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?

Shade Garden Design Change

corner garden before
shady corner garden before

It’s immensely satisfying to plan and change your garden beds, making improvements, and adapting to the site. When I first moved in, this shady corner under the trees was very scraggly, as you can see above. I’ve gradually added shrubs and perennials, and now it is a much more lush garden area, even under the shade trees with a northern exposure. It’s fun to see the difference in your garden, and watch the progress from year to year as you make changes.

Although the before picture at the top was taken in April, it looked almost the same in the summer. There was a narrow 30 cm (1 foot) strip of garden, squeezed against the fence. It was partly planted with a weedy type of Achillea that flopped and spread rampantly. I removed all of the yarrow, since it spread into everything. There were tall trees in the garden, and grass in this corner, but nothing for a middle layer to bridge the two.

I’ve added shade tolerant plants to the garden bed, and enlarged it greatly. The area in the photo below, taken in July 2008, is about 6 m (20 feet) long and 1.5 m to 2.5 m (5 to 8 feet) wide. This section of the garden bed has mostly green and silver foliage, with blue and white flowers.

corner garden design 2008
shady corner garden design 2008

Adding some shrubs has helped to make it a more interesting view at all levels. The shrubs have been slow growing, but each year they fill in that middle layer, linking the tree canopy to the ground level plants. Because of the shady exposure, I’ve added a Hydrangea paniculata ‘grandiflora’ (PG hydrangea), and a Hydrangea paniculata ‘Little Lamb’ (little lamb hydrangea). These shrubs bloom for an extended period in late summer, with large white flower panicles that brighten the garden bed, and don’t mind the shade. This photo was taken back in July, so the buds on the Hydrangeas were just starting.

On either side of the Hydrangea are groups of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns), which thrive in the site, and grow 1.2 m (4 feet) tall. They make a green backdrop to the bed. I especially respect the way these unfurl so quickly in the spring, producing their elongated fronds so soon after the snow has melted. After six months of snow, fast greening is an excellent trait. The far group of ostrich ferns grew so well, I had to move them away from the fence this summer. They resented the move, and sulked for the rest of the summer, gradually losing one small section of leaflet at a time. I hope when they come back in spring that all is forgiven, and they grow tall and green again.

Campanula poscharskyana 'Camgood' closeup stars
Campanula poscharskyana 'Camgood' closeup stars

The largest Hydrangea is underplanted with Campanula poscharskyana ‘Camgood’ (blue waterfall bellflower). These Serbian bellflowers tolerate the shade well under shrubs. As a groundcover, they fill in and suppress the weed growth underneath, while creating a nice green floor for the shrub. The pretty blue flowers of the Campanula compliment the white hydrangea blooms.

The birdbath in the centre of this shade garden is one of my favourites. It has a hexagonal shape, with a small carved frog perches on waterlily leaves in the bowl. It is a favourite of the birds too.

Heuchera 'Mint Frost' Pulmonaria Campanula
Heuchera 'Mint Frost', Pulmonaria, Campanula

On the other side of the birdbath are  shade plants I picked for foliage or flowers. The silver foliage of Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ (lungwort)  is just visible under the edge of the birdbath in this shot. Just beyond the Pulmonaria are some Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ (coral bells). Their green and silver leaves look good next to the Pulmonaria. Beyond that, at the front of the bed, are a variety of small Campanula, with blue and white flowers, including the Campanula cochlearifolia (fairy thimble bellflower) shown below. At the far end on the left side, you can see the double flowering Campanula cochlearifolia ‘Elizabeth Oliver’. Even though they are at quite a distance, and the plants are very small, the many double flowers show up well. There are groups of Campanula rotundifolia (harebells) and Campanula carpatica (Carpathian bellflowers) at the front edge of the bed. All of these shade plants have adapted very well to the site.

