Weekend Notes from the Front Garden

Does a late spring mean shorter plants? For example, consider my golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Normally I have to cut this perennial back in mid-May and even then it requires some staking. Supposedly it grows to only 3′ but in my garden borders it easily surpasses 4′.

Golden Alexander in the parkway bed with wild geranium in the background.
Golden Alexander in the parkway bed with wild geranium in the background.

This year, however, Alex seems to be topping out at about 30 inches at bloom time (which hasn’t been delayed) – no cutting back or staking needed.  Could it be shorter because it was racing to make its normal bloom dates?

Golden Alexander flowers.
Golden Alexander flowers.

By the way, in case you don’t already know, golden Alexander is a very low maintenance and adaptable wildflower that is native to the Midwest – grows in sun or shade. Though once it gets fully established, it takes a little effort to dig it out should you want to

Allium 'Globemaster' with wild geranium in front.
Allium ‘Globemaster’ with wild geranium in front.

Or maybe not. My Allium ‘Globemaster’ seems to be about its normal height and bloom time, so maybe my theory is invalid. I planted these bulbs in an act of random horticulture in a place that doesn’t make much sense – in front of a raised bed in the parkway. It works out, though. The ‘Globemaster’ has expanded into a neat little patch that blooms after the tulips and before the perennials in the raised bed. And ‘Globemaster’ is always a good conversation starter with people walking by on the sidewalk.

Wild columbine in the west border.
Wild columbine in the west border.

Like red and yellow chandeliers. There is something magical about wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). The plant as a whole looks like a chandelier, with each flower dangling like a crystal pendant. And each flower individually looks like a miniature version of something that could be hanging in a great hall. It’s a plant for pollinators with long tongues (like hummingbirds), as the nectar is in the back of those spurs.

Columbine close up.
Columbine close up.

This is a plant that is easy to grow in my area, in fact it has a habit of popping up all over, though this is never a problem. Even here it can be rather capricious, though. In my front garden it grows to impressive proportions and seeds itself with abandon. In my back garden it always seems to disappear over tine. Go figure.

Spanish bluebells
Spanish bluebells

For whom the bluebell tolls. Last fall I planted Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) for the first time, and they have just started blooming. I’ve heard that this plant can be invasive in places like the UK and the Pacific Northwest. However, the instructor for the hardy bulbs class I took at the Chicago Botanic Garden assured me they are not overly aggressive in this area. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are still my favorite, but I do like the look of these. They go well with bleeding heart and ferns.

Woodland phlox in the west border.
Woodland phlox in the west border.

You broke my heart, woodland phlox. I have planted a lot of woodland phlox (Phlox divaritica) over the years, and overall I have been disappointed. For one thing, the rabbits are constantly chewing it down to the ground. And for another, it tends to go dormant by August. So I have vowed not to plant any more woodland phlox. But then I see it blooming in the late afternoon light on the west side of the house (which the rabbits tend to avoid), and I think: maybe we can make it work.

Nepeta 'Kit Kat' along the driveway border.
Nepeta ‘Kit Kat’ along the driveway border.

Blue kitty. Nepeta x faassenii ‘Kit Kat’ is blooming. It makes a nice edging plant, is much loved by bees, and the foliage looks good after the flowers are finished. ‘Kit Kat’ likes a hot afternoon sun. You can sort of see that there are only a few tulips still blooming – mostly ‘World Impression’ and ‘West Point’. Soon it will be time to switch the containers to summer annuals.


Odds and Ends

Roof iris
Roof iris

I admire the irises in other people’s gardens, but roof iris (Iris tectorum) is the only iris I grow. People in Japan actually would grow it in the thatch of their roofs. The foliage makes a good ground cover.

Bleeding heart with false forget me not in the background.
Bleeding heart with false forget-me-not in the background.

The cool spring means that the bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) flowers are lasting a good long time. But isn’t “bleeding heart” kind of a gruesome common name? Apparently other common names include lady-in-a-bath and lyre flower. Maybe there should be a campaign to promote one of these alternative common names.

There’s so much happening in the garden at this time of year, it’s hard not to get carried away. Everything seems exciting to me, so I hope this post wasn’t repetitive. In any case, has the late spring meant shorter plants in your garden?


45 Comments on “Weekend Notes from the Front Garden”

  1. We had an early spring and with all the rain this winter that still continues (not all the time I hasten to add) this spring is what I’d describe as a lush, foliage spring, everything seems to have grown enormously over the winter including trees!

  2. I wanted to look up the German name for Golden Alexander as I don’t know the plant, but for the first time ever I have not found it in the German Wikipedia, which often has longer articles on plants than the English version! Very nice plant though and one to consider for my garden. Your spring flowers all look glorious Jason, and I really do like the Virginia Bluebells – also practically unknown here. Bleeding hearts have a slightly nicer name in German – “Weeping hearts”, but “Lady in a bath” conjures up wonderful images, I’d go for that one! (And unlike the new botanical name, it’s unforgettable!)

  3. How nice you have the walkway on your side of the street. Although I guess it comes with drawbacks too, like dogs. Hopefully not. Your columbine is stunning. I planted lots of seeds in fall but what has come up is very late, which I suppose is my biggest disapointment this spring. I think I have too much mulch for good seed germination. Love the bluebells too. I spent some of my time this weekend removing the spent foliage of this plant, which dies much sooner than the daffodil foliage. I guess we are about 5 weeks ahead of you.

  4. re: the shorter plants due to delayed growth: do 6″ sunflowers qualify??? I never in my life had this happen before this year.

    Even here in Fl. the plants are months late..many of my amaryllis didn’t bloom at all, and the lilies which appeared every MARCH since i moved here, are just now throwing up their flowers.

    The sunflowers are the biggest dang mystery of all..I planted Teddy Bear variety for the first time this year, and they literally grew only a few sets of leaves and then bloomed exactly like in the picture on the packet! For a flower that is supposed to be 2.5 FEET tall, they look really wierd with 6″ stems!!

  5. We had an early spring, so I don´t know about the shorter plants. The allium look great. I have them next to my columbines. The spanish bluebells are invasive here. So I dig some up every year. I also have them in white and pink and they look lovely. Everything is very lush, as we have had sun, rain and sun again. I think we are 3-4 weeks ahead of last year.

  6. Upper Midwest here, and like Jason, my spring is even farther behind than Jason’s! There are many shrubs still just starting to leave out, and everyday I am still seeing new growth emerge from the crowns of dormant plants.

    Different thiings cause bloom for different plants. Some are photo-sensitive, while others respond to degree days. