Creating an Ornamental Garden; Spring Colour

Purple Drumstick Primrose

If you’re in the process of starting a flower garden from scratch or need to rejuvenate an existing one you might be interested in my articles Creating a Garden the Easy Way and clever Self Seeding Garden Plants . This article is part of a series highlighting my favourite plants according to when they flower. In the articles I highlight easy-to-grow, readily available, inexpensive perennial plants.  Read on for suggestions for colour in the garden next spring.

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Why bother with a garden at all? Well apart from the proven physical and mental health benefits of gardening, our gardens serve as oasis for pollination insects in towns and cities.  Just consider how small a bee is in comparison to the vast expansiveness of nectar deserts (aka tarmac, concrete and lawns) and you get a sense of just how difficult life must be for them. If we can get every garden growing some form of accessible nectar rich plants we can create a living highways for these vulnerable beasties.

I’m purposely only going to feature perennial plants that I personally find easy to grow and slug and disease resistant. For me annuals are such a waste of money, time and resources, unless you’re able to grow them from seeds sown directly in the ground. You may notice that a few spring stalwarts are missing from my list, like tulips. This is intentional. Although beautiful, I find tulips to be fussy buggers, if the weather’s too warm they open too wide and lose their glamour, if the weather is too wet or windy and they get destroyed, the shows over for another year. Plus the hybridised varieties (man-made varieties) tend to need replacing every year if you want a good show – what a waste! If you really want tulips in your garden there are however a few tulip varieties that come back every year.

My top 9 Super Spring Perennials

Cyclamens offer fantastically dramatic colour in the winter garden and are a favoured plant by all garden centres. The variety that you typically see in the shops is a non-hardy variety that will not typically return the following year, unless it’s protected. There are however two varieties of cyclamen that are fully hardy in Ireland and will last through the winter. They’re called cyclamen hederifolium and cyclamen coum. Neither have the large flashy flowers of the non-hardy cyclamen, but I think they’re all the beautiful for it.

The hederifolium variety has ivy shaped leaves and flowers in Autumn, while the coum has smaller heart shaped leaves and flowers during the winter. Both are woodland plant so tends to like some shade in the summer, although I have mine in full sun. The coum completely disappears during the summer, so mark it to ensure you don’t dig it up by accident. Also avoid planting hederfolium and coum beside one another as the hederfolium is much more vigorous and will outcompete the coum varietal.

If you look after these plants and don’t let them get too wet in the winter it’ll return year after year, spreading as it does. Interestingly it’s ants that spread cyclamen seed!

The very first plant to poke its head up in January or February in Ireland is the Snowdrop and I love seeing it emerge. There are hundreds of varieties and you can spend a fortune on some of them. They grow in most conditions but do like some shade in the summer, so plants them where they’ll get shade from a deciduous shrub or a herbaceous plant. I like to sprinkle summer seeds over my spring bulbs so that I have interest in the spot left by the snowdrops when they’ve gone over and I’m less likely to dig up the bulbs in error.  Unlike most bulbs snowdrops are best planted or divided just after they’ve finished flowering. When the flowers are finished, remove them so that the plant doesn’t waste energy making seed and puts its energy back into the bulb instead. Allow the leaves to die back naturally.

Following on a few weeks later from the snowdrop is the Snowflake. This is a more statuesque cousin to the snowdrop and is a really great addition to the spring border. There is a spring variety and a summer variety, with the latter flowering from late spring to early summer. The leaves of the snowflake take a long time to die back so bear that in mind when deciding where to place it. As with snowdrops, remember to deadhead the flowers. I’ve heard that slugs eat them but I’ve never had an issue in my garden, and I have lots of problems with slugs and snails. Best planted in full sun or partial shade.

Aubrieta is very quick to follow snowdrops and snowflakes in my garden and its purple blossoms provides a wonderful contrast to the typical yellow / white colour palette of spring. The flowers themselves are not particularly spectacular but the plant can create a vivid carpet of colour when planted on mass.  It is a very drought tolerant, but has also coped well with my water retentive clay soil, not to mention snowfalls. It’s meant to prefer a lime rich soil but it does very well in my neutral soil. It flowers best in full sun but does very well in partial shade in my garden. Prune lightly after flowering. Unfortunately this plant doesn’t look great after it’s flowered and so it’s a good idea to plant something that falls over it from mid-summer onwards.

Another favourite of mine is the Hellebore. As with snowdrops these come in a variety of styles but unusual ones can be hard to come by and, because they take a long time to mature, the plants can be quite expensive. Hellebores are woodland plants so like to be shaded from the summer sun. The only problem I’ve had with hellebores is blackening leaves in late summer, which I remedy by removing and composting in the brown bin. I wouldn’t compost these leaves in my own composter as it doesn’t reach the temperatures required to kill the fungus, unlike municipal composters. If you google images of hellebores you’ll see the range of colour they can be bought in, just be careful not to plant different varieties too close to one another or they’ll cross fertilise and result in a muddy flower colour over time.

As we move into late spring we start to get even more colour, typically in the form of daffodils. Most of us are very familiar with the traditional all-yellow daffodil that comes out in March, but the range of colours and flowering times is huge. If you wanted to you could have daffodils flowering in your garden from November right through to April and in shades ranging from cream, through peach to orange. As with most spring bulbs daffodils are planted as bulbs in the Autumn. When buying consider getting organic daffodil bulbs from Fruithill Farm in Co Cork. Plant them in a sunny spot, twice as deep as the bulb height. I always plant the bulbs closer than recommended because I think it gives a neater display. As with snowdrops remove the flowers when they’ve gone over and let the leaves die back naturally.

Primroses feature heavily in my spring garden because they don’t get eaten by slugs! I have two varieties, the drumstick (see top image) and doubles, both of which multiply so easily that I always have some to give away every autumn.  These are another woodland plant and would benefit from some summer shade but I struggle to provide this for all of my plants so some are in full sun all year and survive quite happily once I water them during droughts. Drumstick primroses tend to come in pink, blue-purple or white and the doubles could in a huge range of colours from white through to red. The only downside to the double primroses is their inaccessibility for pollinating insects.

Dicentra Spectablis give a huge amount of bang for its buck. It’s an elegant plant with arching flower stems bejewelled with heart-shaped dropped flowers. This plant emerges every spring, flowers and then slowly dies back over the summer so put it next to a plant that will enlarge over the summer to fill the blank spot. The only looking after this plant needs is protection from heavy showers, which can break the delicate stems. I do this by supporting the foliage with metal hoops before it starts to flower. I have the pink variety in my garden but you can get varieties with red or white flowers too. All varieties like partial shade.

If you want to find out more information on any of the plants here check out the Plant Finder tool on the RHS website

Check out the other articles in this series

E

PS – This time in previous years I’ve published a recipe for Easy Peasy Homemade Bread and a review of Wool Pillows

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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