Companion Planting with Bulbs
By: Brent Heath, Co-owner, Brent & Becky’s
Right now in the garden, there are so many wonderful combinations of bulbs, perennials, and annuals that are just spectacular planted together—not just because they work well together visually, but also for the companion relationships they provide! Typically, different plants of different genera have somewhat different requirements and, when planted together in the same bed, those differences can often benefit each other!
The Benefits of Companion Planting with Bulbs
Now, combinations are fun because you get two things that bloom at a similar time that contrast or complement each other quite nicely. But also, two different plant families don’t always attract the same sorts of pests and diseases! So, by planting them together, you can reap the rewards of the companion plant’s protection, often leaving you with a healthier planting.
Spring-flowering bulbs are typically storage organs that hold starches and sugars produced by the “solar collectors” (the leaves) when weather is optimal in spring with good light, plenty of moisture, and cool temperatures. However, once the “solar collectors” have recharged the “batteries” (the bulbs)—usually around 8 weeks after bloom—they tend to go dormant in the heat of the summer and prefer to sleep in a dry bed, like you and I. So, when they’re dormant, they don’t want to be planted where they have mindless irrigation pouring water on them, but they’re very happy in bed with perennials, annuals, groundcovers, trees, and shrubs, who are actively growing during the summer and using the natural available moisture, helping them to stay dry when they’re dormant!
When we look at the summer-flowering bulbs, they are actually another great choice to be planted right on top of and among the spring-flowering bulbs. They, too, provide that same function that the perennials, annuals, and shrubs do for the spring-flowering bulbs, helping to consume the moisture and keep things nice and dry.
But they also work well just in terms of complimenting perennials throughout the summer, too. For example, right now in my own garden, I have a wonderful South African bulb called Galtonia—also nicknamed the summer Hyacinth, with white pendant flowers and attractive leaves on a 2-foot bloom stalk—blooming right in a bed of the Phlox Jeana, which I really like because it blooms all summer and attracts all the pollinators. And, overall, it’s a smashing combination! The two seem quite happy in bed together, and they share it quite nicely.
Companion Planting with Lilies
Lilies are my second favorite bulbs (Daffodils being my first), and I’ve got a lot of them in my garden, but they come with a risk. While deer don’t like certain plants and avoid them, others they are drawn to, like Lilies. At first, I thought roses would be ideal to plant them with for protection, but the deer don’t seem to mind thorns. Instead, I’ve begun planting my Lilies with ornamental grasses! These grasses are not attractive to deer and offer a great companion for protecting my Lilies. Just remember, ornamental grasses have relatively shallow root systems, so plant the Lilies first and plug in the grasses later.
Lilies also work incredibly well in beds of small shrubs, too. They need lots of sun on their leaves, but also need their roots to stay cool, which can be quite hard to give them in a sunny bed. However, among shrubs, they are still able to come up through foliage to get the light they need, but the shrub will keep the ground shaded and their roots nice and cool!
Companion Planting with Caladiums
Another fun summer one is the wonderful Caladium, which maybe those living in a bit of a cooler climate might struggle with. Caladiums are the most tropical of all the bulbs, and they need warm soil. They also prefer being in the shade or part shade. So, they benefit from being in the shade of shrubs and small trees. Crepe myrtles are particularly ideal because you’ll get the color up above and this wonderful, shade-tolerant plant underneath, so you get the shoes, the socks, the pants, and the shirt all together in the same picture!
Companion Planting with Dahlias
Dahlias, in areas with cooler summer nights, probably bloom all summer. Here, though, we find Dahlias bloom better in May and June and then taper off in July, although they are still in bloom and, with enough moisture, they’ll keep blooming (they just won’t be making a big, wild show). But when the nights begin to cool in September, they go to town again! They are spectacular, great for pollinators in fall, and they are perennial here, but only when we put them in bed with very good drainage and a perennial or groundcover that uses up the winter moisture because they like to sleep in a dry bed in the wintertime.
Companion Planting with Gladiolas
The majority of bulbs produced are considered cut flower bulbs or bulbs for pots, and we gardeners just use 20% of them. And since Gladiolas are inexpensive, they tend to be used extensively in funeral arrangements, giving people the misconception that they are “funeral flowers”. But did you know they have every color in the rainbow? (Well, I think they do, but my friend Joseph contends there are no true blues. But color is a personal perception, we each have a different idea of color, so I stand by it!)
Most plants we have in a garden are more mounding, and it’s quite nice to break that mound with a nice, upright plant. Gladiolas have a wonderful linear form, working as a sword or saber in an otherwise flat garden. Often, though, they tend to be top-heavy because they have so darn many flowers that they topple over. Well, here’s a companion relationship that works for them: Glads planted where they can come up through a strong perennial or shrub will have a helping hand—or, rather, branch—to keep them upright!
Companion Planting with Eucomis
Another neat summer bulb is the Eucomis. It is a superb living flower arrangement plant, but it even looks great just in a container arrangement. It works as a fantastic centerpiece with its upright spike and the cute tuft of leaves on top, earning it the nickname “pineapple lily”, but it not just for one season! In bud, it’s simply beautiful, and it is superb in flower, lasting a long time. Once the flower is gone, though, the Calyx is just as pretty, giving you an interesting centrepiece in container or living arrangement all season long!
Companion Planting with Oxalis
Oxalis is extremely shade-tolerant and hardy for us here in Virginia (although, for years I thought it was a houseplant until we accidentally left it out after the summer and discovered it was perfectly hardy). They work great when paired with other shade-lovers, like Caladiums, but they also look fantastic with a flowing grass, like a Carex. They provide an excellent socks and shoes effect for really any shade-loving plant, making them a spectacular companion all around.
While we love the visual effects that planting different genera together can provide, one thing we love even more is when they benefit each other in other ways, too! So I encourage you to try mixing and matching in your garden this season and see what helpful discoveries you can find. You may just find a winning combination!
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