designing with flower bulbs, with chanticleer’s lisa roper

nassella and tulipsHERE’S HOW my brain works in late summer: The garden has been really hot and dry …and now it’s bulb-ordering time, ahead of fall planting. When I put those two thoughts together, it seemed urgent that I should phone Lisa Roper of the public garden called Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where she is responsible for the hot, dry Gravel Garden, and also has a particularly artistic flourish with flower bulbs.

Thanks to Lisa, I got helpful advice about shopping for bulbs, and the importance of choosing perennial companion plants that work well with them—creating dramatic backdrops, or hiding faded bulb foliage—plus tips for making our tulips last longer and more.  We also talked about gardening by subtraction—the essential process of editing, especially in a looser “wild garden,” as the Gravel Garden style represents.

Lisa, at Chanticleer since 1990 after graduating from Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program, is also one of the co-authors of lavish book about Chanticleer called “The Art of Gardening.” (Enter in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, to win a copy.)

Read along as you listen to the Aug. 29, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Below: the Gravel Garden at an allium-and-wisteria moment to whet your appetite (the Allium is ‘Early Emperor’).

unspecified-6my bulb q&a with chanticleer’s lisa roper



Q. My two ideas I sort of teased about connecting in the introduction just now are not so disconnected at all, since our most popular and familiar garden flower bulbs in fact hail from climates where the soil drains sharply and they spent the dormant season happily dry, right?

A. That’s true. Many of the bulbs that I grow are from the Mediterranean climate, often from the Middle East. They like their summers to be hot and dry.

Q. Well, they would have liked it this year in my garden. [Laughter.] Oh, my goodness.

Before we start talking about bulbs in detail, give us an idea of what the Gravel Garden looks like. From the wonderful book from Chanticleer, “The Art of Gardening,” it’s kind of what I’d call a “wild garden,” and I don’t mean that as in messy, but simply looser.

A. It is a wild garden in a sense—it’s not formal. It’s a south-facing gentle slope defined only with some architecture, and those are large granite slabs use a steps that go down to the middle of the garden.

Other than that, the plants are planted in very sort of naturalistic sweeps, and dotted here and there. There are grasses for fine texture; there are Mediterranean plants like lavender and santolina. And then there are other plants you might find in a meadow around here—like aster, or wine cups.

It’s a range of plants, and actually the biggest challenge in working in this gravel garden is editing. Some of these plants are more aggressive than others.

Q. Editing! [Laughter.] It’s an interesting thing. I was a journalist for many years, and more of an editor than a writer, so I always think I must be well prepared for gardening—because isn’t it really about reducing, about reduction? Nature is bountiful.

A. It’s design by subtraction—and some addition. But in order to add plants, you have to subtract others. [Laughter.]

Q. No kidding.

A. Most of this is a perennial garden; there are some things that are annual or tropical, but most of them are perennial.

Q. Are there a few big bulb moments in the garden’s season?

A. It starts out with a bang I the early season. It starts out with iris—Iris reticulata hybrids. But the biggest bang is a little bit later, when these early tulips start, mixing with Muscari and some other bulbs. I would say that is the biggest bang.

Q. Are they in drifts, in large numbers, or little pockets here and there—how would you describe the planting style when you use bulbs in this wild garden setting?

A. You could call them drifts and pockets—those are both good descriptions. I try to have the flow of the bulbs going down the hill, diagonally, because you’re thinking about how your eye is reading it.

But I like some of the bulbs to have larger pockets, and other smaller, just dependent on what bulb it is. Obviously a smaller bulb needs a bigger amount to be noticed. So something like an Allium, maybe you could have just a few dotted here and there and it will stand out. But a tiny little Muscari, you need a group of them to be seen.

Q. With those early iris and so forth–any favorites to recommend?

A. I have some Iris reticulata hybrids, ‘George,’ and ‘Gordon;’ there are others, but those are the guys I like. [Laughter.] They start out the blooming season usually in the end of March, and sometimes go into the first two weeks of April, depending on how warm it is.

‘George’ [below, left panel, with Sedum ‘Angelina’] is a really dark purple, whereas ‘Gordon’ is blue with violet falls. They’re both really sweet but very small, probably only a few inches high. The soil needs to stay very dry in the summer to set buds in the following year.

