Ask the Master Gardener: Add some early spring color to flower beds

There are many flowering perennials people can add this spring to provide color and enjoyment for years to come.

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Pulmonaria "Little Star" and "Trevi Fountain." Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: We lack plants in our landscaping that bloom before June. What can we add to our flower beds for some early spring color?

Answer: A great way to add spring color to your landscape is to plant spring blooming bulbs in the fall (snowdrops, winter aconite, glory-of-the-snow, grape hyacinth, tulips, daffodils, trout lily). However, there are some delightful flowering perennials that you can add this spring, which will provide color and enjoyment for years to come. Here are some spring blooming plants that perform well in our area (zone 3):

  • Virginia bluebell (Mertensia) is a native plant and lovely spring ephemeral. It is a woodland plant that performs best in rich, moist (but well-drained) soil and part to full shade. The plants grow one to 2 feet tall and will form large colonies over time. The flower buds are pink then open to pendulous, trumpet-shaped, blue flowers. The plants go dormant by mid-summer and the foliage will die to the ground, so you may want to plant them among hostas, ferns, or other perennials, which will grow larger as the season progresses and cover up the disappearing Virginia bluebells.

  • Pulmonaria (lungwort) is another beautiful spring blooming perennial that is in the same family as Virginia bluebells and performs best in the same growing conditions. Another thing they have in common – deer do not like them. There is a large variety of cultivars from which to choose with foliage ranging from green with silver splotches to silver with green edging. The flowers come in pink, white, blue, or purple. When the flowers fade away the foliage is outstanding and a deer-resistant alternative to hostas.

  • Old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) has graceful fern-like foliage and pendant, heart-shaped, pink, red, and white flowers. It reaches about three feet in height and 4 feet in width at maturity. This plant performs best in moist, but well-drained, soil rich in organic matter and part shade. This is another plant that goes dormant in the summer.

  • Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a great choice for a moist, partially shaded woodland garden. The plant typically reaches a height of 12 to 15 inches and produces loose clusters of showy blue-violet flowers.

  • Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) adds a bright splash of color in spring. It gets four to six inches tall, has stiff, needle-like foliage, and flowers that come in white, pink, blue, and purple. It performs best in sunny areas with well-drained soils.

  • Columbine is a showy perennial that attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Whether it is the native columbine or a hybrid, these plants grow best in shade to part shade and well-drained soil. Native columbine has red or yellow flowers and grows the tallest. Hybrids come in a wide range of colors, including bicolor.

  • Bergenia (pig squeak) performs well in shady locations to full sun, as long as it is provided plenty of moisture. The flowers emerge in early spring about the same time that the new foliage unfurls. Flowers come in white, cream, pink, purple, red, and burgundy. The leaves have a nice glossy texture and take on a burgundy tint in the fall. Dianthus bloom over a long period beginning in spring and extending into the summer. Two species, Maiden Pink and Cheddar Pink, are hardy in this area. Maiden Pinks are profuse bloomers and will often rebloom if deadheaded. Cultivars to look for are Arctic Fire and Zing Rose. Popular Cheddar Pink cultivars are Bewitched and Firewitch. Both Dianthus species are fragrant and have showy flowers. They need to be planted in well-drained soil and full sun.

Dear Master Gardener: We are going on vacation for three weeks. What can we do so our plants don’t die while we are away?

Answer: Keeping plants watered while you are on vacation can be difficult. Plants suffer if the roots are too wet or too dry. If you don’t have someone to come in and water while you are gone, you can do several things to reduce the water needs of your plants. If you lower the temperature in your home while you are away, the plants will use less water. If you have plants in direct sunlight, move them to a location with bright light, but not direct sunlight. Grouping plants together raises the humidity in that area. There are glass watering globes you can purchase that will keep potted plants watered for up to two weeks at a time. Before you leave, give your plants a good, deep watering. Don’t leave them sitting in water! Surplus water keeps the potting medium saturated which will cause the roots to die due to lack of oxygen.

February Gardening Tips

  • Consider giving a flowering plant for Valentine’s Day – it will last much longer than cut flowers. Good choices are orchids, African violets, cyclamen, miniature roses, and kalanchoe. Choose plants with a few open blossoms and lots of healthy-looking buds. Make sure to wrap the plant well before transporting it to your car. Direct exposure to cold air, even for a short time, can damage or kill flowers or foliage.

  • If you receive cut flowers for Valentine’s Day, place them in a cool location, out of direct sunlight. Trim off any foliage that sits in the water, as it rots easily. To keep the flowers attractive for as long as possible, make a fresh cut at the base of each stem whenever you change the water. Change the water when it starts looking cloudy by adding fresh, barely warm water with a little floral preservative added.

  • To promote repeat blooming, trim off spent cyclamen blossoms before they form seed heads. Be careful not to overwater cyclamen and make sure the pot drains well. If your cyclamen came in a foil wrap, poke holes in the foil so the plant is not sitting in water.

  • Check on dahlias, cannas, calla lilies, and other non-hardy summer bulbs you are storing over the winter. It’s not unusual for them to rot in storage, especially if they are kept too warm or were damaged when dug up in the fall. Throw away any that are soft and mushy.

  • Plant begonia tubers in a flat of peat moss or vermiculite this month for bloom in June.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. All information given in this column is based on university research. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-454-GROW (4769) and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.
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