Planting Muscari Bulbs with Tiarella

Muscari (grape hyacinth) and Tiarella (foamflower) make pretty partners in the shade garden.

Muscari armeniacum 'Blue Spike' bulb package
Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ bulb package

I’m planting some new Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ (grape hyacinth) bulbs with Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ (foamflower) perennials. They flower at the same time in spring, the Tiarella with spikes of white flowers, and the Muscari with dense spikes of blue flowers. I have this combination in another corner of my garden, and am very pleased with how attractive the two look together when flowering. Since I was adding some new Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ plants to another bed, I decided to tuck some Muscari bulbs in with them. Both of them tolerate shade, so they will do well in this shady spot by the gate at the side of my house.

Tiarella 'Spring Symphony' starting to flower in spring
Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ starting to flower in spring

Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ has beautiful cylindrical spikes of flowers in May and June above intricately lobed leaves. It is a pretty Tiarella, and gets a fair number of blooms, even in the shade. The flower panicles start as dark pink buds in a cone shape, and then open to very pale, pink cylinders. The photo above shows the midway point back in May, with the top half of the panicles still closed. The long stamens in each flower create a starry effect, and a number of them together give the flower a fluffy appearance. I’m planting 3 ‘Spring Symphony’ plants here, in front of an Aruncus dioicus (goatsbeard), and next to some Astilbe simplicifolia ‘Hennie Graafland’. There used to be some Tiarella ‘Pink Skyrocket’ at this spot that I recently transplanted to another group of ‘Pink Skyrocket’ in order to make a more substantial arrangement by my birdbath.

Muscari armeniacum 'Blue Spike' flowering in spring
Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ flowering in spring

Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike‘ is my favourite grape hyacinth, and the picture above shows why. These Muscari flowers are double, so they are very thick and showy. Of all the grape hyacinth I grow, they look the closest to their hyacinth namesake. I have Muscari planted amongst the perennials in a few different garden beds, since they handle the shade so well. They bloom in mid-spring, in the spaces between the perennials, while the perennial plants are still small. I’ve planted 45 of them around and between the 3 new Tiarella. I think that should balance out the flowers, since the Tiarella are larger and will have more blooms. My favourite grape hyacinth planting in my garden is where there are 100 of them together that  make a pretty blue river winding through the other plants. This one will be more of a small, blue pond.

Muscari armeniacum bulb which way up
Muscari armeniacum bulb which way up

Here is a closeup of a Muscari bulb. If you haven’t planted them before, that top nose goes up, and the flattened basal stem goes down. These ones were very large, which means that the flowers will be large. They had a number of little bulblets attached, too. I try to find the plumpest bulbs for the best spring flower displays. If you are going to plant a number of bulbs, then an online bulk order will probably get you the best deal, which is what I’ve done in the past. If I had known how many bulbs I was going to plant this year (around a 1000 altogether), I would have ordered them, but I kept getting new ideas as I gardened this fall, and bought them all locally when I got inspired with new schemes. I kept getting new whims such as, “Wouldn’t the lawn look great with 500 crocuses flowering in it?”, which I attribute to the number of perfect gardening days we’ve had this fall. Gardeners that get it all figured out back in July, and get their orders in, get the better deals.

Muscari armeniacum bulbs being planted
Muscari armeniacum bulbs being planted

Since they are planted at different depths, I dug the holes for the Tiarella first, and temporarily placed them in the holes while still in their pots. Then I dug shallower holes for the Muscari, about 10 cm (4 in) deep, all around the pots. Next, I put the ‘Blue Spike’ bulbs, in groups of 6 to 12, in the holes around the ‘Spring Symphony’ pots. After that I took the Tiarella out of their pots and put them back in the pre-dug holes. This allowed me to plant the bulbs very close to the perennials, without digging into the perennial roots, or digging the bulbs back up and damaging them as I planted the perennials.  The  ‘Spring Symphony’ will flower while the leaves are still fairly small, so the bulbs can be close to the plants and not be buried under Tiarella leaves when they bloom. As the foamflower plants grow, they will hide the decaying grape hyacinth foliage.

