Joys of spring


In about a month, the shade garden in front of the house will look like this: orange columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and pink wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

I just spent a glorious hour clearing my shade beds of last fall’s leaves and the winter’s detritus (all carefully raked on to the leaf piles to preserve overwintering insects and their larvae). I realized a week or so ago that all the snow that fell on the driveway had been thrown on to the very spot where my earliest spring ephemeral, Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), is planted. Now that the snow is gone and the rain stopped, I raked that garden clear and uncovered emerging leaves of columbine, wild geranium (both in bloom in the photo above), asters, tiarella, heuchera, Virginia waterleaf, and, of course, last  year’s ferns. It was lovely to see them all.

My very dry, sandy soil won’t support some of the showiest spring ephemerals, such as bloodroot and Virginia bluebells, and oh, how I wish it could. But here are some plants that come up reliably for me every spring.


Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), surrounded by foliage of fern, columbine, and shade aster, will bloom in April.


Don’t forget that violets are natives as well, and they are an important butterfly host plant. I encourage them in the lawn and in the shade beds.


Dutchman’s breeches, the earliest flower in my garden, usually blooms around April 1. It was buried in snow until very recently. No sign of it yet.


Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum Virginiana) will bloom in May. Solomon’s seal needs a wetter site than I have so it doesn’t spread much; the waterleaf loves the dry soil.


Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis) is a great groundcover for part shade. It spreads almost a bit too enthusiastically.

What plants are popping up to delight you in your garden?


5/15/15: In the garden this week


Flowers of columbine and false Solomon’s seal, and foliage of mayapple, white snakeroot, several different shade asters, among others grace a shady perennial border.

Mid-spring is my favorite time in my garden. The shade gardens in both the front and backyards burst into bloom, and although they’re not as colorful as the summer prairie gardens, they have their own quiet charm. As you can see, I like to plant many different species close together (it helps fool the rabbits and deer). In spite of the extremely dry spring we’re having, I have not watered these gardens.

In addition to admiring your handiwork, here’s what you could be doing in the garden this week:

— the soil is very dry, so water new plantings: Water the plot thoroughly before planting, and give all newly installed plants a good soaking as soon as you put them in the ground to settle them in and eliminate air pockets in the soil. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this week and last week), water all woody plants installed this spring or last season. Perennials planted last spring should be well-established, but those planted last fall and this spring need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants.

harvest early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix, plus peas and radishes.

— If you started warm-season crops indoors, set them out in the garden now. It’s finally time to set out your tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant.

— now that almost all perennials have emerged, move and divide plants as necessary. This is the best time to divide perennials: root systems are small and easy to handle, and plants recover fastest this time of year. But be sure to water the plot before doing any planting. The soil is very dry.

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. Then plant right through the dying grass and mulch.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: wait until Memorial Day to fertilize. If you reseed bare areas, be sure to water often. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it less frequently and more deeply to encourage deep root growth.

Enjoy your garden this weekend!


Virginia waterleaf, an excellent groundcover or flowering perennial for dry shade, opens its first flower; Solomon’s seal is in the background.

What’s up?

Very little–this spring is at least 3 weeks behind most recent years. And today is particularly cold, windy, dark and un-springlike. But it is nevertheless time to begin clearing away last year’s growth from the perennial beds, so for the past few days I’ve been working in my shade garden. The spring ephemerals that dominate this garden are the first to emerge, and if I wait too long to clear it, I risk smothering the new growth. Regular readers of this blog know that I advocate leaving the leaves that fall on the perennial beds to provide winter cover and insulation, and I practice what I preach. And in most gardens, I would not have to carefully remove the leaf layer at the first sign of new growth: plants can grow right through most leaf mulch. But my garden is surrounded by Norway maple trees, and their leaves form thick, impermeable layers. If I left them, the tender plants would not be able to get sunlight, and they would die. So I must remove the leaf mulch as well as last year’s growth of stalks that are still standing.

I’ve uncovered most of the shadiest bed, the one where the earliest wildflowers return year after year. The only new growth to be seen was leaf buds of wild ginger (Asarum canadensis); small basal rosettes of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica); last year’s fern leaves, still nicely green; and tiny leaves of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). I can’t believe I’ve never written about the latter plant before.

public domain image from Wikipedia

This is a great plant. It’s related to borage; it’s about 18 inches tall and works well as part of a shade garden or groundcover in the shade. It’s called “waterleaf” because the leaves look like they’ve been splashed with water. It blooms in May, and the flowers are most often lavender but may also be white. It spreads showly by means of rhizomes but never becomes aggressive, although it holds its own nicely against more aggressive spreaders like Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis).