Nothing signals the rebirth of a garden more to a gardener than the first splash of colour from spring bulbs. The fresh green colour of their leaves and their colourful palette of blooms are a welcomed sign of the departure of winter and the awakening of life in the garden with all the hope and expectations that they may bring. Be it tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths or alliums these early bloomers all have one thing in common. They are all true bulbs and being so means their continued lives depend on letting them become dormant through the cold winter, allowing them to bloom in the spring and die back naturally in order to complete their life cycle. This ensures the bulb’s good health so it has the ability to endure freezing temperatures throughout the winter, produce optimum blooms for the gardener to enjoy the following spring and continue to do so for years to come.
The only drawback for growing these bulbs is waiting for the leaves to die back. Unfortunately it takes weeks for their leaves to wither and die. Especially with larger leaved bulbs like tulips and daffodils, the appearance of their dying foliage, long after the blooms drop or fade, can detract from the beauty of an early summer garden. Premature removal of the foliage is tempting in order to keep the garden neat and tidy however there are consequences to doing so. Take tulips for example. They grow and bloom using the food that they have stored in their bulbs from the previous year. Once this food is spent, the bloom drops and the foliage starts to die. During this post-bloom phase, the leaves, through photosynthesis, produce the food that is stored in the bulb to enable it to survive the winter and grow and bloom in the spring. Photosynthesis is a process where the energy in sunlight is harnessed and used to convert carbon, oxygen and water into sugars. Because leaves of all plants are the primary location for photosynthesis to occur, cutting off the leaves prematurely deprives the plant of the ability to restore the energy in the bulb for its future healthy growth and its production of those beautiful blooms.
So what are some of the options for a gardener to choose in order to keep a more pristine-looking garden?
When blooms start to fade and petals drop, tidying up the garden at this time is easily accomplished by cutting off the stems of the flower. This will still allow the leaves to continue to absorb the sun’s rays. The time is right to remove the leaves once they have withered, turned brown and can be tugged gently away from the bulb. Wait another week or two if they are not separating from the bulb easily.
The following suggestions may help to avoid the distraction of the dying foliage.
- Dig up the bulbs and replant new ones in the fall. This can be costly in time and money. This is done routinely in publicly sponsored gardens.
- Transplant the tulips post-bloom to another bed to live out the foliages’ dying days then replant the bulbs in the fall. This requires an extra bed just for this purpose.
- Choose a variety that have narrower leaves which might be less distracting.
- Conceal the withering leaves.
Strategic planting of the right combination of perennials around your bulbs may be the answer to successfully camouflaging the unsightly foliage while still allowing them to complete the restoration of energy in the bulb undisturbed for next year’s growth. Annuals and summer blooming bulbs are also other options. When choosing perennials to use, consider the rate at which the plant matures. You want the bulb to be centre stage while it’s in full bloom, the perennial just starting to appear above ground and then mature as the tulip leaves start to yellow and wither.
Although the rate of maturity is important, also consider foliage type, colour, and bloom times when choosing these perennial plants.
Hostas, tall drooping grasses, and taller ground covers are examples of perennials that are idea lfor concealing a tulip’s dying foliage. Remember that placement is key. If you are planting bulbs in the fall around hostas, make sure you plant the bulb just inside the dripline of the hosta just under the leaves. Bulbs go in front of the drooping grasses.
There are combinations of perennials listed at Cornell University’s website
Researchers at Cornell University actually tested and listed plant combinations to see which were successful at looking good and growing well together. They have great photos of these plants and bulbs at different stages of their growth.
Just remember to check the hardiness zone and growing conditions of some of the suggested plants (if choosing) to ensure they will grow in your zone and growing conditions. The research took place in Ithaca, New York with a USA hardiness zone of 5.
If you’ve been discouraged from growing or adding more spring blooming bulbs to your garden due to the lingering foliage that never seems to go away, these suggestions will hopefully encourage you to do so. The early visual impact is rewarding and will trigger feelings of hope and excitement of the wonderful things to come.