A spring garden brings renewed hope in all things growing
There’s nothing quite like the look of spring flowers. Bursting to life on the heels of winter, the delicate forms are so fresh as to almost seem edible. That, compounded by the returning sun and its impact on color, and spring gardens bring hope this time of year, renewing our faith in life and everything growing.
The great news is that there’s still time to plant a garden that will bloom from May until the beginning of summer. And the nurseries are full of stock that have put on some growth in the pot. It’s the perfect time to pick up some plants and get a jump on the flowering season.
Here are ten of my favorites for a fail-safe spring medley.
Known for their enormous flowers, these staples of the perennial garden will live for generations with little to no maintenance. Peonies begin blooming in late May and continue flowering well into June. The plants perform best in full sun (where they will produce the best blooms) and many are fragrant, in particular the double white and pink varieties.
After the flowers fade, peonies’ deep green leaves stay looking good most of the summer. I use them to add bulk to my garden while propping up other flowers and cut them down to the ground in the fall.
Here are some of my favorites: Sarah Bernhardt (pastel pink), Festiva Maxima (highly fragrant, pure white with crimson flecks), Kansas (double, carmine-red) and Bartzella Itoh (a cross between a bush and tree peony with huge yellow blooms.)
Smaller and less showy than the bearded irises, these delicate plants produce a wealth of spring blooms on tall, elegant stems, usually in shades of blue or purple. The flowers are characterized by three petals on top and three below called falls. There are tiny varieties that grow only to about a foot and larger ones that can reach three feet tall. And their bright green grassy foliage adds a nice vertical dimension to the garden.
The botanical name aquilegia comes from the Latin ‘aquila’ meaning eagle; a reference to the flower’s petals that are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. Aquilegia’s beautiful nodding blooms come in dainty shades of purple, red, yellow, blue and white. A hardy perennial, columbine will grow in sun but prefers partial shade, especially in the afternoon. After a few years, it often dies out, although it easily self-seeds.
LADY’S MANTLE (Alchemilla mollis)
Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis
One of the ‘freshest’ perennials around, Lady’s Mantle acts like a cool splash of water amidst all the colors of the spring garden. Easily grown in full sun to part shade, this low-growing perennial forms clumps of circular, lobed leaves crowned by tiny, star-shaped chartreuse flowers held aloft on 12″ to 18″ stems in late spring to early summer.
Tuck it under other more upright plants at the front of the border.
Iris germanica, tall bearded iris
Tall and stately, bearded irises make a grand statement in the May garden. I go all-out and plant the deep purple varieties that provide a great contrast with all the other pastel spring colors. Bearded irises grow from rhizomes, or sideways-growing stems, so they should never be buried completely in the ground. The plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun to flower.
For deep color, almost nothing surpasses almost-black Hello Darkness, or opt for the reverse and check out bright-white, re-blooming Immortality. For outstanding pastel shades, try apricot-peach Champagne Elegance, lavender-pink Celebration Song, or Schreiners Gardens’ pastel blue Into The Blue.
Baptisia australis, blue false indigo
Commonly known as blue false indigo, this beautiful plant is growing in popularity with more new flower colors becoming available. The upright perennial has 10″ to 12″ spikes of violet-blue, pea-shaped flowers that can last up to four weeks. Typically growing 3 to 4 feet tall, baptisia australis forms a large clump of bluish-green, clover like leaves that over time take on a shrub-like appearance, making it an excellent addition to the back of the border.
Creeping phlox, Phlox sublata
This front-of border perennial forms large mats of brilliantly-colored, star-shaped flowers in blues, pinks and purples. Plants have semi-evergreen, needle-like foliage that produce long, spreading stems. The plant tends to get woody over time, so best to cut out older sections out to encourage new blooms.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’
If you’ve got part-shade, nothing says spring like Brunnera macrophylla, also known as false forget-me-not. The low-growing plant produces miniature, sky-blue flowers with light yellow centers high atop heart-shaped leaves in shades ranging from bright green to green with white or silver. The leaves form clumps that look great all season. For best impact, try silvered-leaved Jack Frost, or even larger-leaved Alexander’s Great.
A short-lived perennial known for its beautiful, tall flower spikes, verbascum adds an important vertical element to the late spring/early summer flower border. Easily grown in full sun to part shade (although it prefers full sun), the plant produces 2′ to 3′ flowering stems bearing long terminal spikes of 1′ diameter flowers in pastel shades of cream, lavender or rose. It easily self-seeds, but best to plan on replanting each year as an annual for best results. Tall silvery-gray leaves look great in the back of the border.
Hardy geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’
Not to be confused with annual geraniums, hardy geraniums (commonly known as Cranesbill) come in different shades of pinks, purples and blues often with deeper colored veins that look like whiskers radiating from the flower center. Most varieties start flowering in late spring and continue blooming well through the summer. The plant thrives in full sun at the front of the flower border.
My favorite is lavender-blue Rozanne. Other great varieties are crimson-throated, deep pink Patricia, unbelievable mauve-pink Miss Heidi, whose petals look like they were painted with butterfly wings and light pink with bronze tinted Ingwersen’s Variety.
Ornamental onion, Allium
A spectacular addition to any spring border, alliums take some planning ahead. Bulbs must be planted in the late fall. The huge, spherical blooms tower atop other flowers, injecting a playful note into the flower border. Large, basal florets of tongue-like foliage appear on the soil surface in late April followed by the emergence of tall, upright stems carrying a single ‘flower.’ Each bloom is composed of hundreds of tiny star-shaped flowers that open gradually to form a perfect sphere.
My favorite variety is the impossibly large Globemaster, with deep purple Gladiator a close second. But don’t stop there; there are many varieties to choose from including the unusually shaped Drumstick, the fireworks-like Schubertii and the all-white Mount Everest.
LOOKING FOR MORE?
Of course, this is by no means is an exhaustive list of suitable plants for great spring borders. For more information on other spring bloomers that look great in shady areas or on their own in clumps, check out my posts Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Shade Gardens, Spring At Winterthur Gardens, and Why Lily Of The Valley Is The Official May Day Flower.