Green Leaves in the Spring Garden

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' (Hellebore) leaf in ice March
Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' (Hellebore) leaf in ice March

The plants which stay green under the snow give the first bright colour in the garden in early spring, when the sun warms the beds. Looking for newly exposed perennials, like Campanula (bellflower) and Helleborus,  gives me an incentive to explore the garden. I’m always surprised that a plant which isn’t a conifer can survive over winter in zone 3, while retaining its foliage. Most broad leafed plants in a cold climate wisely drop their leaves in the fall as a survival strategy. However, perennials which keep their foliage over winter give a head start to spring gardening. These steadfast plants are green and growing, before the first shoots of the new perennials appear.

The long-lasting foliage of  Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ is surprisingly fresh as the surrounding glacier retreats. I’m torn between getting out my hair dryer to melt the rest of the snow around the perennials, or throwing more snow over the plants to protect them from the cold weather that we are sure to have still this spring. The tenacious hellebores may not have blooms yet, but I’ll settle for some promising green leaves for now. These Helleborus will start collecting the sun’s energy, before the trees leaf out and shade this garden bed. I admire how the red stems on ‘Ivory Prince’  contrast with the stiff evergreen leaves. The silver shadings on the leaves are not as conspicuous now as they were in the fall. It’s a very striking plant, which will shine when the beautiful blooms appear. This hybrid is Helleborus ‘walhelivor’, but marketed under ‘Ivory Prince’.

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' (hellebore)
Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' (hellebore)

The willow tree overhead has done its best to help insulate the perennials, dropping a thick layer of leaves in the fall, and then futilely dropping numerous twigs over the winter. After the snow has fully melted, I’ll have to start my spring gardening cleanup by collecting all of the branches and twigs, as I play the willow tree’s favourite game,  Pick up Sticks. I’ll keep the leaves on the garden beds for now. They will help insulate the plants until the weather gets more consistently warm.

Two magpies have been very busy pulling long twigs off of the willow to make a nest. One hopeful bird had a twig about 60 cm (2 feet) long, and could barely fly, until it landed on the fence. They are great fun to watch. My next gardening task will be training them to pick the twigs off of the ground.

Campanula rotundifolia (harebell) from under snow March
Campanula rotundifolia (harebell) from under snow March

Two resolute Campanula kept their foliage through the winter too. Campanula rotundifolia (harebell) has little rosettes of green leaves right now. The basal leaves at the bottom of this perennial are rounded, whereas the leaves on the taller stalks are linear.  Later in the spring, when the stems grow, these basal leaves are barely noticeable underneath the plant. Then it’s harder to see how it got its name, rotundifolia, meaning rounded leaves. When it flowers in June, with dainty blue bell-shaped blooms,  it’s easy to see how it got one of  its common names, bluebells of Scotland. The pretty blue flowers then bloom off and on until frost.

The Campanula portenschlagiana ‘Hoffman’s Blue’ (Dalmatian bellflower) has kept its leaves in good condition throughout winter too. In fact one plant has kept the wilted little blue flowers since December under the snow, and in -35 C (-31F) temperatures, as if preserved in dry ice. They might look like small pieces of wet tissues, but they are blue wet tissues. All the other garden perennials follow the natural cycle of fading to brown in the fall. I’m not sure why this Campanula retains the bright blue until spring, but it is uplifting to see the lingering flower colour in the garden after so long.

moss on patio March
moss on patio March

As the ice melts from my patio, even the moss underneath is green. It’s flourishing in the melt water. I like how the moss runs between the patio stones, filling the openings between bricks with a soft, living pattern all season.

We are sure to get some more snow flurries before the warmer spring gardening weather arrives, but it is heartening to see the snow melt in patches, and the lingering green leaves exposed in the garden. The moist earth is starting to smell like gardening season. In a few weeks, the bulbs will emerge, and the early perennials will rise from the damp soil. The sight of persistent leaves, showing above the mud and snow, is encouraging until then.

What is the earliest green that shows on plants in your garden?

52 thoughts on “Green Leaves in the Spring Garden”

    1. Sheila, they are inspiring little plants. I’m surprised by how well most of the foliage does, after coming out of their icy capsule. It’s interesting how the snow starts melting around each individual leaf. You can see the next Helleborus leaf that’s about to be exposed at the top of the first photo. They have been encapsulated in snow since last December.

      Melanthia, I really appreciate the harebells, since they are so easy going. I only have the blue ones, but white would look nice in the shade. The hellebores would look lovely under those shrubs.

