February can be a bleak time on the East Coast. Days are short and the sky hangs low on the horizon. But there’s a small-sized perennial whose early, colorful blooms never fail to lift my mood. It’s the lovely, cup-shaped flower called hellebore, commonly known as the Lenten Rose. Continue reading →
In the plant world, spring flowers are in a class of their own. Bursting to life after a long, cold winter, they never fail to evoke feelings of happiness. And spring gardens bring hope this time of year, renewing our faith in life and everything growing.
Here are ten of my favorite spring flowers that will only grow more beautiful year after year.
Celebrated for their enormous blooms, these low-maintenance spring garden favorites will live on for generations. Peonies generally start blooming in late May and continue flowering well into June. The plants perform best in full sun. 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 and to prop up other flowers. I cut them down to the ground in the fall.
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 to only 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. But, it easily self-seeds.
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 upright plants at the front of the border to disguise stems and dimension to your 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 great contrast with 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.
Commonly known as blue false indigo, this beautiful native plant is growing in popularity. 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. This makes it an excellent addition to the back of the border.
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. However, the plant tends to get woody over time, so best to cut out older sections to encourage new blooms.
If you’ve got part-shade, nothing says spring garden like Brunnera macrophylla, also known as false forget-me-not. The low-growing plant produces miniature, sky-blue flowers 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 spring garden. 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.
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. Most varieties start flowering in late spring and continue blooming well into 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 garden, alliums nonetheless take some advance planning. Their giant, onion-sized bulbs must be planted in late fall.
Come spring, most alliums make their appearance in late April when large florets of tongue-like foliage become visible on the soil surface. The foliage is followed by the emergence of tall, upright stems carrying a single round ‘flower.’ Composed of hundreds of tiny star-shaped blooms, the huge spheres tower over other flowers, injecting a playful note into the spring border.
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.
Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner
Years ago, in an effort to distract my preteen-aged daughters, I took them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it centered on the color blue. Specifically, it featured a supersaturated blue created by the artist that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on us all. Continue reading →
Yesterday I supervised the planting of two thousand spring-flowering bulbs. We laid them individually in patterns and dug them one-by-one into the earth. When we were finished, we dressed the bulbs with mulch and stepped back to admire our handiwork. You could almost feel the energy emanating from all those future flowers tucked so snugly underground. Continue reading →
As a child, I was always drawn to shady nooks. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into my adulthood. Only now, these same sensations inspire my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden. Continue reading →
When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →
New York City’s Macy’s Day Parade is an American fall tradition with its festive floats, high school marching bands and trademark balloons. But until this weekend, I had never heard of another spectacular show sponsored each spring by the 100-year-old department store. That is, the Macy’s Flower Show; a show so big that it transforms an entire floor of the giant Herald Square building into a veritable garden extravaganza. Continue reading →
My sister Cindy was born in late March. And every spring, when the forsythias bloomed, we celebrated with a family-coined phrase. My mother would say: These are for-Cynthia. My little sister would puff up with pride and it wasn’t long before she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I’ll never forget the canary carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.
Although I was secretly jealous that a flower bloomed especially for my sister, I grew to welcome the arrival of the sunny blooms. In my mind, forsythia will be forever tied to my sister, to March and the happy return of warm weather.
IT’S NOT THE BEST IN A MARTINI
It doesn’t taste good in tapenade either, but forsythia nevertheless belongs to the olive family, Oleaceae. Along with other showy members like lilac and jasmine, it is grown primarily for its bright, fragrant flowers. There are about 11 species, most of which are native to eastern Asia with one hailing from southeastern Europe.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FLOWERS
Forsythia’s early yellow blossoms are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this multi-branched, deciduous shrub. Developing before the leaves, they are produced in brilliant clusters on the previous year’s wood.
Forsythias flower on last year’s wood
Ranging in color from pale to deep yellow, each flower is composed of four elongated petals.
The flowers are followed by bright green foliage that turns shades of yellow or purple in the fall.
As a garden designer, I am often asked this question. The answer usually lies in when the shrub was pruned. Since forsythias produce their buds on the prior year’s growth, it’s imperative to prune them right after they flower. Otherwise, you risk cutting off the majority of next year’s blooms.
Less frequently, prolonged periods of unusually cold weather can negatively affect flowering for the coming season.
If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll cut off next year’s blooms
Forsythias are fast-growing. When left untended, they easily become leggy. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine back by a third every spring right after flowering.) The shrubs will quickly bounce back and push out new growth the following year.
WHAT ARE THE BEST VARIETIES AVAILABLE TODAY?
Most of today’s modern varieties are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. These were the first species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East.
