THE EARLY SPRING GARDEN



The Early Spring Garden. White crocuses.

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.

Lungworts

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Designing with Spring Bloomers


Early bloomers come in a wide variety of woody plants, perennials and bulbs. They fill various garden niches in woodlands, borders, rockeries, containers, etc. Because their blooms are often small and pastel colored, I tend to use them in larger drifts and more conspicuous locations.

As they may not bloom on schedule, thereby leaving gaps in color and foliage, one of the design challenges with these plants is developing effective combinations with other plants. This is where lungworts (Pulmonaria), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium spp.), hostas and ferns come into play to fill the holes or mask the dying foliage.

Lungworts can help fill holes and mask dying foliage

Pussy willows

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Woody Plants


Simply by default, the harbingers serve as garden accents when little else is in bloom. In the case of woody plants, one of the earliest in my garden (zone 6) is winter hazel (Corylopsis spp.), along with various witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.). The coppery-orange flowered Jelena witch hazel (H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’) and the coppery-red flowered Diane witch hazel (H. x intermedia ‘Diane’) produce unique ribbon-like flowers from February through to April and make good candidates for woodland gardens and mixed-shrub borders.

An interesting native shrub with pliable stems and a round topiary-like head is the leatherwood shrub (Dirca palustris), which rewards me with masses of small yellow flowers through April. Combine this later woody plant with the pink-flowering February daphne (Daphne mezereum) for a striking combination. Pink- and white-flowered early-spring heaths (Erica carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ and ‘Springwood White’), with their profuse flowers, tussock-shapes and needle-like foliage, make good accents for rockeries and borders and work well as walkway edgers. Another good accent woody plant is pussy willow (Salix discolor), the furry flower catkins of which are so popular in spring floral arrangements.

Pussy willows in the snow

Liverwort

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Bulbous Plants


These plants store their food in tubers, bulbs, corms and rhizomes and are popular harbingers for beds, borders, lawns and planters. Perhaps no bulbs are revered more than the early spring snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). They are so loved that there are even societies of “galanthophiles”, who make early spring pilgrimages to snowdrop hot spots. If you’re lucky, you might find snowdrops in bloom with another popular harbinger, the lovely liverwort (Hepatica spp.), which have blue, pink, cream and sometimes double flowers.

Liverwort’s sweet pastel flowers

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.

Pasque blooms

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

Glory-of-the-snow blossoms welcoming spring

Hellebore ‘Banana Cream Pie’

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Perennials and Ornamental Grasses


There are many garden perennials and ornamental grasses that fulfill the role of early spring harbingers. Various primulas, leopard’s bane (Doronicum caucasicum), Christmas and Lenten roses (Helleborus spp.), hellebores, etc., are popular early-season additions. Several of the cool-season ornamental grasses such as blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) and blue fescue grass (Festuca spp.) make spectacular companions for the early blooming ‘Red’ and ‘Orange Emperor’ Fosteriana tulips.

Hellebore ‘Banana Cream Pie’

Jack-in-the-pulpit

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Extending the Bloom


One way to extend the stay of early bloomers is to cultivate quantities of the same plant in different garden exposures and microclimatic areas. Those planted on the sunny side of a house’s foundation, for example, can flower many days ahead of those relegated to exposed perimeter areas.

Planting in heavy, damp clay soils can delay plant emergence, whereas planting in more freely draining sandy loams that heat up more quickly can advance a plant’s appearance. Different types of mulches applied at various thicknesses can also produce the same effect. In my rockery, I use pea gravel mulch that holds heat and seems to bring plants into bloom more quickly compared to other mulches.

Another method for extending bloom time is to plant cultivars and hybrids that look like the parent species but bloom later. A sequence of trillium blooms, for example, can be achieved with the snow trilliums (Trillium nivale) in March followed by white and red trilliums (T. grandiflorum and T. erectum) in April and May with sessile trilliums (e.g. T. luteum and T. recurvatum) blooming into early June. A similar extended bloom sequence can be produced with Christmas roses followed by later-blooming Lenten roses. Finally, try early-blooming native Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) followed by the non-native Jacks (A. speciosum, A. sikokianum and A. candidissimum).

Plant native and non-native Jack-in-the-pulpits to extend bloom time

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.

Blue crocuses

A burst of color provided by blue crocuses

Maintenance Concerns


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.


Tussilago farfara

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.

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