  1. I’ve got five harebells I need to plant. Mostly white, if I remember correctly. I’ve also got a hellebore garden I just started beneath a large rhododendron and camellia. Grasses are another mainstay for winter interest.

  2. I can always count on campanulas too ! .. you can never have enough of them, so I’ll be on the look out for more this year as well. We both love our moss between the patio stones don’t we ? .. I have more and more happening and it is wonderful to see : )
    I’m glad you are coming out of the snow drift girl !!

    1. Joy, as the backyard glacier melts, I can see more and more of the garden. Some of the areas with bulbs still have 30 cm (a foot) of snow over them, but I thinks they will start popping up quickly as this melts. It’s great to have some plants that never sulk at the cold, like Campanula and Helleborus.

      Sweet Bay, I was out in the yard in my t-shirt today. It was cool in the shadows, but nice when the sun shone directly on me. I had to wear my boots, though, because I was wading through the snow in many parts. I couldn’t do any gardening, but I did poke about, inspecting everything.

    1. LCShores, The moss has filled in on its own. There was no moss there when I moved in 7 years ago, and now it covers 75% of the spacings between patio bricks. It makes a tight pattern, following the sinuous edges of the bricks. I rake the patio gently so it doesn’t dislodge the moss, and pat it back down, if pieces come out.

  3. I love Ivory Prince…a great looking hellebore with the strong markings and red stems. I can’t wait for your campanulas to bloom, they are a treat! When is your last frost date? gail

    1. Gail, our average last frost day is around May 7, which is why I appreciate the hardy early spring plants. Today I saw new curled red stems of Ivory Prince at the edge of the the ice melt. I’ll have to check tomorrow to see if there are actually buds in the thick curls.

  4. It’s so nice with those plants that are green the whole year or get green early. Both the helleborus and the campanula are beautiful. I’m also found of some cranebills that are green during the winter, eg. Geranium biokovo. It has green and red leaves at the moment. I’ll post a pick on that one later on this week.

    1. Karin A, I haven’t tried Geranium biokovo. I will have to look into it, since I appreciate any plants that keep their green (or red) leaves to extend the garden season. I will look forward to reading more about it.

      Birgitta, I have some little Asarum, but they are still under snow. Perhaps in a week or so, they will be greening up the yard too. I have looked at Bergenia off and on. Maybe I can find a spot for that large leafed plant. I didn’t know it kept its foliage too. Enjoy the sunny spring weather.

      Frances, so far, I have been very impressed with the hardiness of Ivory Prince , as well as its handsomeness. The old green leaves are coming out of slumber, and the new unfurling red stalks are melting the snow above. The ice above is crusty, but they are slowly breaking through.
      Once the magpies can fetch the fallen sticks, we will work on lesson 2 for you, fence weaving. They are intelligent birds, and I hope they will take to their training.

  5. I have, helleboruses, saxifragas, asarum and bergenia that paints the earth green during the winter. One of the bergenias got red leaves when it is cold.
    Today the sun is shining and The spring is here, at last.

  6. What an uplifting post! I like your attitude, looking optimistically for signs of green, or blue even. When you have taught the magpies to pick up the sticks, send them down to TN to pick up the ever dropping river birch twigs. I have trying to figure out something to build with the huge piles. We already have brushpiles around the perimeter of the property for wildlife habitat. Maybe a dense fence to keep the critter out of the veggie bed. Ivory Prince is new here, it looks like it will be a royal winner.

  7. I am thrilled to see you have hellebores in zone 3. I saw them in Victoria at the Butchart Gardens last spring and was smitten. I have been thinking about trying them and now you have convinced me it is possible!

    1. The Ms S, I wasn’t sure how they would do either, when I planted them last fall. They are generally rated as low as zone 4 or 5. This winter was a typically cold zone 3, down to – 35 C (-32 F) or colder, so it was a good test of their survival. We had reliable snow cover for the last 4 months, which probably helps. I can’t do a head count yet, since the snow has not melted from above all of them, but most look like survivors, and growing too, I think. I will have to see how they handle the vagaries of an Edmonton April, and especially if they bloom or not. I’ll write more about them as they grow.

  8. I’m surprised the campanula stays green. In my garden not much does. Since we had so much snow cover last winter I thought my heuchera leaves would be in good shape but they are all pretty burned looking.

    1. Marnie, I’m not sure what enables some of the perennials to keep their leaves under extreme conditions. For the Helleborus, being first out in the spring with green leaves ready to photosynthesize and prepared to bloom, must give some advantages to the plant, enough to offset the stress.

  9. I’m amazed at how good those hellebore leaves look! Isn’t it wonderful to see the green emerging? I noticed new growth on my dwarf campanulas this afternoon when I cut off the old, dried stems. We had warm temps and beautiful sunshine today. I did a little clean-up in the garden after work and it felt so good to be out working among the plants again.
    I hope your snow melts soon and the ground dries out enough for you to get into the garden. Meanwhile, have fun poking around :)
    It’s truly amazing that the little campanulas keep their blue flowers under all that snow.

    1. Kerri, I debated about putting snow back over top of the Helleborus, from where it melted, in order to protect them until the steady warmth comes, but that wouldn’t be a very good test of their hardiness. I’m going to leave them out, instead of coddling them, and see how they do through April. There are tight little red buds emerging. I hope they bloom well. The snow is very crusty, so I have some 30 cm ( 1 foot) deep holes that I step in to get to the clear areas. I have to be careful to stay off where I think the beds are underneath. I should probably stay off until everything dries out, but the call of green plants is irresistible.

      Kathleen, we got snow in December, and everything has been solidly covered until 5 days ago, when a few areas started to melt. It does help to protect the plants. I’m very anxious to see which new perennials that I planted last fall made it through, as well as the old favourites. I’m looking forward to the new shoots popping up, as more black soil is exposed.

  10. Our last frost dates are about the same but it sounds like your plants have been covered in snow all winter?? I bet that is safer for them then the melting, freezing and repeating that we do all winter long. I couldn’t agree with you more on how exciting it is to see “green” underneath all the white. Hopefully we’ll both have a slow warm up so we can be out in the garden like lots of other bloggers.

  11. Hi NS, I’ve been visiting very spiritually enlightening posts today! Even if that wasn’t your intention, your post touched me in that way. Nature is truly always Alive and doing it’s thing even though we think it’s brown and dead…it amazes us with it’s Life and seems to know what to do on it’s own. You can look forward with anticipation what’s evolving now that Spring is here! Happy Spring to you, NS:-)

    1. Jan, the the tenacious hold that some plants have, and the ways they have adapted for survival in their environment is amazing. Now that our daytime temperatures are above freezing, and there is a little warmth in the sun’s rays, it is a joy to be making the garden rounds, investigating each new sighting.

    1. Birgitta, you have a nice collection of Galanthus (snowdrops). The Galanthus that I have planted previously never came up. In other areas, I know some gardeners buy them in the green, and plant them, but I haven’t seen that here. I planted some more Galanthus last fall, so maybe I will have some this spring.

  12. It’s nice to see other campanula that work well — I have 1 in the front in the shade that something always eats before I can appreciate the flowers. But in the back I have campanula glomerata but in a sunnier location (it wasn’t happy in the shade).

    1. Rosemarie, I’ve heard in other areas that slugs can be a problem, but I haven’t had a problem with slugs on my Campanula. Most of my Campanula have been very hardy, and generally trouble free. The early green leaves make it seem like spring has started, despite the other signs.

  13. I love the moss filled cracks. I’m sure spring is even sweeter the longer you wait for it. I’m always looking for hardy spring plants also. Our ground is mostly free of snow. Athough it can snow from time to time even in April, it doesn’t remain. I want to plant more snowdrops.

    1. MNGarden, I like the look of the moss on the patio, and it’s easy and self sustaining. I would love to have a moss lawn, but it probably involves tweezing out copious amounts of grass blades on a regular basis. :)
      April weather can be highly variable here, and yes, I was very excited to see the new green. I’m curious about whether the Galanthus I planted last fall will come up or not.

  14. Ahhhhh! Finally — a blog entry that I can relate to. I’ve just been turning green with envy over the photos of gardens which are a month or more ahead of my mud-patch. Although, truth be told, despite the fact that there’s snow in your photos, your garden is also greener than mine! My hellebores have no leaves but just a shoot coming up out of the ground.

    1. Krys, last fall I put the Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ under the tree, while still in its pot, before planting. I liked it so much that I went back and got more, despite it not being rated for this zone. This spring I’m very pleased with its bright green foliage displaying so early. If it does fine through April and blooms, I’ll definitely be planting more.

      My yard is still 80% covered in snow, but the warm temperatures forecasted for the next week should reduce that.