Q. So if it has wet feet, not a good thing.

A. It doesn’t flower the next year; it might not kill it, but it won’t flower.

Q. Iris come in different forms—are these reticulata types bulbs?

A. These are bulbs, small little bulbs. You need to order a significant amount to make an impression, and I would recommend planting them in a group. Maybe you put 12 or 25 together to make an impact.

Q. So ‘George’ and ‘Gordon’—it’s an all-male cast over there at Chanticleer. [Laughter.]

A. Well, there is also Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ [below right], who is a real beauty. She is not a reticulata, she’s a hybrid, and a very pale blue with darker blue spots on the fall petals, and yellow markings. She’s very subtle, so I pair her with Narcissus ‘Little Gem,’ which is a small, early Narcissus, and also sometimes with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina.’

iris from lisa roper chanticleer-3Q. ‘Angelina’ is wonderful—and for people who don’t know it, it’s a succulent, and almost looks like a conifer—as if it has needles. It can be yellow, and depending on the temperature, it’s almost butterscotch.

A. Coming out of the winter it has these orangey tones. In the Gravel Garden in early March, there isn’t much  going on to pair bulbs with, so I am really scrambling. That is one of the plants that is evergreen, and comes out of the winter with these wonderful colors.

Another thing I can pair these early iris with is the grass Nassella tenuissima—Mexican hair grass [Zones 6-10]. That is a grass that’s dormant in the early spring—it’s looking tan from the year before, and you could cut the foliage back in anticipation of the new green growth that will come up later, like in May or late April.

But I leave it up, because I want something to go with the iris. It’s very fine, and waves in the wind, and provides a nice backdrop.

Q. You’re talking about these supporting characters for the bulbs—the Sedum, the Nassella. A lot of people’s objections to bulbs is that they love them when they’re in bloom, but they’re messy when they’re out of bloom.

I’ve known people who say, “I want to braid the foliage; I want to tie up the foliage; I want to put clothespins on the foliage.” All these ways to torture the plant—or they want to cut it off, which of course doesn’t allow the plant to feed the bulbs underneath so you have a nice flower for next year.

But you’re talking about culturally, design-wise, giving it a good companion so that foliage is OK, and hidden.

A. With the companion I’m talking about here, it’s just a backdrop. But you do need to think about a companion that will emerge later and cover that foliage a bit, or mask it. And you’re right: It does need to photosynthesize and send energy back to the bulb, so you don’t want to braid it, or cut it off…

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …until it has senesced and turned a kind of brownish color, and that’s when you know it’s done its job. But if you plant these early bulbs, say, under asters—and I have the asters oblongifolius ‘October Skies’ and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in the Gravel Garden—then as the aster emerges, or other late-season perennials, it will cover this foliage that’s dying back. That may take a little while, but it’s a good technique. You’re using the same ground for two different times of bloom.

Q. So it’s like layering your design.

A. Yes.

unspecified-7Q. There is a beautiful photograph in “The Art of Gardening” of the aster moment in the Gravel Garden [above]—looking up the steps. And there are like these billows, these low-hanging clouds of lavender-colored asters. Are the two cultivars you name that shape naturally, or do you edit them in any way—do they stay low enough for you like that on their own?

A. I cut them back once in late May or early June. That does a few things: It prevents them from really flopping, and keeps them a little shorter, and more well-branched. It also makes them bloom a little later, although that isn’t necessarily the reason I do it. It’s more for getting them not to flop.

You could even pinch them more than once. I’m actually like cutting off a few inches when I do this, but as long as you do it before the first of July, you could do it two times if you wanted to.

Q. So that’s another strategy for making the whole picture not get out of hand—the sort of editing we were talking about earlier.

A. Absolutely.

Q. Preventive, proactive editing. So there are two kinds of perennial companions you are looking for: One is the backdrop kind you mentioned first, and the other is a later moment like the aster that’s going to also do this camouflage job on the foliage.

I am really guilty of impulse spending in the bulb catalogs. You’re weary; the season is winding down; I haven’t planted or shopped in a long time—so I see these gorgeous pictures and think: “I want to have that; I want to have this.”

But I don’t really think about what you just said in advance—how am I going to strategically place this; what are its companions going to be. Do you do that before you get tempted? [Laughter.]

A. My best way is to take notes regularly while the bulbs are blooming. I might snip off this bulb, and carry it over to this perennial, and say, “Oh, they would look great together.” Or even snip off something in somebody else’s area at Chanticleer, and bring it to my area, and say, “Hmmm, these might go together well.”  Because I know they’re all happening at the same time. So I take note of that, and I also take notes with photos.

