by BRIAN MINTER
April 1, 2000
The latest weather forecast for the next week mentions a possible cool spell with some Arctic air moving in. This means that we could possibly get a bit of heavy night frost. I hope they’re wrong, but it is a good reminder of just how fickle early spring weather can be. Instead of worrying about annuals, why not rely on tried and true perennials as a source of early colour in our gardens. Having a collection of carefully chosen perennials to bloom in succession is the best way to always have spring colour. There are some old standbys that will never let you down, and each year a few new ones come along that show a great deal of promise. For today’s small space gardens, I look for perennials that are short and compact. Since no one likes to spray for insects and diseases, it is also nice to have perennials that have fairly good tolerance in those areas. Having colour through to June is terrific, and if the flowers last into July and August, so much the better. Some of the reliable early plants are arabis, aubrieta, bergenia, marsh marigolds, yellow alyssum, Bleeding Hearts and epimedium. All of these plants provide good early colour, however, I want to focus on a few multi-purpose perennials that can make a huge difference in our spring gardens.
On top of my list are astilbes. Performing equally well in shade or sun, these 'false Spireas' can, all by themselves, lift a garden out of its doldrums. Their early spring foliage is already making an interesting display. Coming in all shades of white, pink, red and lavender, their fluffy plumes last at least eight weeks and grow anywhere from four inches to six feet in height. The good news is that even the tallest ones need no staking. The foliage on many varieties opens to a rich dark bronze, and some, like the variety called 'Sprite', maintain this rich dark foliage all season. If you choose your varieties carefully, you can enjoy continuous blooms from June until August. If astilbes sound like the perfect garden plant ... well, in my opinion, they are! Where else can you find a hardy, sun or shade-loving perennial which tolerates such a diversity of garden situations and flowers when your garden really needs some help?
Daylilies have never been one of my favourites because they are so messy looking after they flower, but one particular variety has changed my mind. The new dwarf hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro' has all the makings of a sensational cover-up plant. It only grows 15 to 18 inches high, flowers all summer with huge golden flowers, and if that is not enough, it has a perfume that will knock your socks off. Another variety which I like very much is a repeat bloomer called ‘Happy Returns’. It looks for all the world like a bouquet of daffodils all summer long. Can't you just see these tough little perennials hiding all sorts of tulip and daffodil stems, or turning your attention away from a tired azalea or rhododendron? Hybridizers are coming up with so many brilliant new colours on more compact plants that I feel they have a tremendous future in modern gardens. Hemerocallis take very little care, which is a big asset for today's busy gardeners. Speaking of lilies, I think we have all but forgotten the June-flowering Asiatic lilies. Planted in fall or spring, these hardy, easy-to-grow lilies will pop up in June and July to give your garden support when you need it the most. I have used them successfully between rhododendrons and azaleas to carry the rhododendron garden through late June and July. If you naturalize them among your tulips and daffodils, the fresh new foliage will screen the drying leaves of these spring bulbs. Try to use the lighter, brighter colours for a better showing, and definitely stay with the shorter varieties. Yellow 'Sunray', 'Red Carpet', white 'Avalon' and the old-time favourite, orange 'Enchantment', are certainly among my favourites. Two evergreen perennials have also shot to the top of the charts with their stunning foliage that stays all year and provides a fabulous accent for early flowering shrubs, bulbs and other perennials. Purple-leafed heucheras, especially ‘Plum Puliing’ and ‘Velvet Night’ are sensational foliage varieties that simply ‘make’ an early spring garden. They complement anything yellow, pink or silver, lifting them to the next level.
Tiarellas, with their green, silver and black foliage markings, are made for the shade. They not only flower, but their leaves lighten and brighten those dark areas of our gardens. Wood hyacinths or scillas make a nice complement.
Speaking of shade, the unsung hero of our early gardens are the new varieties of old fashioned pulmonarias. The silver speckled, mildew-free leaves are a sight by themselves. Their blue and pink flowers, which seem to bloom almost all spring, are a delightful bonus. With a little research, you will find that many other great perennials, like irises and poppies, have lots of potential to maintain the colour level of your gardens from spring through summer.