  15. Dear Northern Shade,

    I’d like to add my thanks for your marvelous webpages and blog. I’m just starting my 6th year of trying to garden in Edmonton and this winter seemed the longest and coldest yet. Discovering your webpages was a welcome reminder that the cold won’t last forever.

    My yard appears to have more sun than yours, but is mostly shade to part sun thanks to the buildings, boulevard ash, and numerous towering white and blue spruce (according to my neighbour the spruce came as seedlings with girl scouts on Arbor Day circa 1963 and have since put on a foot of height a year). Your ‘My Garden Plants’ has been a source of ideas, many of which have taken form as orders to catalogue suppliers (the rest will have to wait for Hole’s to open).

    Re: what has come through the winter green:

    I planted a few bergenias (Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winter glut’) late last summer and one has just appeared through the snow. The outer leaves of the rosette turned brownish red last Fall and are still that colour. The newer central leaves are green. Both look a bit limp, but should perk up once the sun melts the frost. I was never especially attracted to this plant, but now I’m glad I decided to try a few.

    A hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) planted in 2005 is also just peaking through the snow – mostly green just as every previous year. This is a pleasant little subshrub with white flowers that the bees love and leaves that add an interesting taste to stews and marinades. A golden lemon thyme (Thymus x citrodorus ‘Aureus’ from 2006) also seems to have survived again – but this is the only one of many thymes to have survived more than one year. Other than that, all I’ve seen so far are Pink Pandas (Fragaria frel (X Potentilla)). I’ve been dividing and planting these around as a ground cover – they rarely produce fruit, but the pink blossoms are nice.

    1. Dave, I’m glad you find it useful. It’s handy to see the pros and cons of different plants in our environment. In the next few weeks, as I see which of the new plants from last fall survive, I’ll add to the garden plant list. Last year, there were many new perennial shoots up on April 1, so I’m hoping that the next week of warm weather will help the plants catch up this year.

      I’ve got a spreadsheet of my plants posted in a previous article. It includes more information about them, including relative bloom times. You might find it helpful.

      Thanks for the information on early green in your garden. I’ve debated about planting Bergenia. I might try some this year, especially for the season extending greenery.

  16. Before our “flozzard”, I had dianthus and lamb’s ear showing signs of life. Never fails – these are always the first to poke out from the long, cold winter.

    1. Beth, I might have some green dianthus, but it would be under the area with deeper snow right now.
      I hope the flood waters are receding in ND.

      Kate, I’m not sure if it’s that ‘Ivory Prince’ is hardier than other Helleborus, the location next to a large tree, the tree leaves that covered them, the reliable snow coverage, or some other factor, but so far they have done well. Their foliage has been remarkably preserved. The little buds on Ivory Prince have been in suspended animation for the past week, but our temperatures are predicted to be above freezing all week, so I’m looking forward to seeing if they continue and reach the blooming stage.

      Joanne, how delightful to have the daffodils up in January, or earlier. There must be something new to view all the time in your garden. I don’t mind a short gardening break, but my off season has dragged on a long time. It’s too bad about your tender shrubs. It’s harder to pull the taller plants through an unexpected cold snap.

  17. This is my first visit to your blog via Frances. I am impressed that you can grow Hellebores. I’m in zone 3 and have tried several years with them. No luck yet ~ maybe I’m locating them in the wrong spot. The snow here in Regina is taking forever to melt. One side of my garden is beginning to show, while the southern side is still buried in about 30 cm of snow. The first plant that appears every year is the Paxistima canbyi (Ratstipper) with its evergreen leaves.

    Here’s hoping your snow soon melts!

  18. Difficult question that. I remember seeing Daffodils shooting in January although I think even December can show signs of new growth.

    This year we had a foot of snow in February caused chaos and I think I have lost some tender shrubs. Worst snow in 30 years. I guess it must be like that where you are for many months.

  19. N.S. Go ‘Ivory Prince’ Go! I think it is hardier than so many of the others I’ve tried. It blooms consistently and gets bigger every year. I’d just let it do its thing – I think you’re going to be very pleased in the next few weeks. My first greens come from the Carex, who come out from underneath the snow sparkling and then flatten and brown by the end of March. Another surprise when the snow moved away was the Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’. Can’t seem to grow any of the little campanulas tho – maybe it’s the warm/cold cycle. I always try a new one every year and end up feeding it to the composter the following spring.

