Sarah's Favourite Bulb Combinations

Posted in All Gardening Advice, Bulbs, September, October, on

I love autumn bulb planting. It’s one of the main opportunities we gardeners have to create our own style signature, to plot a great parade of colour and contrast which will keep us going for months next spring – so take the time now to set yourself a creative challenge. Here are some of my favourite bulb mixes for borders and pots. John Galliano, eat your heart out!

Daffodils and alliums

I love Narcissus ‘Felindre’ with alliums. ‘Felindre’ is quite pricey, but worth it. It’s in the pheasant’s eye group, and has the usual superb scent and long vase life, but it is unusual in holding its head at right angles, rather than hanging demurely. This makes for a brilliant cut flower and garden plant and, in both situations, it is good with the starry, airy Allium ‘Purple Rain’.

The orange rim of the central narcissus perianth and its green eye are both excellent in contrast to the purple allium. You can also try alliums such as the soft-purple ‘Violet Beauty’ with Ornithogalum magnum. These two flower at just the same time and the contrast between the vertical spires of the ornithagolum is good with the spherical allium.

For mainly soft colours but with a zap of something stronger, try the highly scented pair of narcissi, ‘Baby Boomer’ with ‘Rose of May’. ‘Baby Boomer’ is a marvellous new variety with superb scent and long flowering season from early April till mid May. For the last two weeks of its season it coincides with the stephanotis-scented ‘Rose of May’. They make a good colour contrast as a duo at the front of a border or in a pot.

Feast on tulips

A favourite colour collection of mine at Perch Hill is based on the idea of a blood orange – the orange coming from tulip ‘Arjuna’ and the marvellous tulip ‘Request’, which is softly scented of freesia. Then I add a pool of contrast from a densely coloured crimson tulip such as ‘Havran’, or one called ‘Sarah Raven’ that a Dutch friend developed last year, knowing that I would love it.

I’d seen the first two growing close together in a friend’s garden last spring and thought they worked well, then added the third to accentuate the contrast. The trio make a beautiful mix growing at the front of a sunny border, in a pot, and cut and arranged with hellebore pods (their stem ends seared in boiling water for 20 seconds) to bring inside.

To make a change from the strong colours, try a pale combination of ivories, whites and soft greens, but again, don’t just leave it at that. Even with the pale colours, they’re made all the more beautiful with a splash of something else.

The round, ostrich-egg-like elegant tulip ‘Francoise’ looks good mixed with the spiky, starry shaped ‘Green Star’. The contrast in their structure is almost enough, without much difference in colour. But then add the soft-toned ‘La Belle Epoque’ and ‘Purple Tower’ and you’re there. With ‘Purple Tower’, each petal is jagged and fringed, mainly green but with some purple to contrast and make the group interesting.

Biennials for bedding

For a spring show that’s as good as it can possibly be, don’t restrict yourself to bulbs. Make colour combinations with spring bedding. Wallflowers are a traditional favourite for underplanting tulips and daffodils and can look marvellous. Keep the colour of wallflower the same, don’t use a mix, and find a range of bulbs to pick out – or purposely contrast with – the colours on one wallflower stem.

For harmony, plant the Wallflower ‘White Dame’ with tulip ‘Spring Green’ growing through it, or at the other end of the tonal scale, combine the dark Wallflower ‘Blood Red’ with the similar coloured tulip ‘Jan Reus’. If you prefer the idea of contrast to harmony, drop an orange tulip such as ‘Ballerina’, or the super-early ‘Orange Emperor’ through wallflower ‘Blood Red’, or have the pink wallflower ‘Giant Pink’ as your base and the orange and coral tulip ‘Annie Schilder’ growing with it.

You can buy wallflowers easily at this time of year. Get them in as quickly as possible so their roots settle in well before the truly cold, wet weather sets in. Otherwise, you end up with wimpy plants, which create a splotchy look, rather than merging into a proper carpet.

Honesty is another good biennial to plant with spring bulbs. It’s hard to beat the very long-flowering tulip ‘Ballerina’ backed by a drift of purple honesty, and the white honesty (Lunaria annua ‘Alba’) is good with the pale parrot tulip ‘Green Wave’ and the green-flashed ‘Spring Green’.

Put annuals to work

This spring, we also had great success with some autumn-sown hardy annuals as bulb partners. In the south, we can usually get away with overwintering varieties such as Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ outside in the garden. This looks beautiful with large-flowered Anemone coronaria ‘Vinato Mistral’ and ‘Blue Mistral’. The feathery foliage of Nigella damascena and ‘Black Parrot’ tulips also work well together. In the north, I’d still use these combinations, but sow the hardy annuals inside and keep them there until spring, or sow in mid February and plant out a month later.

My latest discovery is the tall, single colour varieties of the toadflax family – the linarias – which are excellent in the garden with hyacinths, Anemone coronaria and tulips. We had Linaria maroccana ‘Lucila Azure’ growing with cerinthe and the blue Hyacinth ‘Peter Stuyvesant’. It looked good and made a great arrangement with the odd stem of Helleborus corsicus.

Hardy annuals don’t have to be flowery. Some of the best combinations are mixes of bulbs with salads. Any of the hardy winter lettuce, such as green ‘Salad Bowl’, Cos ‘Freckles’ or the dark-leaved ‘Solix’, look marvellous as a carpet below tulips. The hardy cut-and-come-again salad leaves such as Mustard ‘Red Giant’ and mizuna make good bulb partners too.

Perennial power

You can mix bulbs with perennials – varieties already in the garden, or even some newly planted. If you go for species which are quick to establish, this is almost instantly a success. In a sunny position, euphorbias are a safe bet, and there are good possibilities for shade too.

We already had some Solomon’s Seal in a shady border which had been looking dull, so added the invaluable shade-loving, spring-flowering perennial, Tellima grandiflora, which is pretty much guaranteed to flower in its first year. Scatter light and luminous bulbs such as tulip ‘White Triumphator’ through that and the patch will be transformed.

Top tips

  • Don’t just plonk your bulbs in without a plan. Select favourite varieties from catalogues or online. Before you buy, print or cut out the images. Mark each one with their flowering times, then play around with the pictures, mixing them to contrast in colour, shape and scale.
  • Combine tulips, alliums or daffodils, making sure that they flower at the same time, or deliberately go for the opposite effect and put together groups which flower one after another to give you weeks of performance.
  • Try a simple contrast between two colours – purple and orange, crimson and gold, coral and cream – or select a family of colours, similar, but with enough contrast between them (or one of them) to make the group sing.

This article first appered in The Telegraph on 20th September 2015