Spring is my favourite season of all! The weather warming up after a long, cold, dark winter; the birds returning; the snow melting; and the whole earth returning to life. . . It just fills me with joy every time!
And nothing brings greater joy to gardeners than seeing those first blades of green grass, or the first flower and leaf buds pushing through the soil. I know it’s only mid-March, but we seem to be having an uncommonly early spring here in Alberta (for once)! I’ve got pussy willows out already, and that means the rest of the garden can’t be too far behind!
Just to be clear, I call April to May “Early Spring.” All of the following are hardy to Zone 3a, are easy to grow, and are easily found at Garden Centres. Bulbs are often best bought from specialty dealers, of my which my all-time fave is Botanus.
If you really want to get the earliest possible start to your spring garden, you can’t be without Crocuses.
Like all spring-flowering bulbs, Crocus corms are planted in the fall.
Plant the corms 10 cm (4 inches) deep, and 3-5 cm (1 1/2-2 inches) apart from each other.
They are fairly small as bulbs go, so you need to plant quite a few to get a good effect when they’re blooming. Fortunately, they are also pretty cheap!
When in bloom, Crocuses are very close to the ground, and the flowers come up before the leaves.
Bees love Crocus, and since they bloom before anything else, the pollen is an important food source for everyone’s favourite honey-making insect.
Plant Crocuses in full sun. The flowers will actually stay closed on cloudy days, so if planted in the shade, they won’t open at all!
Crocuses also need to be planted in coarse, well-drained soil. Water them well in the spring, and then leave them be over the summer (normal local rainfall should suffice).
Many, many varieties of Crocus are available. So far, I only grow two in my garden: ‘Blue Pearl’ and ‘Firefly.’ Both are Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, commonly known as Snow Crocus. They smell wonderful and naturalize easily. That is, they will multiply all by themselves to cover a larger area each year. I’m seriously considering planting some large swaths under my lawn some year!
Of the two Crocuses I grow, the ‘Firefly’ variety is my favourite. I’m rather disappointed in the colour of ‘Blue Pearl,’ which is pretty much just white. I already had a whole 5 months of white snow covering the ground. Why would I want white flowers first thing in my spring garden? I’m usually not a person who goes for a lot of bright colour, but I really crave it in the spring!
I’d love to try ‘Whitewell Purple,’ ‘Sieberi Spring Beauty,’ and maybe even ‘Gipsy Girl’ and ‘Orange Monarch’ someday. I’m not generally a fan of yellow or orange, but they do go very well with purple.
The only thing I don’t really like about Crocuses is that once the flowers are gone, the foliage looks like grass growing in my garden beds. In a future year, I plan to try planting something else right on top of the Crocus corms, to hide the foliage. My top picks are Creeping Phlox and Creeping Veronica.
One last thing about Crocus: apparently mice love to eat the corms. I haven’t had any problems with this yet, and it may be because I mulch. Just another reason to use mulch!
Before I grew Crocuses, the first flowers to bloom in my garden were my Puschkinia libanotica. They really are quite cute, but my one clump just hasn’t naturalized as well as it’s supposed to. I also have the same problem with them that I have with my ‘Blue Pearl’ Crocus: they are basically white. Yes, they have that little blue stripe, but it is only noticeable up close. I’d rather have something more boldly-coloured, like Scilla siberica, which blooms at the same time, and is even the same height.
If, however, you’re a fan of white, you should know that there is no need to plant anything on or around Puschkinias in order to hide the dying foliage. It goes away very quickly by itself!
Plant the bulbs in the fall, 8 cm (3 inches) deep and 4-5 cm (2 inches) apart, in good garden soil. Puschkinias like full to part shade.
This is pretty much my favourite shrub ever: the Double-Flowering Plum!
It’s about as close to those gorgeous Japanese cherry trees as we Zone 3 gardeners can get.
I’m so excited when I see those pink buds forming! In my mind, spring is really here when the Double-Flowering Plums are in full bloom.
Even though sometimes I only get flowers on the branches that were below the snow line, I will always have several of these shrubs in my yard.
Double-flowering plums take well to pruning, and in fact, tend to need it. Every year after blooming, I take my pruning shears to my babies and clip them into a nice round shape. It only takes one afternoon, and it’s time well-spent. Not only do the shrubs grow more bushy and full after a good pruning, but they bloom best on 1 – 3 year old wood.
Plant Double-Flowering Plums in virtually any soil, in a location that gets full sun. They grow quite quickly, and will reach their mature size of about 1.8 – 2.1m (6 – 7 feet) in 5-6 years.
I’ve never had a single pest problem or disease on my Plums, and bees LOVE them. Really though, what’s not to love?
They also get lovely fall colour!
You may have noticed the Daffodils blooming in the background of the Double-Flowering Plum bud picture. As I mentioned previously, I’m not generally a fan of yellow. I do, however, LOVE Daffodils! I’m not quite sure why, but I think it has something to do with their unique shape and their heavenly scent.
I currently grow three varieties of Narcissus in my garden.
One is the classic yellow Trumpet Daffodil: King Alfred. This variety is very old, very common, very easy to find, and as a result, one of the cheaper Daffodils. That’s why I chose it, and I do enjoy the impressively large flowers!
