First written for GroGroup Garden Almanac, a now-defunct publication of that fine garden center trade group.
Maybe you spend all weekend gardening; maybe, like most people, your garden gets somewhat less attention than you’d like. The perennial bed looks a bit overgrown or nearly empty when it’s not peak bloomtime. Shrub beds seem to need pruning and fertilizing, and one bush never looks quite as good as the rest, so you’re always doing something to it. Annuals must be replanted, and let’s not even talk about the lawn’s needs. These travails seldom daunt the gardener, but wouldn’t it be nice to have an area you can just enjoy?
If you plan before you plant, keep the design simple, and use plants with opposite seasonal attractions, you can have just such an area in your garden.
Choose a spot you see all the time, one with a low profile that doesn’t lend itself to mowing or hedging. It could be the ‘devil’s strip’ between the sidewalk and the street, the circular bed around the lamppost, or the bed next to the front door that everyone passes. Planting a pair of compatible plants en masse can also bring lots of color to a relatively small space. When you choose hardy species with moderate growth habits, many common garden chores never make your list.
The combinations you can consider are endless, but the most effective include bulbs underneath either low-growing, spreading shrubs, clumping or vining groundcovers. The bulbs can be planted in colorful groups, sprinkled throughout, or as a defining border around their companions.
Evergreen shrubs like dwarf junipers, sasanqua, euonymous, or cotoneaster will rise about two feet above the soil when mature. Green and dense, their foliage shades weeds and boasts flowers or berries in winter. Add color and flowers in summer by underplanting the bed with amaryllis or lilies, with tall spires reaching a foot or more above the shrubs.
Clumping ground covers spread by developing offsets, so there’s more of them each year as the clump grows. Liriope may be solid green or striped with white and blooms each spring while the ever-popular mondo grass (also known as monkeygrass) creates a dark green mat. Fill the gaps with a host of daffodils; their leaves will shade the soil in the first years, and later the clumps will hide them.
The vining ground covers, like Asian jasmine, English ivy and Algerian ivy, will creep and crawl all over the bed. Since they hug the ground so well and don’t bloom, use nearly leafless bulbs to dot the bed with fall color (surprise lilies, or spider lilies) or surround them with a ring of early-spring crocus or snowdrops. Or do both.
Let the calendar be your guide to maintaining these combination plantings. In late fall or winter, prune evergreens and clean up and add mulch around them and the clumping ground covers. If any insects or leaf problems were present last year, use this time to spray dormant oil. Once growth gets going in spring, tip prune vining plants to encourage dense plants where you want them. Root the trimmings if you need more plants. If your bulbs bloom in spring, fertilize the whole bed after they’re done. Summer’s main task is simply watering to keep roots working and new growth coming. And fall means mulch; the colder the weather where you live, the more you’ll use.
Remember these simple rules: the plants will be in place for years, so dig or till the soil well and consider adding a sprinkler or soaker hose. Spend a bit more time and remove all the grass and weeds currently growing there. Place the shrubs, still in their pots, then put the bulbs where you want color. Once you’ve planted, use a pre-emerge weed preventer so buried weed seeds don’t get started. Keep the bed watered until well-established, fertilize once a year after the bulbs bloom, and enjoy.