimize nearby unslightly bulb foliage.

Complementary Foliage and Flowers
Many plants also make good neighbors while the bulbs are in flower, by providing arresting color combinations. Try using carpets of perennials beneath bulbs, such as blue forget-me-nots at the base of pink or orange tulips. The lime green foliage of thyme beautifully sets off deep purple or near black tulips, such as 'Negrita' and 'Purple Majesty'. So does a low-growing patch of white candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).

Try 'Blue Parrot' tulips with Virginia bluebells ( Mertensia virginica); pink 'Angelique' tulips with pink or white bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis); or pink tulips with pink creeping phlox (Phlox subulata). Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' is lovely with tall blue or white globe alliums.

When you plant bulbs around existing plants, be careful not to damage the root systems of the perennials. Also, because the bulbs will be competing with the flowers for water and nutrients, keep the area well fertilized and watered, especially in spring and fall. Add compost to the soil at planting time, and fertilize the bulbs with a high phosphorus and moderate-to-low nitrogen fertilizer. You may need to divide perennials after a few years to leave room for planting bulbs around them.

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