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Originally published March 3, 2012 at 7:02 PM | Page modified March 4, 2012 at 7:30 AM

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Early perennials pick up where spring bulbs leave off

Plant Life columnist Valerie Easton advises pairing bulbs with early perennials that throw up new leaves in time to obscure the bulbs' dying foliage. Planted nearby, the generous leaves of hosta, pulmonaria, corydalis and heucheras obscure the bulb foliage.

Good choices

Heucheras

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Small deciduous ferns, such as maidenhair and Japanese painted ferns

Pulmonaria

Trillium

Corydalis

Brunnera macrophylla

Bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa and Dicentra spectabilis)

Hardy geraniums

Hellebores

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Smaller spurges like Euphorbia polychroma

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.
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To find inspiration, simply roam nurseries in earliest springtime to see which... MORE

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THE FLOWERS of early daffodils, hyacinths and crocus, opening to watery sunshine, brighten our hearts and our gardens with their promise of springtime. Unfortunately, their bloom is brief compared to what follows.

Bulb foliage takes its time withering away, browning up the garden just when we crave fresh, green leaves. It falls over, trails across other plants and generally makes a nuisance of itself. For months. Yet that dying foliage plays a vital role, replenishing the bulb so it'll bloom again next spring. It's best not to remove the leaves until they're so dried up that they pull away with a gentle tug.

So how to revel in the crescendo without suffering through the unattractive decline? Thankfully, it's easier to manage in the garden than in the rest of life.

A proven strategy is to pair bulbs with early perennials that throw up new leaves in time to obscure the bulbs' dying foliage. Planted nearby, the generous leaves of hosta, pulmonaria, corydalis and heucheras obscure the bulb foliage. But keep in mind that such companionable plantings are more than mere marriages of convenience. The trick is to pair plants with similar cultural needs so they can endure through the seasons in each other's company.

An ideal spot to plant crocus and dwarf daffodils is beneath deciduous shrubs and trees. The bulbs get the light they need early in the year before the woody plants leaf out, while creating bright patches of color beneath bare branches. In one corner of my garden I planted a dark purple lilac, then in front of it a golden smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Golden Spirit'). The lilac leafs out first, the smoke bush more than a month later; I keep both limbed up so perennials can cover the ground beneath them.

In a garden the size of mine, every inch counts. White crocus, checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) and fragrant little jonquil-type daffodils bloom early. Then a big patch of lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) obligingly unfurl their leaves around the spent bulbs. The pulmonarias' little flowers are showy for a few weeks, and their variegated leaves carry on through summer, lightening the shade beneath the shrubs.

You can create such scenes running through beds and borders, in shade and sun, with ferns, perennials and even small shrubs such as spireas and hebes. Is there really room to plant in such layers? Think of hiking through the woods, with tall trees overhead, a lower canopy of deciduous shrubs, beneath that a tangle of huckleberry and fern, all under-planted with tiny perennials, wildflowers and bulbs. Nature keeps nourishing the soil every time a leaf falls and decomposes.

If you keep nourishing the soil, it'll, in turn, support planting yet more bulbs and perennials. Just keep digging in compost and topping off with mulch to keep the soil airy, light, rich and hydrated. (Sounds like an add for a new facial cream!)

Bulb-companionable perennials leaf out early. Hardy fuchsias, for example, won't do because they show nary a leaf before May. While sweet-scented lily-of-the-valley is tempting, it's too invasive, forming such a thick mat of roots that bulbs have a tough time holding their own. Perennials that mind their manners and stay put rather than rampage are your best bet.

To find inspiration, simply roam nurseries in earliest springtime to see which perennials are already well leafed out. Find your favorites to bring home and pair with bulbs before they fade away.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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