Muscari also grow new long, slender grass-like leaves in the fall, so I have lots of fresh green in the garden right now at the end of September. This is a useful trait, because it stops me from accidentally digging them up, or slicing open a bulb with my shovel as I plant  perennials among the bulbs.

Muscari armeniacum bulbs too lined up
Muscari armeniacum bulbs too lined up

I like to arrange bulbs  randomly in the holes, but after I took this shot I noticed they were too lined up, so I scattered them more. Some gardeners like to toss the bulbs in place for a random arrangement, but I ‘m too controlling for that and have to carefully arrange them randomly. :)

Tiarella 'Spring Symphony' and Muscari 'Blue Spike'
Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ and Muscari ‘Blue Spike’

I’m looking forward to seeing the grape hyacinth bulbs flower so close to the foamflower blooms. In another garden bed shown above back in spring, the ‘Blue Spike’ are only on one side of the ‘Spring Symphony’, and a number of tulips are all around. By planting them at the same time, I ‘ve got the two in closer proximity, so I think the effect will be even better. A tight cluster of lovely white flowers surrounded by blue will be a very fresh looking spring combination. The central Tiarella flowers will be a bit taller than the surrounding Muscari. It will look like the picture above, minus the pink tulips, but with more Tiarella and less Muscari. :) There are actually about 5 ‘Spring Symphony in the bed above, but only one made it into the shot, and there are about 50 tulips. This new section is just too shady for tulips.

Muscari and Tiarella collage
Muscari and Tiarella collage

Here is a collage showing how they should look together next spring, ‘Spring Symphony’ in the middle, and ‘Blue Spike’ all around.

Now I can’t wait for spring to see the flower combinations. As I look out over the garden in winter, I’ll be seeing past the barren white snow to the bulbs and perennials that are waiting patiently for the spring sunshine.

Actaea with Graceful Spires

Actaea flower raceme arching against blue sky
Actaea flower raceme arching against blue sky

Actaea (bugbane) make such graceful spires in the fall garden. With their over 2 m (6 ft) height, they are bold looking plants for the shade garden. While many perennials are past their prime in September, Actaea are just starting to flower, giving the gardener new blooms to anticipate and enjoy. I have several groupings around my garden, but they are tall and showy enough to be planted singly, too.

Actaea flowers against tree
Actaea flowers against tree

The Actaea, along with the Phlox paniculata and Hydrangea paniculata are the boldest flowers in my garden in fall. The Actaea flowers rise above the other plants, leading your eye upwards. They help make a link to trees or taller shrubs.

Actaea flower raceme tight buds not open
Actaea flower raceme tight buds not open

In this photo you can see one horizontal wand with its buds still mostly closed, a mixture of white and pink. The buds are pretty in their own right. When tightly closed, they are a deep purple on the exterior. Then they open partially to show dark pink on the outside and a white interior.

actaea flower raceme partly open
actaea flower raceme partly open

The flower buds gradually open more to reveal the fluffy interior. Their late flowering is a boon and a drawback in zone 3. While I appreciate being able to look forward to new blooms, they will deteriorate when the frost comes. In Edmonton that means that the flowering time can be very short some years, if we have an early frost. Still, it is worthwhile to plant some at the back of your shade garden. For one thing, the tall foliage makes a great backdrop for the other perennials. Plus, the fluffy flower racemes arching at head height are beautiful, even if they can be short lived in a short growing season.

Actaea flower raceme fully open
Actaea flower raceme fully open

The open flower in the picture above glows as the early evening light shines under the tree branches and over the fence. The foliage of the bugbane is in shade because of the fence, but the 2 m (6 ft) tall flower wands manage to catch the evening rays. Despite their height and the way they sway gently in the wind, the blooms keep upright and don’t need staking. The lower flower stems go straight up, and then the topmost flower racemes arch. The smaller side blooms tend to be straighter.

Actaea flower closeup
Actaea flower closeup

Here is a closeup of a smaller flower wand that is fully open. They appear white from a distance, but are the palest pink when viewed up close. The longest ones are 30 cm (1 ft) tall, while the smallest side clusters are 12 cm (5 in) tall.

