Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2010
Regional Report

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The purple flowers of 'Queen of the Night' tulip complement the purple-edged foliage of 'Matrona' sedum to make a wonderful spring display.

Plan and Plant for a Glorious Spring Garden

Garden center shelves are filling up with spring-flowering bulbs large and small, each one holding the promise of a new gardening year. Fall is a busy season for gardeners, and you may be a little weary, but set aside some time for planting tulips, narcissi, alliums, hyacinths, and the many others. Sure, you may already have some in your garden, but it's always fun to make room for more, what with the wide range of colors, fragrances, and forms available.

So how do you decide what and where to include more spring-flowering bulbs in your garden? Researchers at Cornell University conducted trials over four seasons to examine the best approaches for combining spring-flowering bulbs with perennials in the garden. Colorful spring bulbs can complement emerging perennial foliage, and then when that foliage matures, it can mask the fading leaves of post-bloom bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs also help extend the bloom season of your perennial garden and create exciting new color combinations in your garden.

In their work, the researchers uncovered some core principals for creating successful bulb and perennial combinations.

Tips for Successful Bulb and Perennial Combinations
Plant bulbs likely to perennialize well in your area. In other words, choose types that are right for your local climate or growing conditions. For instance, choosing Jonquilla narcissi, hardy in USDA zones 5-9, for planting in much colder USDA zone 3 is unlikely to work out. On the other hand, you may choose the right bulb type, but a less durable variety. With tulips, for instance, look for bulb packaging marked "good for perennializing," which means they're likely to return for at least three years, or "good for naturalizing," which interprets as likely to establish and multiply in the garden.

Consider each plant's seasonal growth habits. What looks good in the mind's eye may not look as good in the early spring garden. This can happen when choosing companions based on their mature description without considering their springtime rate of growth and how they look at that time. In spring, different plants emerge and fill out in different ways, often featuring different coloring than later in the growing season. The goal of companion combos is to select perennials and bulbs that emerge together to work well in spring and early summer as partners. That means either aesthetically, with complementary or contrasting foliage and flowers, or practically, with sufficient perennial foliage to mask the bulb's fading foliage after bloom.

Consider mature plant size. Unlike annuals, which normally grow large and flourish in a single season before dying, perennials may take several seasons to gain maturity. If, for example, you are planning for a perennial to grow to a certain size in relation to your bulb planting, be sure to calculate when the perennial will reach that size. It may be necessary to plan for several bulb companions for your perennials over the initial season, then change the bulb choices as the perennials mature. Rather than a drawback, consider this as an opportunity to play with bulbs as seasonal "accessorizing."

Plant just enough bulbs. This might be considered the "Goldilocks" tip. Plant too few bulbs and the look is sparse. Plant too many and face over-crowding. For a ballpark starting point, try 6 to 12 bulbs, spaced according to the bulb package.

Allow for perennial spread. Different perennials have different growth habits. Some are aggressive growers with a tendency to spread. Others are late to leaf out or have a compact growth habit. For the aggressive spreaders, allow space for them to fill in. For more compact perennials, plant bulbs closer in. These considerations pay off when the late spring growth of perennials successfully hides the bulb foliage after they bloom.

An extensive list and photos of successful bulb and perennial combinations is available on the university's website at For more information about bulbs, plus when and how to plant them, visit the website of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center/North America at

Whether it's the excitement of seeing the brave snowdrops blooming in January, inhaling the magical fragrance of hyacinths, or being cheered by the bright yellow of daffodils against a brilliant blue spring sky, adding spring-flowering bulbs to your garden is richly rewarding.

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