With bulbs arriving for sale now in nurseries and retailers, I'm already thinking about next year's garden and looking forward to a nice season of fall planting. And after a much needed soaking rain and a change toward cooler temperatures, my garden looks much refreshed, as do most of us gardeners!
Because my garden isn't fenced against deer, I don't plant that many Tulips, so after the Narcissus bloom I still crave some bold form and color from bulbs that fill the gap before most perennials flower, and that's where Alliums are so valuable. These ornamental cousins of onions, garlic and chives are tough and extremely pest resistant... mice and voles don't usually bother the bulbs and deer ignore the flowers. Plus, as with most bulbs, they're easy to plant and a welcome surprise when they emerge in spring. There are many kinds to try, and here are a few of my favorites...
Allium 'Globemaster'. These are the largest flowered Alliums I grow... giant globes of softball size up to 8 or 10 inches across. Blooming in late spring, they really make a statement! The huge flower heads (technically umbels) attract butterflies, pollinators and curious passersby.
Allium 'Purple Sensation'. For general garden use, I like this cultivar best. The flowers are tennis ball size, and the individual bulbs are reasonably priced, so groups and drifts are affordable. I plant them among perennials (like Amsonia hubrichtii, above) that will bloom at the same time and help cover the Allium foliage, which is yellowing by the time the flowers open.
'Purple Sensation' is reliably perennial in my garden, on well-drained sandy soil. I love it as a color echo and flower form contrast with dark purple Bearded Iris (left above), and the seedheads remain decorative as the summer progresses, fitting into the cooling green, white and silver scheme I like for this area (above right, with Rose 'Darlow's Enigma' and white Lychnis coronaria coming on).
Allium schubertii. Another big guy that's fun to grow is Allium schubertii, each of the flower heads attaining a diameter of 8-12 inches and looking a bit like the chandeliers at the Met! They dry very nicely right on the plant and can be collected for winter decorations... everyone will want to know what they are. They bloom in late spring, and are used to clever effect at the Claverack, NY garden of Peter Bevacqua and Stephen King (above right, photo by Peter) emerging from a plush carpet of Stachys byzantina 'Helene von Stein'. Very cool.
Allium atropurpureum. For those partial to deep dark colors in the garden try these beauties. Dome-shaped rather than spherical, the 2" umbels are a smashing shade of wine-purple. Native to the Balkans and appreciates a hot dry spot with free-draining soil. Nice in a meadow setting also, to add some vibrant depth of color.
Allium sphaerocephalon. Drumstick Alliums are smaller flowered with slender foliage and willowy stems that make them really useful for interplanting with perennials. I use them liberally among my Heleniums where they open at just the same time (above, left) and continue adding color and form for several weeks, until the hot weather annuals nearby take up the banner (above right, with Helenium 'Mardi Gras', Pennisetum 'Vertigo' and deep purple Perilla frutescens).
Allium 'Millenium'. One of my very favorite perennials is this clumping form that tops out at only about a foot tall, but blooms in late summer and remains attractive throughout its entire growth cycle. 'Millenium' is a newish hybrid developed by plant breeder Mark McDonough that has proven extremely tough and adaptable for border use. The flowers are a good shade of lilac-pink, not washed out like some other similar cultivars, and the foliage is glossy and healthy. The flowers age gradually to a duller shade of lavender, then into a silvery tan, and if not removed will remain attractive into the winter (above, right). You'll find 'Millenium' usually sold in the summer, as a container perennial.
Allium tuberosum. An Allium you'll probably only find in the herb section of your favorite nursery, but one that I think is beautiful in flower. It's Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, in bloom now in early September and terrific in the border as well as in the herb garden. I think it would also be great in a meadow as it self-sows prolifically (cut off the seed heads before they ripen if you have it in a border). I love the clean white flowers and the flat leaves are delicious in soups, potato salad and stir-fries.
As many of you know, there are lots more Alliums to try... this is just a small sampling of my favorites. They are a diverse and very decorative group of plants, and I hope you'll give some of them a trial!
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.