The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

Spring planting combinations that beat the patchy look (and don’t smell like toilet duck)


The resurgence of growth in the April garden is magnificent. But as welcome as spring bulbs are, they can make for a patchy looking landscape.

Gardening experts talk a lot about planting combinations, and I have come to appreciate the importance of using plants together, especially spring bulbs with something more weighty like perennials and shrubs. If you’re an old pro, none of these combinations will be new to you, but for newer gardeners, here are a few spring planting combinations worth trying:

  • Pulsatilla vulgaris and vinca minor: Click for larger imageThe fantastically fuzzy buds of pulsatilla are marvelous in late March and early April. The out-of-focus blue in the background is the ground-hugging vinca minor: this periwinkle is much easier to manage in a garden than its big brother, the greater periwinkle vinca major. Some gardeners will warn you away from any periwinkle as too invasive, but this is quite manageable in my garden and flowers profusely in April if I cut it back hard in autumn.
  • Osmanthus delvayii above plain and parrot tulips:Click for larger imageThis very slow growing shrub is a froth of white for a few weeks in April, and the way it spreads its arms over the tulips reminds me of a tiny flowering cherry tree. Its heavenly, lily of the valley-like scent is fresh and clean, never overpowering. Not to be confused with Osmanthus burkwoodii, which has bigger leaves and smells like toilet duck. The tulips shown here are purple Passionale and the orange parrot, Professor Rontgen, but any pair of contrasting colours would look good.
  • Emerging roses above fritillaria meleagris:Click for larger image The snakes head fritillary picks up the red tones in the emerging foliage of many roses: here it’s the Portland rose, Rose de Rescht. So many emerging perennials offer wonderful foliage which looks great
    next to bulbs and can help disguise their dying leaves. Try to plant the snakeshead where you will see the sun coming through it, so it lights up like an elaborate checked lampshade: otherwise it can look like a dirty purple. I like the white version of the snakeshead even better, and it’s fairly easy to grow from seed; if you can wait a few years they’ll reach flowering size and you can fill a corner of your garden with these elegant little bulbs.
  • Grape hyacinths with aubretia: Click for larger imageSomeone else mentioned this combination and I’m so glad I tried it. The muscari hold their heads above the aubretia, which is that fabulous rockery plant that spills its purpleish flowers over stone walls. “We should get more of that,” was my husband’s one and only comment about the aubretia last year. He doesn’t usually say much, so that means something. If you don’t want to find the grape hyacinth appearing all over your garden, snip off the flower heads before they go to seed.
  • Hyacinth with wild violet, aubretia and vinca minor: Click for larger imageI’m not a great fan of monochrome schemes, but this one sowed itself and was winking at me from the border as I was thinking about this blog post, so I had to mention it. I recall wanting an all-blue border at a certain stage in my gardening life, but I got over it.
  • What I won’t show you today is a picture of my raised bed, which has eight lovely broad bean plants and eight plastic milk bottles (these bottles are God’s gift to the vegetable gardener who needs a cloche or drip tray. I also plant a punctured or bottomless milk bottle next to new shrubs, to give them a good 2-litre drink when I water.) This time, the bottles are covering baby beets and lettuce.

    This is why I was saying last year that I wanted to keep my new vegetable patch in a bit of the garden I don’t see from the window: I hate the plastic, fleece, netting and so forth that vegetable growing so often demands. But I’d like my seedlings to survive, so I’ve rolled out the plastic.

    Like the hosta halos and wire plant supports that have now disappeared beneath the delphinium foliage, the cloches won’t be eyesores for long; they should be unnecessary in a few weeks, when the frost danger has passed.

    What are your favourite planting combinations in your garden? I’d love some more ideas.

