Think spring! Color and blossom return to Vermont gardens
As I started to write this ? on the first day of April no less ? we were in the midst of a crazy late-winter blizzard. But already the snow has started to recede, and I am happily anticipating the beautiful flowers of spring.
By far the most exuberant are the daffodils, with their cheery yellow faces that greet the new season with a smile. But there are many other harbingers of spring which, while a tad more modest, are no less lovely. In this article, and in two more articles that will follow, I’ll share with you some of the delightful flowers in my garden that return year after year to help me greet the new season.
The first to emerge are always the snowdrops. Indeed, within five days of our April Fool’s blizzard, I was amazed to discover a small clump of these delicate little flowers actually blooming right through the receding snow.
And in another week or so a mass of nodding white snowdrops will carpet the slope up towards our barn. One autumn I planted 100 bulbs, scattered all across the whole slope. Now 15 years later, each little bulb has become a small colony. Sometimes, as I glance up to the barn, it seems as though winter’s snow has returned.
Snowdrops originated in Europe and Wikipedia will tell you they typically flower before the Vernal Equinox. But in New England they postpone their flowering until the snow is receding and the spring sun starts to warm the earth. Once they have finished flowering their green leaves remain for about a month as the plants make food for the coming year. Then, almost overnight, the leaves vanish and everything is hidden from view until next spring.
If you do not already have them in your garden, next fall plan on planting some snowdrops. Find a partial shady spot where the soil does not readily dry out, loosen the soil and push each bulb down about four inches deep. Every spring their dainty white flowers will reappear to mark winter’s end.
Hellebores are another early spring flower from Europe. However, unlike snowdrops, the palmate hellebore leaves remain above ground to gradually form a handsome clump that contributes to the shady garden throughout the summer.
The Hellebore genus consists of over a dozen species, some with English names such as Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose and even Stinking Hellebore. Many species have also been hybridized to provide a wide range colors from a parchment white all the way to dark red (sometimes described as black).
At first I was dubious about trying a plant with the name of “Lenten Rose” in my Goshen garden, which typically is under snow throughout all of Lent.
So, for a while, I grew a couple of Hellebore plants in my cool greenhouse and enjoyed their flowers in early March. Then I finally decided to experiment with planting them outdoors and I am delighted to report that, like snowdrops, they conveniently postpone their flowering until the snow has receded and the soil begins to warm. Since they also take a late frost in their stride, they have made the perfect addition to my early spring garden.
About a decade ago I started to clear our wild “barn slope” in order to create a “proper garden” up there. There was little of interest to save, apart from a tiny patch of indigenous Bloodroot. Every spring I had marveled at how the clear white flowers, like miniature anemones, managed to emerge between the thick grasses and ferns that completely dominated the slope at that time. I was always amazed that such a delicate plant could survive under such adverse conditions.
I carefully dug up the single rootstock that easily broke into smaller pieces, which indeed exuded a reddish liquid reminiscent of blood. I tucked the pieces into various shady corners around the garden, and now each year I am rewarded with dense patches of delicate white flowers, followed by the scalloped leaves that, like the Hellebores, last all summer long.
Bloodroot, or Sanguinaria canadensis, is native across the eastern half of the United States and Canada, and in my garden it usually blooms towards the end of April.
Each time I see yellow English primroses, Primula vulgaris, I am transported back to my childhood in the countryside of Kent (in Old England). Not far from where we lived there were some “primrose woods” where, every April, yellow primroses stretched as far as the eye could see, truly a sight to behold. Primula vulgaris are native to much of Europe but, sadly, today they are relatively rare in the wild, and in many countries picking or digging them is now illegal.
So 20 years ago, when I saw the small pot of the double “Hose-in-Hose” English primrose for sale at Rocky Dale Nurseries in Bristol, I knew I had to have it. My garden has proven a good match for these sometimes finicky plants. By carefully dividing the clumps every few years and planting them in shady corners, from that one original plant I now have many clusters around the garden.
The complete primula clan (or genus) is quite large and it hails from across the globe. Many gardeners are familiar with the Drumstick primroses which have a spherical whorl of flowers atop their eighteen inch stems, as well as the similar size Japanese primroses that enjoy a boggy spot.
And, as with the Hellebores, primula cross breeding has produced a wealth of cultivated varieties or cultivars for the discriminating gardener. They come in an array of bright colors, including oranges and pinks, as well as deep purple to pale mauve, and specialty nurseries like Rocky Dale carry many types to please all tastes. Indeed I have quite a number of different ones here in my garden with varied flowering times into early June.
But, when all is said and done, my heart still belongs to the diminutive Primula vulgaris. Every April their clear yellow flowers reappear on cue, transporting me back over the years and across the ocean.
And finally, let me briefly mention our lovely native Virginia Bluebells or Mertensia virginica. A large colony flourishes in the beds outside my study window, where they flower alongside some English primroses. The true-blue nodding flowers of the Virginia Bluebells pop up in unexpected places among the clumps of yellow primroses, always creating an unforgettable spring picture.
“No winter lasts forever ? no spring skips its turn!”
So, as I wait for this seemingly endless winter to run its course, I reflect on these words of wisdom by American writer and journalist, Hal Borland, even as I anticipate the delicate flowers of spring.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program as well as Landscape and Planting Design at Vermont Technical College. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryimpressions.com.
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