Roots and Shoots: Signs of Spring

Planning for three-season color

By Pamela Doan

I found the first shoots of crocus in the yard this week. Spring flowers are delightful, popping up out of the gray, cold ground. For hardy plants that come up even when the risk of snow cover is high, they produce such delicate looking blooms.

I have a new flower bed in the sunniest area of my yard and I filled it with three types of daffodil bulbs last fall. When I lived in Brooklyn, the appearance of daffodils in the bodega flower bins always meant spring to me, and I still appreciate their cheerfulness. It’s also a good time to force forsythia blooms indoors. Cut a few branches and stick them in a vase with water. Within a few days they’ll reward you by flowering.

Crocus are a first sign of spring. (Photo by P. Doan)

Hyacinths, tulips, iris and larkspur are other early bloomers. Hellebores, or Lenten rose, although not dainty looking, will flower soon, too. I planted hellebores four years ago and they don’t love my soil so they stay on the smaller side, but the pale blooms are a soft, sophisticated touch.

Stonecrop’s alpine plant sale had a grower with a diverse selection and my two plants are in a flowerbed that is the last spot for the snow to melt. The soil is slow to warm up in the spring and stays shady until the sun drops lower in the summer then it gets just enough to make the shade lovers unhappy for a few weeks. It’s a tough spot, but I move things around when I need to after experimenting.

Note that it’s too early to plant summer flowering bulbs. Wait until after the last frost date. For our area, that is May 15.

I always aspire to have that ideal three seasons of color in a flower bed. This year I’m making a list of plants to seek out as I compulsively browse plant sales and landscape centers. Here are some choices that are totally biased by my preference for natives. I tried to include those that are somewhat easy to find, have value as a food source for pollinators or wildlife, are more or less deer resistant and not fussy about growing conditions.

Spring blooming

Wild geranium (geranium maculatum) – will bloom in April, can take sun or part shade, spreads.

Foam Flower (tiarella cordifolia) – blooms April and May, long-lasting white flowers, prefers shadier areas.

Columbine (aquilegia canadensis) – blooms April to June, spreads a lot through its seeds, long blooming flowers are essential for pollinators and will attract hummingbirds, too.

Golden Alexander (zizia aurea) – will bloom April to June, has nice foliage and lovely golden flowers.

May Apple (podophyllum peltatum) – you can find these growing wild in the woods, they have lovely white flowers and a good option for shady areas.

Summer blooming

Milkweeds (asclepias incarnata and tuberosa) – will bloom June to August, attract Monarch caterpillars and other pollinators, grow in sun or part-shade, high-impact plants. I like the seedpods in the winter with the fluffy bits hanging on, too.

Trumpet Honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens) – This is a wonderful plant with lots of wildlife benefits. It will bloom from May to September. If you’re going to consider any honeysuckles, choose this one. Others that grow here are on the invasive species list and must be avoided. Loves sun, but will take part-shade.

Bee Balm (monarda didyme) – red flowers, blooms July and August, high impact for pollinators, full sun.

Joe Pye Weed (eupatorium purpurem) – blooms late July to September, likes sun, enjoys wetter areas but I grow it in other areas, too. I have sung the praises of this plant many times and think it should be in every garden. Purple flowers, high impact for pollinators, long blooming, spreads nicely.

Fall blooming

Goldenrod (solidago) – blooms August to October. It’s easy to find plants for sun or shade conditions and different colors. This is a good late-season plant for pollinators. (Not to be confused with ragweed, the allergy inducer.)

Ironweed (vermonia noveboracensis) – a sun lover that blooms September and October, purple flowers. It’s a meadow and prairie plant that’s lovely in the garden and attracts pollinators.

Asters (many varieties) – white wood aster and New England aster are August to October blooming.

Rose Mallow (hibiscus moscheutos) – a pink flowered plant that blooms through October and likes a sunny spot.

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