Is your garden “color challenged” during the time between tulips and tropicals? The Finger Lakes area can have a wide range of temperatures in spring, but it’s our late frosts that make it dangerous to plant out tropicals (annuals) much before Memorial Day. The very best solution is perennials; they provide long-lasting transitional color well into summer, and stand up to those late spring frosts.
For sure, perennials are not no-brainers, but gardening with plants that come back each year can be a lifelong, gratifying, sometimes addictive, experience. You can plant and transplant them until you find the perfect spot. This is why I have made it my mission to educate gardeners about perennials. My experience includes owning a perennial nursery, working for local garden centers, and now owning a business which specializes in the design and installation of perennial gardens. Although spring color is the focus here, I’m going to give you some tips on selecting and purchasing plants that will help you make the right choices whenever you shop.
As a plant geek myself, the word lust comes to mind when entering a greenhouse in spring! Even educated plant buyers can be challenged by the spring shopping experience. As the fierce competition for your garden dollar increases each year, so does the use of horticultural marketing tricks. All the beautiful flowers are tempting, but you need to keep your head and consider other characteristics. Perennials are often grown in warmer areas or brought into green houses to bring them into flower earlier than normal. The heavy use of fertilizers can make them grow too large too fast for their young root system. Compounding the problem, the labeling can be generic and misleading.
Under great pressure to have new varieties, the industry may bring new plants to market before they have been proven to be hardy in the Finger Lakes climate. Even hardy plants may be grown on in warmer places to bring them into flower sooner. The soft new growth may die back if you plant them outside too soon. These can be covered for protection from late frost events; they will likely survive, but not flourish that first season.
Some of the best plants for coloring your spring spaces are ones that you might pass by, or actually misuse due to the lack of accurate information. Designing with perennials can be daunting for the most experienced gardeners, but if you keep in mind the key elements to consider when choosing plants, you will have more success and avoid costly mistakes.
The key is to know the entire life cycle of the plant, which includes the following factors:
1) Foliage – color and texture in spring, summer, fall and winter (if evergreen). Is it sustaining foliage that keeps its shape and color throughout the season?
2) Flower – color, bloom time and length of bloom, re-blooming possibilities (with proper deadheading) and fragrance.
3) Size and Shape – height and width, self-supporting if very tall, vertical, rounded, short and flat, base leaves with stems, or bushy and fully rounded. Know its spreading habit, including possible bad habits like invasiveness, or self-sowing by seeds.
4) Seed heads – as a winter feature, used for dried arrangements or bird attraction.
Pictured here are a few of the wonderful perennials that will light up your garden, starting as soon as early April. Notice, the emphasis is not always on the flowers.
A) Heaths and B) Heathers (Erica and Calluna) are actually categorized as subshrubs, but I put them in the woody, evergreen perennial class. They need good drainage, no fertilizer, no mulch and full sun to part shade. Heaths bloom as soon as the snow melts. Heathers bloom in summer but they sometimes have foliage color that lasts all winter. Some Heathers turn red with frost, this one is gold then limey in summer.
C) Astilbe “Amber Moon.” I adore the foliage color on this plant so much that the flowers are just an added bonus. In part-shade or shade the leaves are very limey with bronze edges. As soon as they begin to grow in spring, they light up the area and continue all summer.
D) This little rock garden beauty has a very interesting history. It is called Lewisia, named after Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition. They discovered it in the Rocky Mountains, so we know that it prefers good drainage and protection from our harsh west winds in winter. I like to plant it between rocks. It blooms May through June.
E) Many gardeners are familiar with the delicate Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis), but this one is called “Gold Hearts” for its gold-y and lime colored foliage. In shade or part-shade it blooms through June, giving a jolt of color when paired with a dark foliage plant or contrasting house color.
F) Epimedium versicolor “Sulphureum” also comes in white, lavender, pink and burgundy. A ground cover for dry shade that tolerates root competition, perfect planted around trees, the evergreen heart-shaped leaves are my favorite feature.
You might use a small area as a “test bed” to observe plants before giving them a permanent spot. Also, this could reveal color features not noted in available information. While the season is young, attend lectures, take classes, go on garden tours, keep learning, and keep gardening. The more you garden, the more you’ll get hooked on the pure joy it brings to your life, and you’ll find color where you least expect it.
story and photos by K.C. Fahy-Harvick