Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2005
Regional Report

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In the gardening year, daffodils are symbols of rebirth. Flower heads nod tightly in the breeze, then the bright white petals begin to unfurl, offering the promise of spring.

Camouflaging Dying Bulb Foliage

I have a love-hate relationship with spring-flowering bulbs. The bright fresh flowers of tulips and daffodils are so refreshing after a drab and dreary winter, but I hate having to watch the foliage wither and die. I've tried disguising the ripening foliage with various cool-season annuals, but the results are never quite satisfactory. Newly planted annuals are much too short to do an adequate job, and by the time they reach the right heights, the yellowing bulb foliage has already died down.

I've also tried planting bulbs in pots and sinking the pots in the ground. The idea being that entire pots can then be unearthed and hidden in a far corner of the garden while the foliage ripens. While it sounds good in theory, in reality the holes in the beds need to be filled with other plants -- plants that will not outgrow their specific spots, which can be a complicated venture. This method also contains the bulbs, so they never have a chance to naturalize. I love the impact a drift of spring-blooming daffodils makes, so containing them defeats my purpose.

Creative Combinations
It took me years to finally work out an acceptable solution to this love-hate relationship. Skillfully combining bulbs and perennials is a good strategy for hiding less-than-attractive bulb foliage. As the perennial leaves emerge, they camouflage the ugly bulb foliage as it dies back. But camouflage is only part of the strategy. The emerging perennials also can complement tulips and other spring beauties with contrasting foliage that creates a pretty picture. If you plan well, you can have a succession of blooms all season long.

Favorite Cover-Ups
I have two favorite plants for hiding dying bulb foliage. One is the daylily. Most daylilies go dormant over winter and start sending up fans of foliage about the same time the bulbs are popping out of the ground. By the time the bulbs are finished, the daylilies have turned into healthy clumps of foliage and are sending up flowering scapes. The foliage is just similar enough to that of most spent bulbs that the leftovers of spring seem to go unnoticed among the new, healthy leaves and flowers of the daylily.

Hostas are also great for this. In shady places, any hosta will do, and the larger the hosta, the more bulb foliage it will hide. A huge hosta like 'Sum and Substance' can cover what was once a fabulous bulb display all by itself, and add a spot of brightness to the garden at the same time. In the Pacific Northwest we can use gold and chartreuse hostas in the sun, and save the blues and greens for shade. In other gardening regions, the intense heat of afternoon sun may be too much even for the sun-tolerant golds.

For a real camouflage job, I've used Oriental poppies along with the daylilies and hostas. The leaves of the Oriental poppy actually emerge in winter, giving us something fresh and green to look at. They start really growing just as the bulbs start winding down. They give a truly spectacular blooming display that will hide all evidence of spring's leftovers, and then the poppy foliage also goes dormant. But the daylilies and hostas will hide this. Effortless camouflage -- all you need to do is plant!

Other favorites for hiding bulb foliage include lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), a shade-loving perennial that creates a mound of velvety, lime-green leaves with frothy small chartreuse flowers. Heartleaf brunnera or Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) is another shade garden plant that thrives in moist conditions, with heart-shaped leaves and clusters of tiny sky-blue or blue-violet flowers. Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.), a shade or part-sun early-spring perennial with fern-like leaves and arching sprays of heart-shaped flowers in pink, white, or rosy red, adds a graceful romantic look to the early spring garden.

Coral-bells (Heuchera) has lush foliage that emerges early in the spring, and makes an excellent complement and camouflage for spring-blooming bulbs. Different varieties feature ivy-shaped leaves in greens, red-tones, bronze, silver, or deep purple. The colorful sprays of tiny flowers that bloom later in the season are a bonus.

September and October are prime months for purchasing spring-blooming bulbs. Visit your garden center now for the best choices, and plant your treasures near the bases of herbaceous perennials. Next spring you'll be delighted with their colorful display, and you won't have the watch the foliage expire.

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