(For those who care, here is a history of the King Alfred Daffodil. According to the article, mine are actually most likely ‘Dutch Master.’ I don’t really care about the exact cultivar though, since I’m not a collector!)
The second variety I grow is ‘Ice Follies.’ I bought them together with the King Alfred types, and I planted them together.
Lucky for me, they both bloom at the same time, just like I wanted them to! That is by no means guaranteed when buying different cultivars of any plant.
So if you are planning a new garden bed, and you want huge swaths of bulbs growing in complimentary combinations with each other, I highly recommend that you purchase a small quantity of each type and grow them together in a small test garden for a couple of years first.
Yes, I said a couple of years. Bulbs will always bloom at a different time the first year after being planted than in later years. In my experience, they bloom later the first year, and then earlier (and more consistently) after that. Probably has to do with transplant shock or getting established or something. So if you really want to make sure your different bulb varieties will bloom together year after year, test them out for 3 or even 4 years before committing to a large purchase. Hey, if you’re impatient, why are you even gardening?
Funny story: the only reason I chose ‘Ice Follies’ to go with my King Alfred types is because I had bought a pot of some Daffodils at a local Garden Centre, already in bloom, to use in a spring planter one year. They were very pretty, and I’d never seen any other Daffodils like them before. I really wanted to get some more of them, and the tag in the pot said ‘Ice Follies,’ so I looked online and found more of them for sale!
I was pretty disappointed when they came up in the spring though. They were NOT ‘Ice Follies’! Or so I thought. . . a quick Google image search revealed that the bulbs I had ordered were, in fact, true ‘Ice Follies.’ The bulbs in my original pot had been mislabelled, and I never have been able to figure out what variety they are.
They sure are pretty though! They come up just after the two named varieties, and the cups have a slight peachy tint that I really find attractive. The peach colour is strongest when the flowers have just opened, and it gradually fades to a normal yellow.
The flower size is a bit smaller than the others as well, and I would describe them as being more finely formed, and not as frilly.
My best guess is that these unknowns are ‘Salome.’
At any rate, it’s not the name of a plant that matters! I have found all of my Daffodils extremely easy to grow, and completely pest-free. The bulbs are quite poisonous, so deer and rabbits will even leave them alone.
Plant Daffodil bulbs in well-drained garden soil, 15 – 20 cm (6 – 8 inches) deep and about twice the bulb width apart, in a location that gets full sun to part shade.
There is really only one disadvantage to Daffodils (that I’ve found), and it is this: their foliage is very slow to die down, and you just can’t cut it until it has turned dry and brown, unless you don’t want any flowers the next spring.
I have, however, also found the perfect solution: plant Bearded Irises on top of the Daffodil bulbs! The Daffodils are planted deep, the Irises are planted almost at the top of the soil, and neither plant’s roots interfere with the other’s. Not only that, but the foliage of the Irises is similar in shape to that of the Daffodils, so they blend together quite well. Iris leaves also look good for the entire gardening season, so you don’t end up with an empty spot in your garden bed when the Daffodil leaves are finally done. It’s a win-win situation!
Another lovely companion plant for Daffodils is Grape Hyacinths, or Muscari sp.
I got mine thinking that they would always bloom together in a beautiful combination of yellow and blue. They have actually only done this once in four years (*Sniff, sniff*), so they would perhaps be better with mid- or late-spring Daffodils. Nonetheless, I would not be without Muscari in my garden! Is there a gardener alive who does not adore true-blue flowers? I don’t think so.
Bees also love Grape Hyacinths, and I have found them to be the longest-blooming spring bulbs.
They smell wonderful, are very easy to grow, and are not expensive.
I grow only the Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue’ cultivar, but there are several others available. You can get them in all shades of blue, as well as white, pink, and purple; there is even a yellow species.
Most Grape Hyacinths look like the ones I have in terms of shape and growth habit, but there is one variety that looks like a crazy fuzzy tassel!
Plant Muscari in well-drained soil, with the bulbs 12 – 14 cm (5 – 6 inches) deep and 8 cm (3 inches) apart, anywhere from full sun to full shade. Extra watering is not needed. They really are versatile and undemanding!
Some texts describe Grape Hyacinths as being a bit too aggressive, spreading quickly and naturalizing too easily, but I haven’t found this to be the case at all. In fact, it seems to be one of the few advantages to living and gardening in Zone 3: plants that are aggressive in milder climates are quite well-behaved in mine.
They do have the same kind of slowly-dying foliage problem as Daffodils, and the solution is the same, too: Interplant with Bearded Irises.
This is a picture of my garden from May 20 last year. Early morning really is the best time to take photos, and it was so fresh and tranquil outside! (Just ignore the unkempt lawn)
As you can see, I have two clusters of mixed Daffodils, with Muscari planted in front. The Irises are starting to come up, and all that’s left of the Crocuses is their foliage. The Double-Flowering Plum would be just starting to bloom, and if I had to wait for perennials for some spring colour, my garden would be just starting instead of going for a month already!
