Early spring can be a surprisingly tricky gardening season in the Pacific Northwest. Mild weather, new leaves and colorful buds send gardeners to the nursery, desperate to sweep up rows of fluffy, compellingly labeled plants. So why is it tricky? Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are still in the wet season. The delicate petals of many flowers fall apart with frequent moisture. When I think of spring, I think of my grandmother’s beloved Camellias. In Oregon, those intricate flowers become applesauce on a stick. Then, there are the endless, gorgeous cottage garden perennials that flower briefly and soggily, often requiring extensive staking, and then just keep growing. They express their love for our mild climate by billowing up, out and over neighboring plants through summer and fall, looking a little ratty, taking valuable space, and contributing nothing to the garden.
So what’s a spring-frenzied gardener to do? The secret to a gorgeous early spring plant palette is to seek out plants that thrive in our enviable climate, rather than the “traditional” mainstays that are happier in another part of the country (or world). Below are a few guidelines to help you create a reliable early spring show that blends beautifully into the warmer growing seasons.
- Flower and Foliage power We love a multipurpose plant, and, luckily, some of the most colorful stars of the early spring garden are gorgeous throughout the growing season and beyond. From structural foundation plants, like deciduous magnolias, to vines, like spring blooming clematis, to low perennials, like hellebores, almost every plant form has some gorgeous early spring bloomers. The key to finding these diamonds is to evaluate their leaf and form in other seasons. One trick we use for a new-to-us variety is to search Google Images for photos of the plant out of bloom (e.g. “epimedium sulfureum summer"). The slideshow below features a few of our favorite early blooming perennials with great presence in the warm season garden, including Hellebores, Beesia, Brunnera, Euphorbia, Mukdenia and Pulmonaria.
- Disappearing Act If you can’t find the right early performer with fabulous foliage, consider plants that return to dormancy not long after bloom. These plants may not be best for the front of the bed, but they have the good grace not to bully nearby plants out of season. Poppies and many spring bulbs, like Allium leap to mind. One of our favorites in this group is Ranunculus ‘Brazen Hussy,’ a low perennial, with deep dark leaves and bright yellow flowers. It dances through our upper gravel terrace in the early spring (so early we are already too late for a photo), then politely disappears completely as the heat loving plants hit their stride.
- Resilient Blooms The best early bloomers is their ability to perform beautifully through wet (or even snowy) weather. Plants with masses of tiny flowers, like Brunnera, are often full of color without splotchy, brown spots. Plants with larger blooms can be successful, as well, if they either drop weathered foliage promptly, like many deciduous magnolias, or have especially durable blooms, like hellebores. It can be difficult to tell which of the flowers in a greenhouse will maintain their appearance through damp weather, which is why we enjoy touring the demonstration gardens of our favorite nurseries.
- Dramatic Entrance Spring excitement is not limited to flowers, however. If you want an early season garden brimming with color and daily change, seek out plants that make a dramatic entrance. Many plants with huge, bold foliage, like Gunnera or Podophyllum emerge with vigor and seem to expand by the minute. And, of course, everyone loves watching ferns unfurl. The new fiddles of many varieties are fuzzy and even colorful. Other plants supplement the spring color palette with bronze, red or even burgundy spring foliage. A number of plants, including many Japanese maples and Epimedium, have intricately colored and patterned new growth that fades to green and then blushes with color again in fall.
- Make New Friends, but Keep the Old Unfurling ferns and hellebore blooms are lovely, but sometimes we just want a good-old-fashioned Grandma’s spring garden flower. There are two remedies to this sort of garden nostalgia. The first is to seek out relatives that offer old style flower power in new, garden friendly varieties. Several of our clients have a sentimental love for herbaceous peonies. Each and every one of those clients adores the Itoh group peonies that we planted. A hybrid of herbaceous and woody peonies, the Itoh series has an impressive bloom size and structure, an absolutely gorgeous leaf and requires ZERO staking. The second remedy is not a remedy at all. Stop thinking so hard and buy that plant. Heck, buy three! If you fill your garden with excellent structure and year-round interest, you are well entitled to a few sentimental favorites. You might consider strategic placement, surrounded by reliable performers, but do put them somewhere you can enjoy them. They may not bloom perfectly every year, but every so often, they will be the stars of your early spring garden.