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    8 Comments to

    “Spring planting combinations that beat the patchy look (and don’t smell like toilet duck)”

    1. On June 7th, 2011 at 5:39 am Lola Says:

      I have massive aubrieta displays on a tiered stairway). They look like pinks lava pouring down. I decided to improve them with back plantings of claudia tulips. I decided this year that the aubrieta looks better not cluttered up. Its a big, pure, voluptuous show.
      But, i think your idea is great for a rockery. The way grape hyacinths can
      Create a lush sea of blue, sounds perfect pouring into the purple.

      Pity these killer displays shut down for the summer!

    2. On June 7th, 2011 at 9:37 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

      Dear Lola — because you are a fellow plant addict, you will understand when I tell you that I woke up this morning thinking about the garden. So it’s incredibly strange that what I decided on was a series of pots on the stairway, all with aubretia. How uncanny! I’m glad you mentioned that the pots look good on their own, because I was wondering whether it would look too plain. I have a wide staircase leading down to the lower part of the garden where my frogs are, and I want them, and hedgehogs, to be able to climb the stairs, so I’m looking for a tough drought tolerant plant that the animals could climb up. My hope is that the pots, and the steps together, will become a shallower staircase that animals can use.

      Thank you so much for your comments throughout the blog. I really struggle with what to do about my tulips every year, but I do not have the time to dig them up, so I’ve settled for successional planting with perennials that more or less disguise their yellowing foliage. You are so lucky that your friend and your mother are both crazy for gardening; I feel like I sit on a desert island, looking at my loved ones from a distance, when it comes to gardening. But like you, my little one also is starting to enjoy gardening, so it’s something we can do together, even though there is a 38 year age gap!

    3. On June 21st, 2011 at 4:14 am what do i do with my tulip bulbs? Says:

      I’m in oz and our winter just started. I’ve never planted any bulbs before so I know absolutely nothing about them.

      My tulip plants in the pot are wilting and yellowing. I’ve got some planted as well which are more green than yellow but also yellowing. Do I dig them out? Or leave them in the ground/pot until they sprout next year?

      My daffodil and irises are growing some shoots. After flowering (which will probably happen in about 2 months time), do I remove them from the pot too?

    4. On June 25th, 2011 at 5:29 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

      Hi there, sorry for the delay in replying! The stems and leaves on tulips will naturally wither away after the flower has finished. After the petals have dropped off is the best time to give them a feed with something like fish, blood and bone, because that’s when the leaves and roots are doing the hard job of storing up energy to make a fat bulb to flower next year. Your daffodil and iris are the same, so don’t worry when they start to fade, but do give them a little feed and water right after they flower — especially if they are in pots. Tulips, daffodils and iris should all flower next year if they’ve had enough food and water, and you shouldn’t need to take them out of the pot unless you really want to. I have a big pot here for tulips, and when their stems are all yellow and totally dead, I clear them away and plant a few Cosmos daisies in the same pot. One thing: some tulips are better at re-flowering and others; do you know what type you have? Good luck!

    5. On June 27th, 2011 at 8:07 am tulip bulbs Says:

      Thanks for your reply. In that case I’ll leave the bulbs in the pot. Was wondering if I need to water them as per usual or wait until next year before I start watering them consistently again? I was concerned about causing the bulbs to rot…

      I have no idea what type we’ve got except that they are a beautiful yellow and a very striking orange colour. Not as stunning as some that I’ve seen you post up photos of but still very pretty.

    6. On July 6th, 2011 at 11:54 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

      Hi there,

      I wouldn’t water them – just a solid feed, like fish, blood and bone ( powder), since you’re right, liquid feed may contribute to rotting.

    7. On July 7th, 2011 at 4:47 am tulip bulbs Says:

      Thanks for your replies regarding the bulbs. It is most appreciated. My parents have acreage and plant a lot of vegetables, fruit trees and herbs etc but they don’t have that many decorative flower plants so my knowledge on flower&/bulbs is relaly limited. Great site btw 🙂

    8. On July 7th, 2011 at 10:37 am The StopWatch Gardener Says:

      Tulip – oh, ask me anything about flowers anytime! As you can see, I need the distraction, especially now.

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