Campanula cochlearifolia, Heuchera
Campanula cochlearifolia, Heuchera

At the far end are an unknown iris that is fairly shade tolerant. This iris was in another part of the garden when I moved in, and I have divided it and moved it around to a number of spots because it is so easy going. Behind the iris are some ferns, some more Matteuccia struthiopteris, and Athyrium ‘Ghost’  (ghost fern).

The garden bed has been expanded and changed many times, including last summer and fall. Since this photo, I’ve added some Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Atropurpurea’ (bugbane) to the back of the bed. This tall growing perennial has foliage with a slight purple tinge, and will get spires of white wands. Cimicifuga are great shade plant for the back of the border.

The shape of the bed has also changed since the July 2008 photo. Here it has a curving border, but now it comes out wider and the front edge is straight across, until it curves behind the pine. I cut the front edge of the bed with an edger, actually an ice breaker that gets summer use in the garden. I usually re-cut the edge about twice a year to keep the grass and garden separate. There is a small trench inside the edge that is filled with mulch, to keep the grass out of the bed. I couldn’t put a permanent edging around my beds, because their shape and size change continually.

Here is an earlier post I wrote about  changing a side garden bed.

Does the design of your  garden beds constantly change, either their shape or plants? Do you make a plan and keep it the same for years, or do your garden beds evolve over time?

Great Campanula Plant Book

Dwarf Campanulas by Graham Nicholls
Dwarf Campanulas by Graham Nicholls

Dwarf Campanulas, by Graham Nicholls, is an excellent reference book if you are a Bellflower fan, or would like to know more about them. The book is focussed on the smaller Campanula, which are discussed in comprehensive detail. At 272 pages, there is a wealth of information about the petite bellflowers which are suitable for the front of the border, rock garden or trough.

There are coloured photos of many of the species to help you choose your favourite Campanula, or aid in identification. The familiar bell shaped blossoms are gorgeous. Every variation on the bell shape, from overlapping doubles to open starry petals is evident. Some of the pictures show the bellflowers in gardens or pots, while others show them in their native habitat. Both are helpful for seeing the type of conditions suitable for growing each species.

At the beginning of the book, there is an overview of the world regions where many of the bellflowers originate, which  includes maps. The photos of mountain ranges, with bellflowers emerging from the crevices in rocks, or growing in scree, illustrate why many are suitable for the rock garden or trough. Many other Campanula species adapt well to the average border.

The detailed look at the propagation of Campanula is very helpful. In this section, the specifics of increasing your bellflowers by seed, cuttings, or division are discussed, along with recommendations for appropriate planting mixtures.

Dwarf Campanulas by Graham Nicholls back
Dwarf Campanulas by Graham Nicholls back

Each species of Campanula then gets its own section, many with photos. There are excellent descriptions of the plants. Cultivars and hybrids are discussed too.  Some other genus, that are closely related to Campanula are covered also. Many specific tips are given for the culture of each type of bellflower, as well as the best propagating methods for each one.

The author gives the location from where each species originates, and often who introduced it. I enjoy knowing a plant’s origins, and picturing it in its native habitat. It is fascinating to read the history of the hybrids, or learn in which garden they were first noticed. I appreciate the historical connection to previous gardeners and plant explorers.

It is always a pleasure to read a book written by an expert on a topic who communicates their enthusiasm. I highly recommend this book as an enjoyable read, and useful reference. It is also satisfying to flip through a book full of lovely pictures of blue, purple and occasionally white or pink bellflowers. Although many of these plants are not yet widely available, you are sure to find more perennials to add to your plant wish list.

Here are some of my previous posts on Campanula that I grow in the garden. This is one on Campanula haylodgensis, a double flowering bellflower. This post has a variety of Campanula. Here are some photos of Campanula glomerata, clustered bellflowers. These are Campanula portenschlagiana, the Dalmatian bellflower. The photogenic bellflowers manage to peek their flowers into many of my other posts and photos as well.

Do you grow any Campanula? Which are your favourites, or which have you been wanting to add to your garden?