UNTIL I LEARNED to layer bulbs among perennials, I spent way too many rainy afternoons and sodden hours on muddy knees burying bulbs, corms and tubers in the autumn garden, only to create a fleeting spring display followed by gaping holes in my borders. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, contemporary Dutch garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet has breathed new life into how gardeners are looking at bulb season. In her designs, early-season perennials — like forget me not and bleeding heart — mingle with flowering ground covers such as phlox, sweet woodruff, violets and early geraniums to form a dappled tapestry from which color-coordinated bulbs emerge. The glorious result is a naturalistic effect that belies a sophisticated understanding of the plants involved.
To try your hand at this fresh approach, rather than planting bulbs in drifts of multiples, an effect better suited to public plantings than intimate home gardens, weave them in and around ground covers and the crowns of dormant perennials that will later unfurl to divert attention and fill gaps left by fading bulbs in a sort of floral sleight of hand.
Hosta is a budding bulb gardener’s best friend. These perennials, prized for their bold foliage, prefer partial to full shade and are surprisingly drought-tolerant once established, making them an excellent choice for planting beneath deciduous trees whose canopy provides shelter, but where thirsty roots often create competitive, dry growing conditions. However, most trees don’t fully leaf out until mid- to late spring, providing the perfect exposure for daffodils, tulips and other early-blooming bulbs that appreciate dry summer conditions. Hosta foliage is also tops for disguising the ripening foliage of these same bulbs, which can be such an eyesore.
Dry summer conditions are crucial to bulb longevity, especially tulips, as this replicates their native environment. Planting among grasses, sedums and other drought-tolerant plantings that receive little, if any, summer irrigation is perfect for establishing tulips, hyacinths, alliums and other spring beauties.
Or start simply. Snow crocus, reticulated iris, snowdrops, windflowers and other diminutive early performers are easy to tuck in among perennials and established shrubs. Planted in generous numbers, these beauties bloom beginning in late winter or earliest spring, multiplying over the years to create ever-larger drifts of color. Picture a bare lilac underplanted with dozens of crocus, creating a pool of rich blue or purple that hints at future blooms. Weave these minor bulbs among dormant crowns of perennials, along pathways, in gravel, even between the steppingstones of a pathway. As ripening bulb foliage goes, these tiny gems are pretty innocuous. Most have delicate grasslike foliage less likely to foul an otherwise-pristine spring planting.
Finally, please don’t braid, twist or otherwise adorn fading bulb foliage in an effort to disguise a less-than-attractive, yet inevitable, stage of bulb culture. It is during this phase, delicately referred to as “ripening,” that leaves are taking in and storing the energy needed to produce next year’s flowers. There’s no denying this is not their finest hour, but fussing with them only lessens the leaf surface exposed to the sun and robs them of valuable photosynthetic hours — plus, you’re not fooling anyone.