When I began gardening years ago, the only plants I grew were herbs. I was intrigued by the idea of growing plants that were useful in some way, rather than merely beautiful, which had less appeal to me. I was something of a purist about my herbs.
I don’t feel that way today. Growing herbs for my dinner table opened up the wider world of gardening to me. Now I don’t need an excuse to add any plant that intrigues me to my “herb” garden. I’m always looking for companions for my favorite plants.
In early spring, when the chives start pushing their way up through the cold soil and the gardener is prancing with anticipation for the weather to warm enough to get outside, that’s when the burst of happy color from chives and other spring-blooming bulbs is most appreciated. Those early flowers are always a welcome surprise. Now is the time I’m grateful that I planted flowering bulbs in and among my perennials in the fall.
Hardy bulbs actually make quite good companions for most perennial gardens, as they add their brilliant color at the very time when the rest of the garden is still asleep, and the dry shade suits them during hot summers, when they’re dormant. By the time the spring flowers are gone, when the bulb foliage dies back and looks ugly as the bulb stores nutrients for the next season, the rest of the garden is ready to take over the job of providing beauty, color, form, and fragrance. Mother Nature is efficient that way.
Bulbs also do well when mixed in with wildflowers in a meadow or woodland setting. They can be planted in the shade around deciduous trees and shrubs, grabbing what sunlight they need to bloom before the bigger plants have even leafed out yet. They can be mixed in with carefree perennials such as calendula and violets. And they can be mixed in with groundcovers. Daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth, crocuses, and snowdrops look lovely planted among creepers with interesting foliage—such as ‘Blackie’ sweet potato, lungworts, lamiums, ivy, and prostrate rosemaries; the other plants fill in and disguise the bulbs’ dying foliage.
Here are some things to think about as you ponder adding the silly splash of bulbs to the more sedate landscape of an early spring herb garden:
• Most spring-flowering bulbs need full sun when they’re growing, but tolerate shade when they’re dormant, so planting them in with perennial herbs that leaf out later in the season is perfect. They need a loose, well-drained, well-worked soil, and they benefit from an initial topdressing of fertilizer, aged manure, or compost. When you’re planting perennial herbs, put a bulb or two in the planting hole, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised in the spring.
• Most bulbs are perennial and need a period of cold before they bloom, which is why they’re generally planted in the fall. The exception is the tender bulbs such as dahlias and cannas, which are dug up every year or treated as annual.
•Buy the biggest, firmest bulbs you can find. Plant most at a depth of three to four times the height of the bulb, spacing the big ones 5 to 6 inches apart, and the smaller ones 1 to 3 inches apart. For the best visual effect, plant them in clusters rather than singly.
• Bulbs generally need at least two months to recuperate from their exuberant blooming, during which time their foliage should be left to die back undisturbed. For that reason, bulbs don’t generally do well planted with grass in lawns, because the grass will cry out for a mowing before the bulb foliage is ready to be cut.
• Bulbs can also be planted in containers, wine barrels, and window boxes, mixed in with herbs that will take over the show after the bulbs have flowered.
• Remember that bulbs such as daffodils will need dividing in a few years to stay productive bloomers. Over time, this chore multiplies your bulbs in a satisfying way.
• Don’t forget about that most herbal of all bulbs—the aristocratic saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). This plant is the source of the precious spice, the tiny saffron stigmas that appear with the lovely flower in the fall. (Technically, it’s a corm, not a bulb, which is a botanical distinction.) Order these now for late-summer delivery so that you’ll be sure to have them, as they’re popular and nurseries run out.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas.