Early Blooming Perennials

Credit: John Glover

Is your springtime flower border less than inspiring? Even veteran gardeners find it daunting to choose the best plants for their borders from the hundreds available. If you’re plagued with doubts, remember that a sensational flower border is not created by “one-of-a-kind” exotic plants, but by perennials that have proven themselves in generations past. Following are seven timeless early-blooming perennials that will add panache, whether your plans call for an informal, cottage-style border, or a more structured effect. Long-lived and easy to maintain, these reliable performers will lay the groundwork for the rest of your garden. Some bask in full sun, while others perform grandly in dappled shade, but what they all have in common is a vigour and dependability that will reward you with viewing pleasure for years to come.

1. Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)

This classic perennial has luxuriant fern-like foliage and slender, arching stems dripping with heart-shaped, 2.5-centimetre-long blossoms. Flowers are deep rose or pure white (in the case of D. spectabilis ‘Alba’).

Bleeding heart thrives in a rich, loose soil. The addition of peat moss or aged compost will provide the best results, as will the addition of sand to heavy clay soils. Provide plenty of moisture during the growing season, then cut back on watering when plants go dormant in mid to late summer.

Plant in dappled shade or partial sun, providing some shelter from strong winds. Stems are fragile and some support may be required.

Blooms in May and June. Grows about a metre tall, and as wide, forming a neat bush. Plant one metre apart.

Propagate in spring from root or stem cuttings. Roots are long, tapering and brittle, so handle with care. Clumps may be divided every three or four years. An added bonus – bleeding hearts add flair to a cut flower arrangement.

2. Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

This charming cottage-style perennial blooms mid to late spring. Blossoms have long spurs and are held daintily above clusters of scalloped, dark-green leaves. Flowers hybridize naturally and vary in shades of blue, mauve, red, pink, yellow, orange and white. Some flowers have contrasting colours.

Plant in partial shade or full sun in a moist, well-drained soil. Foliage remains attractive after the blooming period has passed. Trim flower stems back to leaf level for a neat, compact look.

Columbine grows 60 to 90 centimetres tall, and should be planted 45 to 60 centimetres apart. Expect blossoms in May and June. They also make an excellent cut flower for bouquets.

Progagate from seed, or by root division in spring and fall.

3. Delphinium (Delphinium)

Another traditional favourite, delphinium provides dramatic spikes of flowers in shades of intense or sky blue, mauve, pink, white and creamy yellow. Plants vary in height from 30 centimetres to two metres, with the average being 1.2 to 1.8 metres tall. Provide some protection from strong winds, and stake the taller varieties that become top heavy when laden with blossoms. Set the stakes in the soil once the plant emerges in spring, and tie the stems as they grow.

Delphinium grows best in full sun and a rich, well-drained, light garden soil. Sand may be added to amend a heavy, clay soil. These perennials grow best in a cool, moist climate – ideal for coastal British Columbia gardens. Plant the taller variety at the back of your border for a beautiful focal point.

Blooms in late spring and summer, and will bloom again in fall if flowers are removed before the plant goes to seed. The small or intermediate varieties make excellent cut flowers.

Propagate by seed, by taking cuttings from the base of the plant in spring, or by division in spring or fall.

4. Leopard’s Bane (Doronicum caucasicum)

One of the earliest-blooming spring perennials, leopard’s bane floods your garden with a glorious burst of yellow flowers. Flowers have a daisy shape, and are carried high above their heart-shaped leaves.

Plant in semi-shade in rich garden soil. Water amply, and you’ll be rewarded with blooms from early March onwards. Deadhead to encourage blooming, then cut the dried stems down to ground level in fall.

Height from 45 to 60 centimetres. Plant an equal distance apart. This perennial may self-seed, but hasn’t become invasive – not in my yard, at any rate. Propagate by division in autumn. Leopard’s bane also provides lovely cut flowers to brighten up your spring bouquet.