Actaea flower raceme
Actaea flower raceme

Atropurpurea has the sweetest perfume. When they are fully open, I enjoy walking near the blooms to inhale the fragrance. One of my largest Actaea is in a bed near my back door, so I can smell the scent as I go in and out. It doesn’t drift a long way, but the scent is very sweet up close.

Actaea flower raceme fluffy white
Actaea flower raceme fluffy white

The nomenclature for these plants can be confusing. They used to be in the genus Cimicifuga and then they were grouped in the genus Actaea. That in itself isn’t too bad, but the species on the tags can be puzzling. I purchased mine as C. racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’ and C. ramosa. However, Atropurpurea now seem to be named Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea Group’. I’m not sure why the species name is recategorized too.  To add to the confusion, I have some different looking bugbane purchased as Cimicifuga simplex, but the leaves don’t grow in layers like these and the flowers bloom later. This makes it difficult when you want to purchase a particular cultivar. You might find these still labelled under the old genus name of Cimicifuga, or you might find them labelled Actaea racemosa ‘Atropurpurea’, but I haven’t seen any around here labelled Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group.

There is room at the base of these plants for a shade groundcover. I plant Campanula (bellflowers) with blue flowers, lily of the valley, Heuchera (coral bells), or Tiarella (foamflower) underneath. It’s easy to layer spring bulbs around the base, since they bloom before the Actaea grows tall, and the Actaea will soon cover up the decaying bulb foliage as it grows. I like to plant Muscari (grape hyacinths) around them, as it doesn’t mind the part shade location.

If you are searching for a bold looking shade plant with autumn flowers, then Actea is a good choice. The tall blooms are like exclamation marks in the garden, fragrant punctuation for your shady areas.

Planting Tiarella Neon Lights

Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ (foamflower) are wonderful, low maintenance  plants for a shady garden site. These hardy perennials have lovely, light green leaves, which show up very well in the darker shadows under the conifers.  I have been thinking of planting some ‘Neon Lights’  for a while, and got lucky when these were on sale at the end of the season. I picked up a number of them to accompany some other Tiarella under the trees.

‘Neon Lights’ have very bright chartreuse foliage with contrasting dark markings in the centres of the leaf lobes. The leaves remind me of Tiarella ‘Jeepers Creepers’, which has a similar light colouring with markings. However, the ‘Jeepers Creepers’ plants have a spreading form, while ‘Neon Lights’ is a mounding Tiarella.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' foamflower with glossy leaves
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ foamflower with glossy leaves

The ‘Neon Lights’ leaves have a fair degree of gloss to them, too, which also helps them show up well in the shade. Just look at the plant above glowing with no water droplets or flash, while in the shade under a tree.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' pretty leaves
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ pretty leaves

This closeup of the palmate leaves shows the wonderfully contrasting black markings that emphasize their fancy shape. The intricately carved maple-like outline is very appealing.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' with light green foliage
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ with light green foliage

Look how bright and flashy the ‘Neon Lights’ foliage looks here. I’m very partial to leaves that have contrasting colouring following the vein patterns, rather than random splotches. Perennials like Brunnera, Heuchera and Tiarella have especially great looking foliage because their secondary colours make beautiful patterns following the leaf veins. Other plants with randomly variegated leaves can look diseased, but the symmetrical markings along the veins of Tiarella look like miniature works of art. The perennials above really pop against the neutral pine needle mulch, yet they still look natural.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' flower closeup
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ flower closeup

Here is a small flower of ‘Neon Lights’, having the the typical white fluffy look of foamflowers. This one is tiny, since it is blooming in its pot. That adjacent picture on the label show the larger, full flowers that they will get under ideal conditions. In the darker shade of this site, I expect mine to get a flower size somewhere in between, but closer to the label size than the small pot bloom. Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ reblooms in late summer and fall, just like Tiarella ‘Cascade Creeper’. I am planting the new ‘Neon Lights’ group next to the ‘Cascade Creeper’ section, so that they will make a nice flower patch when the foamflowers rebloom together later in the season.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' perennial
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ perennial