Forsythia suspensa, commonly called Weeping forsythia, is a popular plant all on its own and is still widely grown for its large size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10-feet. Its characteristic weeping habit makes it an excellent hedging plant. It also looks great on a slope or hanging over a wall where its drooping blooms can be fully appreciated.
That being said, it is the hybrid of Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima,Forsythia x intermedia, that is behind many of the most popular cultivars today. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border forsythia, the medium-sized, upright shrub has the bright yellow flowers most commonly associated with the species. The cross has also produced many new varieties, including a number of lower-maintenance, more compact forms.
If you’re looking to create a hedge, I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow cultivars Arnold Giant, Lynwood Gold, Karl Sax and Spectabilis. They’ll happily grow unimpeded to 8- to 10-feet or more. The dwarf varieties Arnold Dwarfand Gold Tide are two popular forms that grow to just 3 feet and are often used as groundcovers. However, in my experience, Gold Tide likes to be wider than tall. So beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.
Golden Peep and Goldilocks are small and have compact branching. They look great close up to the house or in the flower border. They also make great container plants. The slightly larger Sunrise is a great choice if you’re looking for fall leaf color.
FORSYTHIA LIKES TO PUT DOWN ROOTS
Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not so desirable in a garden. Most springs, I chop off these offspring to keep things under control.
BEST BLOOMS IN FULL SUN
For the best blooms, plant Forsythia x intermedia varieties in full sun to part shade. The shrubs need a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day to flower. Like most plants, forsythias perform best in well-drained soil.
Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start popping up mid-winter. As weather becomes more unpredictable, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. Moreover, they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.
THE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF BULBS
To understand why spring bulbs can weather a little premature growth, it helps to take a peek underground.
Botanically speaking, a bulb is a short stem surrounded by fleshy leaves that store food during dormancy. As soon as you plant it in the fall, a spring bulb starts growing.
Each bulb has five major parts: a basal plate, scale leaves, protective tunic, a flowering shoot and lateral buds. The action begins in the basal plate. During the winter months, roots emerge from this modified stem to penetrate the soil.
As they develop, the roots absorb water and other nutrients that they store in the scale leaves.
In some flower species like alliums, a thin papery covering called the tunic keeps the scales from damage or drying out.
Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out
The scale leaves provide food storage, and they also protect the flowering shoot. This vital part of the bulb contains all of the future leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the flowering shoot slowly grows upwards within the bulb, eventually developing into a stem.
Finally, at a pre-determined time in the spring, the leaves break through the soil. Then, approximately one month later, the flowering shoot begins to appear.
At this stage in the process, the key thing to remember is: the flowers develop independently of the leaves.
This means that even if your bulbs (specifically, leaves) come up early, the flowering shoots still need time (between 5 and 7 weeks) to develop. And before that happens, your bulbs have most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.
So if you see leaves poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause them to yellow and die back, but the bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once things warm back up again.
WAYS TO STOP YOUR BULBS FROM COMING UP TOO EARLY
There are a few strategies, however, that you can implement now to slow things down while providing an extra layer of protection to the flowering shoot.
1. COVER YOUR PLANT
Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will help insulate them against extreme winter weather like frigid temperatures and drying winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.
Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.
2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS
If there’s been a dry spell for an extended period of time, a little extra water during the day helps bulbs grow. However, make sure your soil has good drainage. Bulbs can rot if they receive too much water.
3. IF FLOWERS START TO APPEAR
If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually won’t affect flowering in the coming months. And it won’t destroy your bulbs. They’ll still flower next year.
4. PLANT BULBS LATE IN THE FALL
The later in the fall you plant, the longer the bulb will take to sprout come spring. Wait until the temperature is cold enough (40°F or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs to ensure they’re fully dormant. Here in Maryland, I plant my daffodils in November.
Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the base down and the bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow makes them vulnerable to frost heaves and can lead to premature growth. And planting them upside down can stunt their growth.
For a list of ten popular spring bulbs and when and how to plant them, click here.
Author’s note January 2020:According to Science News, there is growing evidence that, in general, warmer springs are bringing earlier spring flowers. This in turn will result in longer growing seasons and drier summers. (This does not, however, mean daffodils in January.)
Here in Maryland we are having an unseasonably warm winter. In fact, it’s 65 here today on February 3. Below is a photo illustrating the state of my daffodils. (The leaves are about 3″ tall.) I’ll keep you posted as to their development.
My own daffodils on February 3
Same daffodils on February 24 – all foliage, luckily no blooms!
Looking for more information on daffodil care? I posted an article this week (February 2020) answering five top questions posed by my readers. Join the discussion!