THE EARLY SPRING GARDEN
Gorgeous white crocuses in bloom
Signs of early spring tend to uplift our spirits and fill the air with optimism. Some of the earliest harbingers are a group of plants called the spring ephemerals, which emerge through the melting snow to flower, set seed, store produced foods and go dormant until next spring. Examples include many of the popular wildflowers such as spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), trout lilies (Erythronium spp.), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and various minor bulbs. Their ability to flourish in the fickle conditions of early spring is due to their ability to store food in their root zones (rhizomes, corms, bulbs and tubers) and the insulating effect of the snow, a deep cover of which can keep the soil-level temperature at or above freezing.
Many minor bulbs planted in the fall reward you with early-spring bloom, appearing even through the melting snow. While small in size, they are big on floral impact, offering hotter reds, yellows and oranges for rockeries, foundation plantings and planters. Don’t forget the smaller narcissus such as ‘Hawara’, ‘February Gold’, ‘Jack Snipe’ and the dainty hoop petticoat daffodil (Narcissus bulbocodium) in clumps or in combinations with other minor bulbs such as the deep-purple dwarf Iris reticulata and the buttery yellow flowers of Iris danfordiae. Add in a scattering of anenome ‘White Splendor’, pasque flowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and various columbines to add height, form and variety.
The striking blooms of the pasque plant
Early spring bulbs make excellent harbingers for naturalizing in woodlands, borders and turf. Snowdrops, checkered fritillaria (Fritillaria meleagris), Lucile’s Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), scillas species and striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides) are all good candidates. Crocuses have big impact due to their many colors both pure and striped. Try the pure-white ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ planted beneath low-growing ‘Bar Harbor’ and ‘Dwarf Japanese Garden’ junipers to create the look of white-gowned ballerinas dancing on a blue stage. Early blooming species tulips such as tarda, acuminata, urumiensis and pulchella make excellent rockery plants, not only for their unique flowers, but also their foliage.
Glory-of-the-snow blossoms welcoming spring
Combining forced potted plants buried in the ground beside their garden-grown counterparts also provides a long sequence of bloom. On occasion, I’ve combined greenhouse propagated plants with their garden cousins. Some plants, such as dwarf bleeding hearts, can produce repeat continuous bloom if spent flowers are removed.
Lastly, plant mimicry can create the illusion of longer bloom times. The early blooming woodland groundcover barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), with its yellow flowers and strawberry-like leaves, can be inter-planted with the mid-spring blooming green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), which has a similar form. From a distance, this creates the illusion of months of continuous bloom.
A burst of color provided by blue crocuses
While the harbingers lift our spirits, they can also bring disappointments. Plants that have set their flowers and foliage can be subject to foliar burn and frozen flowers if temperatures dip significantly below freezing, particularly after a warm spell. Strong winds and heavy rains can cause perennials such as bloodroot to instantly drop petals. Alternate freeze/thaw soil cycles can cause wildflowers and perennials to heave. Left unattended, they can dry out and die, so be sure to promptly reinsert them. A generous covering of mulch helps to even out soil temperature and prevent this condition.
Squirrels, chipmunks and other critters may also delight in feeding on the foliage and flower buds of bulbs and perennials. I’ve used chicken wire spread over the beds, raising it as required to avoid foliage snagging. I’ve recently had success with rubber snakes and red-tailed hawk decoys. Just make sure to move them daily, lest the critters detect your ruse.
Sites with excessive conifers and dense twiggy undergrowth may see less-than-robust harbingers. Keeping up with pruning to let light onto the ground and removing invasive plants such as coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), garlic mustard and dame’s rocket vine (Hesperis matronalis) will give the harbingers a chance to take center stage.
Don’t miss the opportunity to include some of these early-bird plants in your landscape. The challenges they present are more than compensated for by the unique beauty they bring to the early spring garden.
Removing invasive plants such as coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) will give the harbingers a chance to take center stage.
Text by Frank Kershaw
Photos by Marnie Wright
Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience.
Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over 30 years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.