ONE of my gardening problems is finding ground covers for spring bulbs.
Summer and autumn bulbs are less of an issue as they flower when the garden is in the full flush of growth.
But my poor spring bulbs have to make do with bare ground and leafless branches and I never feel they look their best emerging from mulch (or dare I confess, weeds).
In my childhood garden in Kent this situation never arose. Our bulbs, mostly daffodils and jonquils grew in rough grass that wasn't cut until the bulbs had finished.
The grass was rarely cut but no-one worried as the danger of fire, which stops me from growing bulbs like that here, simply didn't exist.
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I love spring bulbs and can't imagine the garden without their flowers. So I've been looking for low growing, perennial ground covers to set them off more attractively than the lucerne hay that's their present lot in life.
Hardy wallflowers (Erysimum, formerly Cheiranthus), hellebores (Helleborus) and violets all flower reliably from mid-winter to spring.
My favourite wallflowers are E. mutabis with rose pink, purple and buff blooms, and E. 'Bowles Mauve', deep purple, both growing slowly into spreading mounds, thickly covered with flowers when in bloom. The stems become tough and woody after a few years but you can easily keep plants going from cuttings.
Hellebores are a plant obsessive's dream, more and more are offered each year, purple, pink and creamy greeny white; single, double; plain, streaked and speckled.
The Corsican (H. corsicus) hybrids have big, shiny, toothed leaves but all hellebores are great cool climate plants - hardy, tough, low maintenance and able to survive dry summers.
The lowly sweet violet (Viola odorata) has terrible weed potential but there's nothing like its scent on a mild August evening. Some species like V. labradorica and V. soraria - 'Freckles' is gorgeous - have bigger blooms and aren't weedy. All are easily multiplied by division in autumn.
If you grow brightly coloured tulips, freesias and sparaxis you might prefer a green or glaucous groundcover. Spurges (Euphorbia sp.) are the answer, flowering now in shades from acid yellow to bright green.
E. wulfenii is the biggest euphorbia but it's on the tall side among bulbs. Mrs. Rob's Bonnet (E. robbiae) is shorter and neater, with dark green leaves and emerald flowers. E. rigida has pointed, glaucous leaves and large, chrome yellow flowers; prostrate E. myrsinites is similar but smaller - good with tulips.
Beware the milky sap in euphorbia stems: it's highly irritating to skin and eyes. Euphorbia labels normally carry a warning. Sea spurge (E. paralias) is a declared weed in NSW coastal areas.
Mediterranean Sea Holly (Eryngium bourgatii) has beautiful shiny, rounded leaves in spring, appearing in large clumps and lovely among low growing crocuses and hyacinths. Metallic blue flowers, cone shaped with a pointed ruff, appear in summer.
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