My newly planted  ‘Neon Lights’ are about 23 cm wide (9 in) and 10 cm tall (4 in). When mature this perennial should be about 55 cm (22 in) wide by 20 cm (8 in) tall. Tiarella make a first-class shady groundcover as the multitude of wide leaves spread out. They look so much better than rock or bark chip mulch under the trees.

natural pine needle mulch
natural pine needle mulch

Here you can see how bare this section looked before, just covered in the fallen pine needles. A huge advantage of gardening under conifers, is that there are very few weeds. I did a little weeding here at the beginning of August, but there really are very few interlopers. With no grass that needs to be removed, it is actually very easy to plant here. The soil under these conifers is terrific, very soft and easy to dig because it is made mainly from years of decomposing needles and cones. On the other hand, I have to watch out for tree roots while digging, which I try not to disturb too much. The final positions tend to be a compromise between where I want to place them, and where the tree wants to place its roots. I plant them in the soft pockets in between the roots. I’ve been planting this shady garden bed one section at at time over the last 4 years, as I don’t want to disturb the trees too much by digging all around them at once.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' just planted under pine
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ just planted under pine

Working under the trees means I have to watch out for the very low branches, too. You can just see some pine needles at the top of this photo. Any gardening in this bed involves ducking, as the branches are between 30 cm (1 ft ) to 130 cm (4 ft ) from the ground, but generally flexible. I usually come inside with the twinned needles pinned to my hair like bobby pins, even if I wear a cap. Still, its very pleasant to work under the scented pine boughs in the soft soil. There are usually chickadees and squirrels busy in the branches, undisturbed by my working below. It’s just a suburban front yard, but it feels like a woodland under the trees.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' foamflowers in pots
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ foamflowers in pots

I arranged the foamflowers in their pots before planting to see how they would fill the space, resisting the urge to squeeze them altogether for an instant carpet, although it was tempting. My other Tiarella have had a decent growth rate, so back the pots went to their proper spacing distance before digging the holes.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' 17 new plants
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ 17 new plants

The plants almost fit perfectly between the Tiarella ‘Sugar and Spice’ to the south (top right), and the Tiarella ‘Cascade Creeper’ to the north (top left). There were a few gaps at the edges, so later I went back to the garden centre to get the last 6, now there are 17 ‘Neon Lights’ plants. I was surprised there were so many left at the end of the season. Why hadn’t gardeners snapped up these pretty plants? Some perennials don’t look so great in their pots, especially when they are not in flower, but with the fabulous foliage, these look good before they’re even planted. You can see the garden setting in the picture above, with some of the multi-stemmed pine trunks visible at the top. The other darker green Tiarella are at the edges of the shot. You can see more Tiarella and Heuchera I’ve planted under conifers.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' foamflowers being planted
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ foamflowers being planted

The photo above shows how zippy the little perennials look in the shade. I can’t wait to see how the garden looks when the T. ‘Neon Lights’ fill in next summer. They should touch at the edges. It will make a beautiful sweep of Tiarella under the west side of the pine, with a tapestry of colours blending from one group of cultivar to the next.

Tiarella 'Neon Lights' and 'Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice'
Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ and ‘Tiarella ‘Sugar and Spice’

Here is a picture showing the difference in leaf colouring between Tiarella ‘Neon Lights’ on the left and Tiarella ‘Sugar and Spice’ on the right. Sugar and Spice have an almost black colouring down the middle of the leaf lobes, with a darker green colour now that its September. In spring, the ‘Sugar and Spice’ leaves were lighter, but not as light as ‘Neon Lights’.

All of my other Tiarella have proven to be very hardy under the trees, so I expect the ‘Neon Lights’ to thrive in the shade here as well. They are tough little survivors. These perennials look so sweet when their flowers bloom in fluffy cylinders. Then, the Tiarella leaves stay fresh and beautiful for the whole season, to carpet your shady garden floor in wonderful patterns.