Once my thoughts turn to spring, I begin searching my own garden for every emerging sign of the season. Established clumps of early snowdrops surprise me with their obvious vigor. A month ago they were invisible below the ground’s surface. Last week they began to poke exploratory green fingers of foliage up through the soil. Today they stand in clusters of upright stems, arching at the uppermost tip to display their delicate, porcelain-white blossoms reminiscent of miniature Tiffany lamps.
Well before the official calendar date confirms the arrival of spring, I can feel the physical presence of the sun on clear days. Daylight lasts longer and the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day. There is more than one hour of difference in day
light from the beginning to the end of March. Until now, we have been tantalized with bits and pieces of color in the garden. As if on cue, home and garden events converge to help us visualize real plants in real gardens.
In February, three of the largest garden-oriented events in the Pacific Northwest drew capacity crowds by conjuring up spring from the remnants of late winter. Daffodils and tulips bloomed a full month ahead of schedule. Bare branched cherry trees and late season magnolias broke into full flower. Is it any wonder that I came into the month of March spellbound, once again?
Although many of the plants in these shows do not bloom together in nature or this early in the season, the palette of plants used in the demonstration gardens represent their adaptability to our weather and climate zones. One reason for these events is to turn us on to plant choices available to gardeners in the Pacific Northwest. Knowing this, we can take a serious look at the individual plants offered and decide which ones we would like to add to our gardens.
One favorite Northwest perennial used in many of this year’s demo gardens is pulmonaria, also called Lungwort or Bethlehem sage. Pulmonaria flowers in dramatically bright blues and pinks, often carry both colors on the same plant. They are classic foliage plants known for the dappled pattern of silvery white highlights on pale green leaves. The foliage of Pulmonaria saccharata “Milky Way” is dusted with tiny white spots like stars in the night sky. Pulmonaria “The Leopard” has larger, more evenly spaced mottling.
Another plant used in many demonstration gardens is one of our most common garden shrubs. Pieris floribunda and P. japonica spp., also known commonly as Andromeda, are lovely additions to the garden at this time of year. Flower clusters drape like strands of pearls from the end of every branch. These clusters hang on patiently from late fall through winter. In early spring, each pearl opens to reveal a miniature bell in pale cream, white or shell pink. New spring growth is vibrant with descriptive names such as “Valley Fire,” “Mountain Fire” and “Flaming Silver.”
The Mediterranean heathers in white or pink are lovely if used in the right context. Their low, mat-forming profile is perfect for the edge of a border or planted on either side of a sidewalk entry. Heath and heather varieties grow in an array of forms from small, evergreen clumps to taller shrubs with flowers that dangle like ruby red bells. Many are grown for their changeable foliage color as much as for their seasonal flowers. The new growth of Erica darleyensis “Dawn” is golden yellow and Calluna vulgaris “Robert Chapman” glows fiery orange in late fall.
For a bold splash of early, voluptuous color in a tree, try a flowering ornamental plum. They bloom in a mass of deep pink blossoms that shout, “No turning back now, spring is here.” As if to highlight the bright flower color, new spring foliage unfurls in deep shades of purple. The combination is striking, a natural lesson in using color contrast in the garden. Prunus cerasifera “Thundercloud” is a small plum, perfect along driveways and sidewalks. Prunus x blireiana is a profuse, double bloomer.
Home and garden shows are not trying to make us believe that we, or they, can have a garden that is in perpetual bloom in every season of the year. What they are doing is placing all the plants available to us in well-designed demonstration gardens so that we can envision the possibilities. Whether we purchase plants now or make a list and add plants later in the season, we can appreciate the effort and ingenuity it takes to put together such a show for our enlightenment.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.