This is the first perennial to bloom in my spring garden: Pasqueflower.
Aren’t they adorable? I love the fuzzy little flower buds, which open up to reveal bright yellow stamens and hairy purple petals. Some Pasqueflowers are white, or various shades of reddish-pink.
When the flowers are finished, they leave behind very unique fuzzy seedheads. They’re so cool-looking that I can’t bring myself to deadhead them!
Plant this undemanding cutie in sun to part shade, and avoid heavy or waterlogged clay soils.
So far, the only flowering tree that I have in my yard is this ‘Evans’ Cherry. The pure white flowers don’t have an obvious scent, but the bees sure notice them!
‘Evans’ always blooms well for me, no matter how cold the winter has been.
You do want to plant him in full sun for maximum growth, but this tree is very tolerant of a wide range of soil types. You don’t even need to water him once he’s established!
In addition to the lovely spring flowers, an ‘Evans’ Cherry will give you shiny purple-red bark, glossy green leaves, big sour cherries, and gorgeous fall colour. It’s really a four-season tree, and the perfect size for small yards.
I’ve had no pest problems in the four years that I’ve had him, either.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ is another early-spring-flowering perennial, though I must confess that I haven’t had a lot of success in overwintering this beauty. Also called Siberian Bugloss, it is supposed to be hardy to zone 3, but I’ve managed to kill two of them so far.
I’m going to keep trying though, because ‘Jack Frost’ is just so beautiful! I love the heart-shaped leaves with heavy silver veining, but most of all, I love those blue flowers! Almost exactly like Forget-Me-Nots, they are borne in sprays on delicate stems that rise high above the foliage.
There are several other varieties of Brunnera as well. Most have blue flowers, though a few bloom white or pink, and the leaf variegation differs widely.
Plant Brunneras in full to part shade, in moist soil with plenty of decomposing leaf matter. Ideal for under trees and shrubs!
Okay, so Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium) isn’t exactly the showiest “star” in the spring garden, but I do appreciate that it emerges from the snow with glossy green leaves.
Grape Holly is not a true Holly, so you do not need male and female plants to see flowers now and fruit (blue-black berries) later in the season. That being said, only one of my three plants consistently blooms and fruits. I have no idea why! Perhaps as the others get older, they too will provide food for the birds.
Grow M. aquifolium in full to part shade (though they can tolerate quite a bit of sun), and in most soils (though they do better in slightly acidic, compost-rich soils with a layer of mulch). Bonus: the leaves are so spiky that deer and rabbits will leave them alone!
Of course everyone knows about Pansies! They are annuals, meaning they complete their life cycle in a single season, so you have to replant them in your garden every year. They’re worth it to me though, and in fact, are probably my favourite annual!
While most of the plants you buy in early spring from the Garden Centre have to be kept indoors until the risk of frost has passed, Pansies can handle some colder conditions. You can also plant them anywhere from full sun to full shade, as long as you water them enough in sunny conditions.
Do keep Pansies dead-headed, or they will set seed, fulfill their mission in life, and stop blooming.
You can see that I prefer blues and purples, but Pansies are available in every colour of the rainbow (except green), including bi- or tri-coloured designs. Some have whiskers, and some do not. You can plant them in the garden, or in containers, and they do equally well. Very few other plants offer such variety and versatility!
Of course, these are only a few of the plants that excel in the early spring garden. As I am able to dig new garden beds and expand my plant collection, I would love to include:
• ‘Princess Kay’ Canada Plum – I think someone near me has this small tree, and it’s one of the first to bloom every spring.
• Nanking Cherry – A profusion of pale pink flowers on a very nice-sized shrub, and small fruit later on in the season that can be eaten straight from the bush.
• Mayday – Who doesn’t love these huge, gorgeous, sweet-smelling trees in full bloom?
• Willows – so far I only have wild Willows growing in my yard, but I really love all Willows. They are the first to leaf out in spring and the last to lose their leaves in fall, and those soft little pussy willows are just the best.
• Chionodoxas – AKA Glory of the Snow; these cuties are similar to Crocuses, but prefer the shade.
• Lily of the Valley – Such a delicate beauty, but highly toxic (so I’m waiting until my youngest is older).
• Douglas/Creeping Phlox – I used to grow a lavender purple variety, and I miss this compact little evergreen groundcover.
• Creeping Thyme – Very cute, and the foliage looks like moss!
• Species Tulips – Smaller and less showy than Hybrid Tulips, but I like them for that reason.
• Primroses – The Auricula varieties are my favourites; I used to grow some at my parent’s house.
Of course it has taken me more than one day to write this post, and the weather is no longer so lovely. In fact, we’ve gotten a foot of snow, and it’s been cold and cloudy. Boo hoo hooooooo! =(
I was SO looking forward to what seemed like the very real possibility of an early spring in Alberta, and I even saw green grass starting to grow in my lawn, and bright red rhubarb buds in my garden, the day before it snowed! Now we have to go through that blasted thawing cycle all over again, complete with messy roads and tons of mud for all of us non-city folk. . .
So I hope this post cheers you up a bit with the promise of spring to come. Until then. . . Happy Almost-Spring Gardening!