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Fall is the perfect time to plant bulbs, and pairing bulbs makes for fabulous displays. Here are ideas for creating gorgeous beds come spring and summer. 

Bulbs are the unsung wonders of the garden. They give us unending color with very little effort, and even a novice gardener can create a spectacular display. If you choose your bulbs wisely, you can also have blooms from spring to fall.

2ofakind-tulips

Bulbs often look best when paired with other bulbs. If you’re new to the art of bulb pairing, start small and simple. For example, you can’t go wrong with a very simple pairing of bright-red tulips with an under planting of blue grape hyacinth (Muscari). In mass plantings, these two create a stunning spring display. If you want to mix it up further, add a splash of miniature daffodils (tête-à-têtes).

The first rule of bulb pairing is to know when your bulbs will bloom. With tulips alone, there are early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties, so make sure the bulbs you pair bloom around the same time. You wouldn’t pair glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) with montbretia (Crocosmia), for instance, because one is an early-spring bloomer and the other is a summer bloomer. Glory-of-the-snow would be better paired with an early bloomer, like February gold narcissus.

For a show-stopping display, a good rule of thumb is to plant groups of at least five of the same plant in odd numbers. Pairing bulbs with different shades of the same color is nice, too (in this case, purple alliums paired with purple-white irises).
For a show-stopping display, a good rule of thumb is to plant groups of at least five of the same plant in odd numbers. Pairing bulbs with different shades of the same color is nice, too (in this case, purple alliums paired with purple-white irises).

Bulb pairings look best when layered. Plant larger bulbs like tulips, hyacinths, narcissus and alliums in one area, and smaller bulbs like grape hyacinth, crocus and species tulips beneath or in front of them. Always group/cluster your bulbs. A grouping of at least five or more in odd numbers is visually pleasing, and the larger the group the more dramatic the show.

Plant bulbs below flowering ground covers to make them appear natural, and to give the flowers a foundation to stand on.

Bulbs in a Bed

All bulbs have specific planting times, planting depths and specific cold hardiness, so only choose bulbs that will survive our cold climate. Most of the information you’ll need is on the packaging. When selecting bulbs you’ll want to know the flower color, the month(s) it blooms, how tall it grows, what month to plant it, and how deep to plant it. If the bulbs you choose fit loosely into the same ­parameters, you’re ready to plant.

When buying bulbs, chose complementary colors or varying shades of one color. Brightly colored flowers are showier in full-sun locations, while softer colors are better for dappled sun. My favorite spring combinations are red tulips and blue grape hyacinth, as well as crocus and snowdrops (Galanthus). Purple crocus cups reaching toward the sky juxtaposed against snowdrops’ nodding heads makes for beautiful spring color.

Clustering bulbs at the base of trees injects color into the landscape and highlights garden features.
Clustering bulbs at the base of trees injects color into the landscape and highlights garden features.

Crocus and daffodils are another classic spring pairing. Bulbs also pair well with perennials. Tulips look nice with hosta, and the perennial’s large leaves screen the bulb’s unattractive foliage as it dies back.

Hosta and daffodils is another nice combo.

Look for landscape areas to highlight with bulbs, like clustering flowers at the base of a tree, for example. Ribbons of bulbs can tie different parts of the landscape together, and grouping bulbs in the curves of a pathway adds a nice flourish.

Try mixing differently textured bulbs, too, like fringed flowers with spiky blooms, and single-flowered and double-flowered bulbs.

Summer Show

Summer introduces new bulbs with much more showy blossoms. I love the combination of foxtail lily (Eremurus) and allium ‘Mt. Everest’ (Allium stipitatum). The lily’s tall, spiky, bottlebrush blooms pair splendidly with allium’s purple spheres. Allium foliage doesn’t look good for long, however, so try an under planting of chartreuse lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Daylilies are always a pretty bet and many varieties have short, upright leaves instead of the more typical long, droopy leaves that don’t look so nice after the blossoms die back.

For late-summer-blooming bulbs, consider Oriental lilies. Many have exquisite fragrance, and bloom in late August or even September. Colchicum, a rarely used bulb similar in appearance to crocus, blooms in late September/early October with colors ranging from white and pale pink to light purple. These two bulbs can create a surprising display at a time when most other plants go dormant.

As beautiful as bulbs are in the garden, they’re also great for cutting and creating lovely bouquets. Nothing says “I’m thinking of you” better than the flowers you’ve grown, cut and arranged from your garden. Plant hundreds of bulbs this fall and you’ll have plenty to enjoy in your garden, and many to give away as well.

Julie Hauser is the owner of Indigo Landscape Design. She specializes in designing landscapes and gardens that are environmentally thoughtful, water-conscious and inviting to wildlife, and that incorporate edibles in an ornamental style.

Bulb Resources

Here are a few websites with planting information and bulbs for sale.

Fall-Planted Bulbs: www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07410.html (www is required for this site)

Spring-Planted Bulbs: www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07411.html (www is required for this site)

White Flower Farm:  whiteflowerfarm.com

Keukenhof Holland: keukenhof.nl

van Bourgondien: dutchbulbs.com

—Julie Hauser