Published in the Toronto Star, June 4, 2016
Everyone loves to see colourful blossoms in the garden, but we forget why Nature created flowers in the first place: to attract pollinators. Most of the activity in your garden, associated with the web of nature, hinges on sex and reproduction. Keep that in mind this summer as you lie awake with your bedroom windows open, listening to croaking toads, cricking crickets and myriad other less distinguishable sounds.
From our point of view, there is nothing more desirable than enjoying a succession of blooming plants lighting up every corner of the yard from early spring to late fall.
This is planting season and there is no better time of year to plan your garden for a symphony of colour, choreographed by your own hand. Imagine…. I am here to help.
Flowers, in succession:
- Early spring. Flowering bulbs including crocus, snowdrops, narcissus, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and the like are the ‘low hanging fruit’. You plant these in the fall and surprise yourself when they bloom with your foresight. In addition, there are many late March and April flowering plants, some of which are still in flower! Look for hellebores for east and northern exposure or for planting under trees. Their large, buttercup flowers appear in abundant clusters and provide a welcome relief to our weary eyes after the snow melts. Lungwort (pulmonaria) is worth waiting all winter for… it stands out in my garden each April with its white blotched leafs and pink flowers. And the #1 early flowering shrub is Witch Hazel. I have seen outstanding specimens in Toronto (zone 6) but north of highway 7 it is not so reliable.
- Late Spring. May/June. The list becomes much more extensive and interesting as we wade into the heat and longer days of May and June. My favourite late spring flowering plants include woody shrubs like forsythia, lilacs, magnolias, flowering cherries, crabapples and the native Serviceberry (which can grow 10 meters). Perennial flowering groundcovers include Lily of the Valley, sweet woodruff, lamium and periwinkle (which are considered invasive species when planted near a wood lot).
Longer blooming perennials include bergenia, which grows about 30 cm high and features light pink or purple/red flower clusters. Honey bees forage here frequently. Also, bleeding heart (pink/red), columbine (a great hummingbird attractant) and peonies are wonderful for cutting and fragrance.
- Early Summer. Nature knows that most insect activity in the garden picks up in late June, July and early August and as a result she has planned things nicely: this is the most intense flowering period in the garden. Perennials that flower most reliably, for the longest period of time and attract the greatest number of pollinators include:
Astilbe. A fabulous plant that tolerates some shade and grows in sunny positions when mulched generously (they don’t like to dry out). Cut them for use indoors and leave some standing to attract honey bees and other pollinators. White/pink/red. Will bloom for up to 6 weeks.
Campanula. Varieties are available from dwarf 20 cm bloomers (‘Blue Chips’) to 60 cm plants featuring a long stem of silver-blue flowers (‘Summertime Blues’). This is a reliable perennial that comes back for years.
Coneflower (Echinacea). One of my favourite Canadian native plants. I have about 50 of them in my garden, but I only grow the original Purple Cone Flower. As my Star associate Sonia Day has pointed out, the hybrids too often poop-out after a season or two.
Coral Bells. The Sheridan Nurseries catalogue lists no less than 28 varieties. All of them bloom early to mid summer for several weeks at a time. They are remarkably versatile, colourful and worth owning. Look over the selection and choose according to your likes.
Cranesbill (hardy geranium). The REAL geranium: perennial. If you have only one plant in your garden let it be ‘Rozanne’, the perennial plant of the year in 2008. You have to have it. ‘Rozanne’ blooms from May to September. Yes!
Add to the list, Shasta Daisy, coreopsis (showy, but not very reliable from year to year), daylilies, hosta (I grow them for the flower as much as anything), delphiniums, false sunflowers and hollyhock (a bi-annual).
- Fall. September and October provide their own major players. Plant sedum spectabile for 2 months of colour and honey bee activity. Rudbeckia for reliable yellow colour from late August to frost (no wonder gas stations love to use this plant, it is so low maintenance), Joe Pye weed (I love this plant for butterflies and honey bees) and Butterfly bush (#1 for butterflies in my books!). Yarrow and giant flowering Rose Mallow will knock your eyes out.
If you are planning on planting in the next few weeks I urge you to post this article on your fridge, make notes before you venture out to the garden retailer and have a plan. You too can choreograph a great looking garden.