Q. I was going to say: You’re a photographer, so you also take snapshots and they’re dated, so in a sense you have a photographic diary going.

A. I also do test bulbs. Last year I ordered a species tulip for the first time, and I didn’t like it. Then I picked one and brought it all around to my garden, to see if it would work anywhere, and I thought it looked best just with silvery foliage. But I really in the end decided I didn’t want it. So then I dig it up.

Q. So you might buy a smaller number, and put it in a nursery bed?

A. Or even in the garden, but just in one place, and sort of evaluate it. If I like it, I take notes where I want to see it, and the next year I buy more.

Q. I love the idea—the visual image—of you marching around with cut flowers, marching around your colleagues’ areas of Chanticleer, holding them up. I think that’s beautiful. Isn’t it wonderful how gardening sends us on these little adventures trying to find the Rosetta Stone—the answer?

A. [Laughter.] You can’t tell from the picture in a bulb catalog if the color is really that shade of orange, or this shade—unless you have the plant in your hand.

Q. Nor can you tell the simultaneity of two plants in your microclimate.

A. That’s right.

Q. So that’s a great idea.

We had these early little irises, and some Muscari—any Muscari of note?

A. I have a few I grow: Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ is a more unusual one I grow. It’s a pale blue, and I love it with Narcissus ‘Hawera,’ which is one of my favorite Narcissus. I think the Muscari comes out first, in late March, but the Narcissus joins it in mid-April. It’s a very delicate Narcissus with a pale yellow cup and then backward-facing, slightly darker yellow petals. Those two look lovely together, because they’re both pale colors.

unspecified (1)I also grow Muscari armeniacum, just the straight one, which is a blue that people are very familiar with. And I like both of those with an early tulip called ‘Shogun’ [above]. It has a pale orange flower and multiple small flowers—I think it’s a bunch tulip.

Q. I love them; it’s like a little bouquet in each bulb.

A. All of those guys are great with some of the early Euphorbia, if you’re thinking of what to pair them with.

Q. That’s a great suggestion, and I love that insanely electric chartreuse-green color.

A. So they’re blooming then with those chartreuse flowers. I grow two that are early blooming—Euphorbia myrsinites, which is that snakey one with the blue-green foliage that crawls along the ground.

Q. You almost think it’s a succulent when you first see it—do you know what I mean?

A. Yes. And then another one is Euphorbia polychroma, which is more of a mounding shape, and also bright.

Q. With the tulips, besides ‘Shogun,’ any other tulips we should be looking for in the catalogs?

unspecified-2 (1)A. I love ‘Orange Emperor,’ which comes just a little bit after ‘Shogun.’ As you can see I favor the orange in this little combination. ‘Orange Emperor’ is a darker orange [above], not as pale, and a little bit bigger flower. I have sweeps of both of them running down the gravel garden.

This is in March and April, these early tulips. They look great with the Nassella, and the Euphorbia, and the lavender as well—which is really looking good at that time.

Q. What about some alliums? That’s a hard section of the bulb catalog to pass by—there is always some fabulous-looking there. Any favorites?

A. A few years ago I started growing some of the white alliums. I love ‘Mt. Everest,’ which is a tall, white-flowering allium. I grow it with Baptisia alba, which blooms about the same time, a white-flowering Baptisia. And I grow them against a dwarf shrub called Hippophae rhamnoides, which has a very silvery-gray fine leaf. It’s a very silvery-white combination, so that’s something a little unusual.

unspecifiedQ. That’s a funny shrub. I’ve tried it, and it grows wells for me—and even suckers and grows lustily. But I’ve seen pictures of an orange fruit that I was never able to get. I guess there are male and female plants and mine were mislabeled, the boys and the girls. [Laughter.]

A. I haven’t gotten the fruit, either.

Q. So it’s not just me; I’m not a total failure. I love the idea of the alliums with the Baptisia—very dramatic.

A. And the first allium that opens in the Gravel Garden is ‘Early Emperor,’ one of the earliest. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but alliums bloom for quite a number of weeks—early, mid- and late-season ones. ‘Early Emperor’ has a reddish-purple color, and is about the same size as ‘Purple Sensation,’ which people are probably more familiar with. But it blooms before ‘Purple Sensation.’ It’s tall—about 2-1/2 or 3 feet tall.

And then I have ‘Purple Sensation’ as well but it comes on later.

