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Bulbs in the Spring Garden

Bulbs in the Spring Garden

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART
Photographs courtesy of

Are your spring bulbs in the ground yet? November and early December are prime planting time for many. Spending some pre-planting time thinking about design – planning which bulbs will look best with the other plants in your garden – helps create a harmonious whole. Here are a few ideas for integrating tulips, daffodils, grape hyacinths and the like into your spring garden.

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But before beginning to design, we must be sure that the bulbs have the conditions they need to thrive. Peggy Anne Montgomery, horticulturist with the Garden Media Group, which represents European Bulb Exporters, says, “The site is number one. Bulbs do not like wet areas, they will rot. They need some sun. Planting under deciduous trees and shrubs works well because the bulbs get the sun before their leaves emerge.”

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Once you’ve picked a location that works with a bulb’s need for sunlight, soil, and moisture, next is choosing those that complement surrounding plants. Take into consideration:

Timing: There are early-, mid-, and late-blooming varieties of some bulb families, so you can pair one kind of tulip (or daffodil) with your hellebores, another with bleeding heart, and yet another with bearded irises. There will be some overlap, which is why the next consideration should be:

Color: Of course we want every bulb we see in a catalog, but choosing a palette and sticking with it creates an overall garden picture that is so much more satisfying than a bit of everything from the color wheel.

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Think about the colors of the perennials that are blooming or growing at the time bulbs are blooming. What colors are their flowers or foliage, and what flower colors look best with them?

For contrast, look for opposites on the color wheel. Orange or yellow tulips or daffodils look great with blue forget-me-nots, for example. Remember that dark colors recede and light colors appear closer than they are. 

Harmonize by choosing bulbs with similar flower colors to other blooming plants. Try the reddish-purple tulip ‘Negrita’ with Japanese painted ferns in the burgundy shades. These colors, as well as pinks with an undertone of blue, such as the tulip ‘Alibi’, also look great with purple or black-leaved heucheras. Variegated hostas and daffodils look good together.

The surrounding landscape can also play a role. Montgomery likes planting orange tulips like ‘Shogun’ in a gravel garden, where the gray of the rocks makes the tulips seem all the brighter. I like to plant tulips or alliums in purple and blue tones under lilacs or wisteria. The bulbs reach up as the flowers droop down.

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If you have an area that’s a green sea of nondescript foliage, or you have color choice paralysis, you will never go wrong with white flowers. From the grape hyacinth ‘Alba’ to ‘White Emperor’ tulip or the daffodil ‘Mount Hood’, white always looks elegant and dramatic.

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Height: Sounds obvious, but you don’t want tall flowers or bulb foliage obscuring other plants. Check the ultimate height of your bulbs when deciding where to plant them.

“I think tall allium work well with everything, anywhere, anytime,” says Montgomery. “The tall stems are extremely attractive and won’t shade out the perennials they are planted with.”

Grape hyacinth are another upright-grower. Since they stay short they look best towards the front of the border, tucked in among groundcover-type plants such as pachysandra, creeping phlox, or hakone grass.

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Shape: Not just the overall shape of a tulip or daffodil, but the silhouette of the flower itself. Tulips and crocus have oval-shaped flowerheads, while grape hyacinth is triangular. Daffodil and glory-of-the-snow flowers are more or less star-shaped. Aim for contrast when putting bulbs next to plants flowering at the same time. Grape hyacinth makes a stronger contrast to creeping phlox than glory-of-the-snow, because the flowers are a different shape.

My go to? Again, alliums for the win. Their straight stems and round flower heads provide a punctuation mark to pretty much anything in the garden. They look great planted among groundcovers, like cranesbill, or near iris foliage or lady’s mantle.

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Dieback: An unavoidable consequence of spring-flowering bulbs is the dying foliage, which is unattractive but can’t be cut off without consequences to next year’s flowers. Planting bulbs among the emerging foliage of perennials can help minimize the unsightliness.

Montgomery plants daffodils among daylilies: “As the daffodil foliage goes down the daylily foliage comes up to cover it.” She also plants bulbs around hosta for the same reason, but says of the dying foliage, “I also think we should try to be accepting of it whenever possible, it’s part of the nature of plants.”

The sight of spring bulbs is always welcome, however haphazardly they are planted. But the enjoyment is magnified when they are thoughtfully integrated into the garden in such a way that they contribute to the overall picture, complementing the surrounding plantings and forming a cohesive whole. Happy planting!

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