Creating Bulb Displays

by | Sep 14, 2020


Millions of Dutch-grown bulbs are flowing into BC right now, giving gardeners an opportunity to create some spectacular displays for next spring. The only problem is that many new gardeners are not quite sure just how to go about creating those eye-catching displays.


Being faced with rows upon rows of all kinds of different bulbs which bloom in assorted colours, at different heights, and at various times can be somewhat confusing. Unless you are a connoisseur, ignore all these hundreds of choices and stick to the basics. Keep it simple. Some of the most effective and memorable displays from when Brian visited Keukenhof Gardens (the world’s ultimate bulb display garden just outside of Amsterdam) several years ago were the ones that had the fewest varieties of bulbs. What made these displays were the shapes of the plantings and the use of contrasting colours*. The secret to effective displays in your garden then, is to choose different varieties of bulbs and plants that bloom at the same time, or complement each others’ habit, and select interesting colour combinations.


Let’s start with the earliest snowdrops. By themselves, they look okay, but if you plant them around the beautiful white helleborus (Christmas Rose), the effect is really quite lovely. It is difficult to find other bulbs that bloom at the same time as snowdrops, so be creative and plant them among the stunning stems of red twig dogwoods or around a large, uniquely formed shrub.


snowdrops and aconite bulbs


Delightful yellow winter aconites often bloom at the same time or follow right behind snowdrops. Come to think of it, with snowdrops in the center; the two might make an interesting combination! These bulbs look sensational under a wonderful gnarled tree, such as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Contorted Filbert). I also like to see them intermingled with the rich purplish-red winter-flowering heathers like ‘Kramer’s Red. Golden foliage varieties, like ‘Mary Helen’ and ‘Evergold,’ will also look stunning year after year surrounded by these yellow jewels. Low growing puschkinias look fantastic with tone-on-tone winter pansies, and they would both be suitable in a container.


The most charming mid-winter flowers are the miniature irises. These three-inch high sweeties are right at home in a rock garden, or even in good-sized window boxes. Far more varieties are available today than ever before, but I still think the deep violet Iris reticulata and its fragrant yellow cousin, I. danfordiae, are the very best. You have to blend the two together for the best effect, and put them on the lee side of larger stones for a genuine alpine display.


blooming muscari flowers


Once we jump into March, all sorts of possibilities open up. The sleepier of all bulbs has to be the striking, but often ignored, grape hyacinth (Muscari).  By themselves, these fragrant perennial bulbs look equally good in rock gardens, on top of rock walls, next to steps, or in sweeping drifts of mass plantings almost anywhere. These are probably the longest-lasting, most durable bulbs you can get! Try planting them among ground covers, or in a mass planted under early flowering shrubs and trees, like yellow forsythia, ‘Star’ magnolias, and even early flowering cherries, like Prunus autumnalis. In Keukenhof Gardens, they used them extensively as solid borders around hundreds of beds, and the effect was simply breathtaking. Because muscaris bloom longer, they blend beautifully with either yellow or white daffodils, like ‘Flower Carpet’ and the elegant white ‘Thalia’ variety. Almost any of the single early or ‘Triumph’ tulips will match the blooming season of muscari, and almost any colour of tulip, mingled with white or blue grape hyacinths, makes a great combination.

tulips and phlox

Image Credit: Van Noort Bulbs/Florissa

 Early, mid and late-season tulips come in such an array of colours that you have a wealth of options to choose from! Emerging peony stems, even with no blooms whatsoever, make an interesting statement next to tulips while foliage perennials like alchemilla, artemesias and heucheras offer a textural component. Masses of blooms courtesy of mysotis (Forget-Me-Nots), creeping phlox, and iberis would look awesome with contrasting tones of tulips mixed in. Alliums, blooming later in May to June, look really nice with an underplanting of ‘Rozanne’ geraniums.


With so many bulb varieties available today, the possibilities for combinations are limitless, but pre-designed packages make it so much easier. These combinations do best in garden beds. More and more folks are planting in pots too. Simply plant them up in good soil and bury the pot in the ground! You can either lift them up and pop them into more attractive containers once the bulbs come up in spring. When they finish blooming you can lift and move them out of the way to keep your garden looking tidy and let the spent bulbs die down naturally in an out-of-the-way area, for replanting next fall. Containers not placed in the ground would need to be well insulated in case of severe winter cold, and hold off on planting them until the weather is significantly cooler. Planting them too early (when its still relatively warm) might cause the bulbs to think its spring and start emerging too quickly!


Other suggested combinations:


 Bulb with Companion Shrub

daffodil and rose bush

Winter Aconite  –  Contorted Filbert

Yellow Daffodil  –  Bush Roses

Colchicum  –  Symphoricarpos (Snowberry)

Anemone Blanda  –  Corylopsis

 Bulb with Companion Perennial

Chionodoxa  –  White Arabis

Allium  –  ‘Rozanne’ Geranium

Scilla  –  Hosta or Doronicum 

Dwarf Iris  –  Wooly Thyme

Snowdrops  –  Pink Helleborus

 Bulb with Companion Bulb

Muscari  –  White Daffodil

Blue Anemone  –  Gold Narcissus

Do try some of these delightful combinations for a fabulous display next spring. They are widely available right across the country, and with a little effort now, they will be a valuable addition to your garden. One of the great things about bulbs is that if you don’t like the combination one year, you can carefully lift the bulb when it’s done to try it somewhere else the next year. In this way you can keep refreshing the look and feel of your spring garden until you’ve got it just the way you want it!

*Remember your colour wheel! Monochromatic colours are different values within the same colour, such as pale blue, blue, and deep blue. Gives a soft, romantic look. Analogous colours are colours adjacent to each other on the wheel. Gives a similar effect as monochromatic but with more depth. Complementary colours are colours opposite each other on the wheel. They ‘strengthen’ each other and really pop. This is your drama combo!