Spring officially arrives with the Spring Equinox on March 20th. The equinox marks the day of equal night and day length. From the 20th onward, the days lengthen by a minute or so heading to the start of summer at the Summer Solstice. Plants are very sensitive to day and night length along with changes in temperature as cues to break dormancy and begin flowering.
Few things can bring such joy to our hearts than the first flowers of spring. This is the time when our efforts planting spring blooming bulbs last fall begin to pay off. The crocus and miniature Iris, early daffodils and some of the wildflower bulbs, such as Anemone, Scilla, and Galanthus are some of the earliest to bloom. Bulbs are wonderful and our gratitude for their beauty after a long winter is often intense.
Remember to Plant for all Four Parts of the Growing Season
When I talk about designing a colorful season long garden, I like to remind folks that we need to plan for early spring, late spring, summer and early fall flowers. Bulbs are a superb way to wake up the garden, but don’t stop there. Bulbs should be planted with other early and mid-spring blooming groundcovers and perennials to really do it right.
Early flowering Groundcovers and Perennials
Without a doubt, the early spring blooming groundcovers are some of our showiest flowering perennials. And they are fabulous companions to plant with spring bulbs. The bulbs push up through the stems and foliage of the groundcovers creating a colorful tapestry of colors and textures. Some of the best early to mid-spring blooming groundcovers include the following:
Veronica oltensis (Thyme Leaf Speedwell) – deep green, evergreen foliage and bright blue flowers held just over the tight knit spreading stems.
Veronica pectinata (Woolly Speedwell) – wooly gray-green foliage and blue fading to lavender flowers make this one of the best.
Veronica bombycina (Silver leaf Speedwell) – white evergreen foliage and brilliant blue flowers make this slow growing gem and “must” for waking up the xeric border or rock garden.
Phlox subulata ‘Drummond’s Pink’ (Drummonds’s Pink Creeping Phlox) – a great way to carpet the garden with brilliantly colored rose-pink, nickel sized flowers and fine textured evergreen foliage.
Phlox nana 'Perfect Pink' is without question one of our finest western native perennials. While easily grown in the garden, the plant is almost never available because it's very difficult to propagate. 'Perfect Pink' was selected from the wild for its huge (1 ½" diameter) flowers with wide, deep pink petals that surround a small white eye. The plant grows as a tidy mound of stems with narrow, blue-green deciduous foliage. Blooming in late spring, it re-flowers in late summer in response to summer rains.
Phlox kelseyi ‘Lemhi Purple’ – a stunner with large, fragrant bi-colored blue and lavender flowers over a tight mat of evergreen foliage
Delosperma sp ’Lesotho Pink’ - grown from seed collected in highest reaches of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, this tight growing evergreen mat disappears under a blanket of shimmering, bright pink flowers.
Thymus neiceffii (Juniper Leaf Thyme) – a mountain species with uniquely beautiful needle-like leaves and brilliant rose-pink flowers, I plant it around early season wildflower tulips.
Gazania krebsiana ‘Scarlet Tanager’– huge scarlet-red daisies start to appear in early spring and continue through until the heat of June. Plant with big yellow daffodils. A great perennial daisy for mild winter climates.
Follow-up Bulbs and Groundcovers with Poppies
Oriental poppies are a highlight of the spring- into-summer blooming season. They thrive in the coldest of climates and do well in all types of soils including heavy clay. When happy, they will live in your garden for a lifetime. I love to plant poppies behind tall Darwin Hybrid Tulips and tall Garden daffodils so one brilliant burst of mid-spring color is quickly followed by another in late spring. Poppies make fantastic cut flowers too.
Papaver orientale ‘Coral Reef’ - I got my seed of this ethereal flower from the English seed company Thompson Morgan many years ago. I love it in my cottage garden and to my delight, discovered it comes true from seed. So from my original M&T seed grown plants, I’ve been growing my own seed of ‘Coral Reef’ as it hasn’t been available commercially.
Papaver orientale ‘Royal Wedding’ - if you love white flowers, there are few finer than ‘Royal Wedding’ with its pure, large white petals blotched with black at the base.
Papaver orientale 'Brilliant' This scarlet-orange flower has been made famous by New Mexico artist Georgia O'Keeffe's beautiful paintings from the 1930s.
Papaver intermedium (Double Orange Hybrid Oriental Poppy) - I had the great fortune to give a talk on water-wise gardening in the small town of Ketchum, Idaho a decade ago. And I was there at the absolute peak of bloom of the town’s large, widespread population of Double Orange Poppy. This is an heirloom hybrid from Western Asia that found its way around many western US towns. It’s huge shimmering double orange chalice-like flowers will leave you breathless. This perennial is an aggressive grower that is best used along edges of your property, along an unplanted garage wall or other off- to-the side places where this plant can make itself at home.
Brilliant Oriental Poppy was made famous by New Mexico artist Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. Papaver orientale Brilliant blooms in late spring with huge scarlet-orange flowers and is an outstanding variety.
'Prince of Orange' Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale 'Prince of Orange') has huge bright-orange flowers with crepe paper-like petals that light up the late spring garden. It is easy-to-grow and long lived. It thrives in clay and loves cold winters.