The Garden Life: Stroll through the garden a spring awakening



It’s April and in my garden the crocuses and daffodils color the floor of the garden in waves of golden yellow, purple and blue. Despite the fact that most of these bulbs are perennials, returning year after year in early spring, each new flower blossom comes as a delightful surprise to my winter-weary senses. More than any other time of year, the onset of spring brings out my inner child. Everything seems new and exciting. How delightful to see through the eyes of spring again.

It’s always a delight to wake up to sunshine. The morning I wrote this column was an especially sunny day, and the feeling was intensified by the relief from one rainy day after another. I look forward to a time when this is the norm and not the exception. The first plant to catch my eye was Cornus mas variegata, which I had not noticed the day before. It must have begun to bloom that very morning.

This particular tree was given to me as a gift by Dave and Dorothy Rodal on a summer day many years ago when I had the pleasure of a garden visit and dinner at their lovely home. It just happens to be a plant I had been coveting for many years but could not find at any local garden center. Doro

thy had a stash of them in 5-gallon pots and was happy to bestow this generous gift on me.

Variegated Cornelian Cherry Dogwood has tiny lemon yellow flowers that emerge from bare branches from late winter to early spring, well before the leaves. It has attractive dark green foliage with white variegation throughout the growing season. Red berries show off well against the foliage from early to midsummer.

This particular variety grows to 15 feet tall with a spread of 8 to 12 feet. It is adaptable to a wide range of conditions, including sun and shade, as well as moist and dry soil conditions, once established. The peeling brown bark adds an interesting dimension to the landscape.

What began as a morning garden walk became a stroll down memory lane. I began to see an assortment of plants that had been given to me as gifts over many years of gardening. Some were plants that needed to be divided in their original gardens, and some were simply gifts from generous gardening friends.

One of the most impressive rhododendrons in my garden is Rhododendron loderi King George, a gift from the Portland garden designer Jacque Robinson. Fifteen years ago, Jacque invited me to visit her garden. She already knew that this rhody would outgrow its place in her shade garden at the back of her house. At the time, it fit into the trunk of my Saab, though the trunk had to be tied open so it wouldn’t break the branches.

Today, it’s a large shrub that stands 10 feet high and 12 or more feet wide. Its leaves are oversized, and it produces huge trusses of funnel-shaped flowers, soft pink in bud opening to pure white. The dramatic flowers are so big that I almost always spread my hand across the top of the flowers as if to grasp a sense of their largesse. I linger on the subtly sweet scent before continuing my walk.

One group of plants I like to keep on hand to share with other gardeners is viola, which includes Johnny jump-ups and winter pansies. Garden centers are already restocked with assorted early spring varieties to add to pots and window planters. Over time, if planted out in garden beds and borders, many of the violas will self-seed and establish small colonies of mixed colors. I have the offspring of Johnny jump-ups in my garden from one planting 10 years ago. Their bright, cheerful faces light up at the slightest sun break.

For the last three years, I have been obsessed with hellebores. There are so many varieties, and they are so easy to grow. Those that began blooming two months ago continue to dominate the early spring garden scene. Many of these plants were shared with me by fellow gardeners, and they have begun to share themselves, spreading by seed into colonies of like-colored varieties. Their exuberance this morning caused me to go back inside and get my camera. If I can’t physically share my plants with every other gardener, I can at least share the images of the morning’s favorite flower moments.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at