Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year…
Designing and planting a garden for all seasons reminds me a bit of theater. From the moment an audience stands at the entry of a garden, an opportunity exists. When guests emerge from their cars, or step inside a gate, what will they first notice? In early spring, perhaps the delicate scent of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will lure them forward as they open the door, or the small, starry- blue blossoms of chionodoxa will greet them alongside a stone walkway. The bright colors of spring bulbs and the perfume of fragrant shrubs enliven a washed out winter landscape and awaken dormant senses. Â Taking advantage of the very early days of spring in your garden design will lift your spirits and prolong the pleasures of the growing season.
From the creamy whites and cool blues of galanthus and muscari to the warm golds and peaches of eranthis and narcissus, spring bulbs are the first notes of music in the garden theater. When planned successfully, these early players will slowly fade back as the other acts roll out and fill in the story. Companion plants such as huechera, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, galium and Artemisia ‘silver mound’, (to name a few stalwarts), gradually nudge-out the spring bulbs as they take over the garden stage. Ideally, a complex tapestry of perennial foliage and flowers will camouflage yellowing bulbs as they die back for the year. Plan your plantings accordingly, leaving space for bulbs between perennials, and make note of your plans in your fall calendar. Â Early spring photos can be a help later as well. When you return to the garden to plant spring flowering bulbs in fall, your notes and photos from spring will serve as your guide.
When choosing from amongst the vast array of flowering trees and shrubs for your garden, it is important to consider those varieties blooming very early as well as those extending very late in the garden year. The star players in your garden will shine best when each is given a moment of design consideration all its own, in addition to thoughts about how the plant will play in scenes created with other members of the garden cast. Try to select woody plants with staggering bloom dates for an uninterrupted show. And keep in mind that a carefully chosen cast of characters will provide not only drama when blooming, but will add interest and support to your garden story though out the year. Try to always consider foliage, a season-long contributor, in your choices. Â And remember that many shrubs, will provide a full year’s performance, with structure, blossoms, lush foliage, autumn color and even winter fruit.
By the time many of the early blooming shrubs make it to local garden centers, they have faded out and become unlikely candidates for sale. Â Hamamelis vernalis, (the spring witch hazel), Fothergilla gardenii, and Lindera benzoin, (spice bush), are three oft-overlooked early blooming shrub varieties for the garden. Â All three of these garden-worthy plants provide early spring blossoms, structural interest, contrast, and spectacular autumn foliage. Early blooming trees for the garden, such as amelanchier, Cornus alternifolia, (pagoda dogwood), and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), and the show-stopping Cercis canadensis,(eastern redbud), are some beautifully structured, smaller-sized tree choices for gardens. Amelanchier and cornus are valued for both bloom and later, vivid red and orange fall foliage and fruit. The plum-hued buds of Cercis candensis are followed by heart shaped leaves; dark green in summer and then turning a lovely golden hue in autumn. Â In addition, all these shrubs and trees are natives to north America, making them environmentally sound choices for the landscape as well as beautiful additions to the garden.
A well designed garden will provide a steady performance, with early scenes seamlessly flowing into later acts. Â Successful spring planting involves the big picture. Â Carefully selected plants will provide a solid structure and a season-less stage for poetic vignettes of spring bulbs and vibrant perennial dramas through out the year. I am continually amazed by the design possibilities and endless combinations I discover when visiting friends gardens. Â Take the time to visit public and private gardens in early spring, and make notes about what you see. Â Add some new characters to your cast to extend your seasonal show, and enjoy the pleasures of your garden-theater throughout the year.
Plantings pictured, (top and bottom photographs):
Stone steps and an entry walkway are lined with Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ , Juniperus squamata,’Holger’, Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Fothergilla gardenii, and Acer palmatum x dissectum “Seiryu”. These shrubs and trees are complimented by an under-planting of various bulbs, including muscari, galanthus and narcissus and companion perennials such as heuchera, sedum, Cerastium t, sanguinaria and Phlox divaricata among others.
Along the walkway, emerging perennials are edged by a wide blue swath of ajuga.
Article, design and photos: â“’ 2009 Michaela – The Gardener’s Eden
all stonework: Dan Snow