5. Peony (Paeonia)

To my way of thinking, spring is officially here when reddish peony shoots first emerge from the soil. Fortunately, that happens very early here on the Sunshine Coast.

These long-lived perennials provide massive, almost decadent, fragrant blossoms. Even after the petals have been dashed to the ground by a hard spring rain, the foliage remains attractive and, towards fall, turns a rich bronze colour with muted purple overtones.

There are many varieties of peony available, including the spectacular tree peony. Flower shapes are single anemone-style, and double. All are beautiful as a cut arrangement. Some flowers are intensely perfumed; others carry just a hint of scent. Plant in full sun, in a rich, well-drained soil to which compost or aged manure has been added. Blooms late spring and early summer.

Both height and width range from 60 to 90 centimetres. Plant a metre apart.

Provide some form of support as the blossoms are heavy. To produce larger blossoms, nip secondary buds as they emerge. Don’t worry if you see ants on the buds – they’re after the nectar and won’t damage the plant.

Propagate by carefully dividing the roots in early fall. When planting, ensure that the eyes of the root (reddish buds) face upward, and plant only five to 7.5 centimetres below soil level. If planted too deeply, peonies will sulk and refuse to bloom. Remember that a large portion of root will mature (and bloom) sooner. Plants may take two to three years to go into full flower production.

6. Bearded Iris (Iris germanica)

Elegant iris with its sword-like leaves punctuating the air welcomes spring in style. Bearded iris are the most common, with flowers in a palette of colours ranging from deep purple, sky blue, peach, yellow, bronze, orange, red, pink and ivory to near-black. Varieties include solid and bicolours, many with contrasting beads and falls. And just a hint of tantalizing fragrance.

The flowers are made up of standards and falls. The three erect petals are called “standards,” while the three outer petals with a downward curve are called “falls.” The falls come complete with a fuzzy, coloured strip zippered down the centre of the petal.

Plant in July or August and expect flowers the following year in early spring and summer. Blooms will improve for three to five years, then plants should be divided as the rhizomes will form a knotty mass on top of each other, causing growth and flower production to reduce. If leaf tips dry up, they can be tidied by trimming them back with garden shears. Cut the leaves at a sharp angle so the cut won’t be as noticeable.

Iris are available as miniature dwarfs merely centimetres in height, to the tall bearded variety towering 1.2 metres and higher, bearing 10- to 20-centimetre flowers. Miniatures can be tucked into rockeries; intermediates and standards make a colour statement that will jazz up any part of your border.

7. Violet (Viola odorata)

Last, but not least, is the diminutive woodland violet. Delightful purple and white violets grow happily in a wooded ravine area that surrounds my property. Plants also pop up in the oddest places – under my plum tree, in gravelled walks and in my rose garden. They remain as uninvited but welcome guests. Whenever I walk down my garden path, I’m rewarded with a whiff of sweet fragrance.

Violets blossom in early spring. Plant them in light shade in a moist soil enriched with leaf mould or compost. Plants should be set 15 to 20 centimetres apart. Thereafter they will spread readily from the parent plant or from seed. Expect an invasion of tiny plants that form natural drifts.

Propagate by clump division after blooming is completed in spring, or by seed. These beauties grow 15 to 20 centimetres tall, with flowers that are a centimetre long and white, pink or purple. They bloom profusely. Plants have attractive mounds of heart-shaped leaves.

And don’t forget, if you have an overabundance of violets, you can also eat them. Toss them in a salad or decorate a cake. That’s why they’re called sweet violets!

The following plants are hardy up to the zone number indicated: • Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) – zone 4 • Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – zone 3 • Delphinium (Delphinium) – zone 3 • Bearded iris (Iris germanica) – zone 3 • Leopard’s bane (Doronicum caucasicum or D. orientale) – zone 5 • Peony (Paeonia) – zone 3 • Violet (Viola odorata) – zone 8

Freelancer Judy Heyer divides her time between writing, painting and growing flowers on the Sechelt peninsula.