What's Blooming in the Garden?

The first flush of Spring is over. Most of the native ephemerals & early bulbs have bloomed and are beginning to die back. Now, the next wave is beginning - here is what's happening in my gardens mid-May as I walk around between the occasional rain drops:

The Chinese and Japanese Tree peonies are in full bloom! If you have never tried to grow these, they are much easier than one might imagine. However they do require the correct location: tree peonies do best in part sun to part shade (preferring direct morning sun only) and need to have soil with good drainage. After all, they grow on mountain slopes and hill sides natively. In terms of watering, my experience is that they need average amounts, but don't let them dry out in summer heat. Do not prune tree peonies except to remove dead wood or to maintain shape. Unlike herbaceous peonies, tree peonies are woody and leaf out & bud from last year's stalks/branches. They can become a large shrub up to 4'-6' hxw (based upon cultivar).

Early Alliums are also now opening up. The more common ones are white and light purple, although later blooming varieties include blues. Alliums include many unusual species from the Mediterranean area, Turkey and elsewhere. Like family members Chives, Garlic and onion, Alliums are not favored by deer, typically being left untouched due to strong taste and smell. Alliums create a natural "upper level" of interest in the garden, giving an airy 3rd dimension to bed design. And once flowered, the drying seed head "fireworks" can be left in place for extra interest.

Of course, late Spring is the time for Bearded Iris to begin their season of display. It's best to prevent seed formation - allowing the tubers to concentrate energy for next year. Cut off faded blooms individually, and when all buds on a stalk have blossomed, cut the stalk off down close to the inner leaves. As summer heat builds, quite often iris leaves will flop over and become less of a textural accent in the beds. Typically, I wait a few weeks after bloom display has completed or until I get tired of floppy leaves, then I cut back the leaves to an 8" fan. The iris will begin to push new leaf grown up from the fan, often lasting through mid summer until the leaves begin to flop again. (In the fall during clean up, I always "fan back" my iris. I also pick up any dead leaves and pull off any yellowing or browning leaves. All of this debris gets bagged, not composted to prevent spread of Iris Borer.)

Elsewhere, vines are beginning to bloom such as early blooming clematis and native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). I haven't seen any hummingbirds yet visiting the hot pink and yellow throated flowers, but certainly expect them soon!

There's always some much confusion about pruning Clematis (Type 1, Type 2, Type 3 and so forth...). I, for one, forget to keep the plant tags and so am never quite sure about which one is which. I have found, though, that with a little observation over the year, one can figure out what sort of growth habit the particular cultivar or species has, thus how best to prune. My early bloomers don't seem to mind getting a trim-back to control height and spread. And certainly, later bloomers won't mind a Spring trim. I have found in general it's best to focus on shape and size (for example, to keep vine on a trellis), not to worry about affecting blooming. In terms of main care concerns: keep clematis roots cool (in shade of perennials, for example) while the plant really blooms best in full sun. Clematis vines are very fragile and prone to breaking or folding/creasing. Typically this sort of damage happens during Spring clean-up, bed mulching or weed-whacking during lawn care. Placing a small 18" wire cage (or some other protective device) around the base of the vine often prevents sad catastrophes.

Spring shrubs are also beginning to bloom now. In my beds, the scent of the early Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are fading while later species are still opening into full display. Weigela is also opening up its pink trumpets. My favorite Weigela is the dark purple-leafed Weigela 'Wine and Roses' or its smaller cousin Weigela 'Midnight Wine'. Just remember that these area not deer proof in most regions and thus require repellant sprays to eliminate or reduce foliage browse.

In the woodland areas, several native species of Viburnum are beginning to put on a show. Native viburnums are a versatile group handling sun and fairly heavy shade, as well as dry to moist conditions, quite well. Virbunum provide a good source of food and habitat for native insects and song birds. Berries can come in colors from scarlet red to blue-black.

On the now sun dappled floor of the woodlands, late Spring bulbs and ephemeral native wildflowers can be found such as Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Spanish Bluebells (Scilla hispanica), Crested Iris (Iris cristata) and Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis). The scent of a patch of Lily-of-the-Valley fills the air with an indescribable sweetness!

This article has focused so far on blooms, but we should not forget that at any time of the season, leaf color and texture is typically the most enduring visual feature of our gardens. This pair of photos shows two sides of a brick entry walk planting - one in full sun, one in full shade. Yet the colors of the leaves and various textures can be seen to "echo" between the two micro-climates. In the sun area: yellow-leafed Spiderwort (Tradescantia x anders 'Sweet Kate') with its tri-petalled purple flowers and dark purple-leaved Heuchera "Palace Purple". In the shade area: Spiderwort, golden Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart'), Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta) and Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var pictum 'Pictum'). Note that some of these plants are not deer resistant and so I simply spray these beds with repellant (Deer Stopper, Deer Solution or Bobbex) periodically during the season.

Finally, I am relieved to report that the Rhodos are beginning to leaf out after suffering the worst deer damage last winter that I have ever seen in my garden beds... (I was getting pretty depressed seeing all the naked twigs left over from endless deer browse.) I will most likely wait until mid-June before I decide to prune any dead wood from the Rhodos, hoping that additional budding (leaf recovery) will occur. Repellants applied in late fall did not work well last winter. So perhaps next winter I will need to wrap or fence off the Rhodo beds. I haven't given up yet!

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