One of my favorite alliums that I have dotted the Gravel Garden with is a small one called Allium karataviense. It emerges with two great pleated leaves, and the leaves themselves are so beautiful you don’t even need the flower. But the flower comes later, in mid-May, and it’s a fat flower and it’s nestled down in the leaves, with a pale pink color.

unspecified-5Q. When you say that, I think, “Oh, I had those for so many years; I wonder what I did with them?” I let them get swamped with something else, I think. So now I have another bulb to add to my list.

So finally: What about tulips? A lot of people think they are grown for annual bedding, or for cutting, and then that’s that. But can you make them last longer—are some more perennial than others?

A. Some are more perennial than others, and a lot of it has to do with the drainage they receive in the winter. If you plant them in a well-drained site like on a slope, where you have looser soil, that’s not as heavy, and if you plant them deep, that helps, too.

Also, species tulips are supposedly more perennial, but they’re also smaller-flowered. But I have found that some species tulips come back well, whereas others don’t, so you really have to experiment.

Q. When you say deep, how deep? Twice the usual or…

A. Maybe twice the usual. The usual is like three times the depth of the bulb, so maybe try twice that. They always find their way up. [Laughter.]

Q. It’s amazing, but bulbs are like that, aren’t they?

more from chanticleer

enter to win a copy of ‘the art of gardening’

Chanticleer CoverI’LL BUY one lucky reader a copy of “The Art of Gardening,” a book about gardening and Chanticleer created by its team of talented garden artists. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:

Do you have any bulb-and-perennial pairings to share? Or do your bulbs live in their own bed, perhaps with annuals following them each year to hide the fading leaves or some other bulb-growing trick? 

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, September 4, 2016. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 29, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(Photos courtesy of Lisa Roper at Chanticleer.)

  1. Wendy says:

    This year I will plant globe alliums in front of my switchgrass. I also always have plenty of echniops ritro in that bed, so the round flower heads will be a repeated motif.

    Thanks for all your generous giveaways. This is a gorgeous book!

  2. Gabriele says:

    the book looks gorgeous. Thanks for a chance to win it. I’m going to plant my tulips extra deep this year – great tip! I love tulips.

  3. Patti says:

    I have muscari that surprises me in new locations every spring since I have been at my residence of 41 years. I have always found bulb location a challenge. New inspiration is always welcome.

  4. Gina says:

    I’ve never planted the tulips because they bloom only for a short time so why bother! But I’m changing my mind and I think I will give it a try, thanks to Margaret!

  5. Carol says:

    Got this today, 9/5/16 so hope it still counts towards the contest! I grow muscari, crocus, alliums and tulips but they’re all helter skelter. Will try some pairings this year.

  6. Susan Whitfield says:

    We’re living out in Kansas with some tough conditions for everything but very hardy perennials. I have had good luck with combining spring bulbs with my peonies and tiger lilies so that I have cover for the wilting tulip leaves.

  7. Ree says:

    I love designing with bulbs but I mean it, the squirrels sit and watch me and as soon as I’m done and in the house it’s chow time! UUGGGGHHH! I’ve tried crushed up shells wire netting, brillo pads, you name it Now I just plant daffodils, I would love to have tulips or anything else. HELP!

  8. Jane says:

    A neighbors’ chickens have decided my spring bulbs need to be relocated…..frustrating! Any bulbs chicken proof? (ha ha)
    The companion perennial photos are just delish! I saw many things I want to try. Thank you!

  9. Kathy says:

    I am on an allium kick. Once I saw this picture (sorry I am not sure where) of these large purple alliums growing among poppy – it was stunning! So I planted some allium among my poppy only the poppies bloom and THEN the alliums bloom. I need to find an earlier blooming variety and I will try it again because the combination was so captivating. Another one of my favorite bulbs that doesn’t seem to get a lot of press is the Woodland Tulip, tulipa sylvestris. I find it is a tulip that the rabbits don’t eat and it is much more substantial than a species tulip (which I also find the rabbits don’t eat). Next to woodland flowers, the bright yellow Woodland Tulip is beautiful. This book looks wonderful!

  10. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER (who has been notified by email) IS: Naomi (with the ferns and daffodils). Thanks to all for lively comments, as ever.

  11. MaggieO says:

    I’ve lived in my old house for 35 years and have planted daffodils (although started with tulips which the squirrels decimated) every fall since. My house looks happy every spring!

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