    1. Barbara, I’m ready for the consistent blooming to start on the ‘Ivory Prince’. :) I quite liked the look of the plant last fall, but with its early foliage it has moved many rungs higher on my favourite plants scale. I should have another look at the Veronica peduncularis. There’s always room for another blue flowering plant in the garden. It’s too bad that the Campanula have not done well for you.

      Easygardener, I’m surprised by the quality of most of the leaves that over-wintered on the Helleborus, too. It does have more stiff, leathery type leaves, which might be helpful. Usually, having rounded needles with a waxy coating is the winter survival strategy here.

  20. I don’t know much about plant biology but I do wonder how those plants stay green. You would have thought any sap would have frozen and expanded, damaging the plant. They obviously have some clever coping mechanism. At least you get to see some green when the ice recedes – not just a vista of brown deadness!

  21. Hi Northern Shade – it always amazes me that plants survive under all that snow – even moss. Our moss is coming back, but for different reasons – we’ve actually had some rain in Melbourne! As to early greenery, well, the nice thing about a temperate climate is there is always something doing – but it’s interesting that here too the hellebores are starting to come up already after their Autumn pruning! Cheers, Sam.

    1. Sam, it sounds like one part of our gardens are in sync, despite the climatic and seasonal differences – our hellebores are both starting to shine. A good rainfall must be appreciated in the garden, after the previous drought and heat wave. There’s nothing like some good rainstorms to give lush, healthy foliage. I especially like the way leaves look when they glisten with raindrops, and how the damp earth smells.
      You are fortunate to be able to always have something interesting in the garden. I’ve worked on trying to extend the season as long as I can, by planting early and late blooming plants. The majority of my plants die back in late fall and disappear, so its great to have some that somehow keep their foliage, and give a lift so early in the season.

  22. I too enjoy the first glimpse of green foliage as the snow melts. It is always an internal debate with me about removing snow and fall leaves to encourage this growth, or to leave the extra insulation until there will be no more freezing nights. I guess nature can handle it.

    We are now into the first stages of bulb season- just a few things beginning to poke above the ground. But I have spotted green leaves on daisies, parsley, walking onions, and strawberries. Some plants were awakened by warmer temperatures at the end of winter and seemed to grow under all the snow while the rest of the garden waits.

    1. ChrisND, I have the same debate, and usually leave the leaves until the middle to end of April, or until my enthusiasm gets the better of me. I feel like I’ve been a watcher for too long now.

      Hurray for the early growers, patiently waiting under the snow for their chance. Those first bulb sightings are exciting. The pace in the garden quickens after that.

    1. Bughunter99, I could ship you some spare snow, although most of ours is melting quick now. I hope that the April frosts don’t cut into the bud count on the Helleborus. Today I noticed some fresh sprouts out on other plants for the first time. I think our spring is on a roll now.

  23. Here in Colorado Springs, it gets pretty cold, but we do not have consistent snow cover. So, there is very little that stays green over the winter (maybe Heuchera?). But, columbines usually start putting out new growth in December/January.

    1. Jennifer, the flowers on columbine are so pretty, and really blend well into a woodland garden. I don’t have any right now, but I should add some to my garden, especially if they also have early green growth I’ve been trying to add more early and late season flowers, as well as early and late foliage to extend the garden season as long as possible.

  24. I was so interested to see plants that are green for various gardeners at this time of year, and many thanks for the illustration of “rotundifolia”. I do think season extension is one of the more interesting things gardeners can investigate, and I also appreciate the easy-intro moss gardening styles; I want to start using moss, but some of the more elaborate ways frighten me.

    1. Pomona, it perked me up a great deal to see the Helleborus out and green, when there was very little around town that wasn’t brown. Even a bit of green brings the garden to life. Now I have different Campanula coming out from under the white in their best greenery, as well as Dianthus. There are sprouts on my Aruncus too. I think this week will see lots of new growth, since we just had a good rainstorm that washed away most of the remaining snow.
      I’ve really enjoyed reading all of the responses about the earliest green in different gardens too.

  25. This is the best blog on northern shade gardening I’ve ever read. Thank you for the gorgeous pictures of real plants in real settings and for all the information. I’m starting a new shade garden, and your blog is both entertaining and incredibly informative. I look forward to what’s next!

    1. Amy, thanks. There are lots of bulbs popping up now, but so far only the Galanthus (snowdrops) and Puschkinia (striped squills) are blooming. The Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ is the first perennial to start opening its buds too.

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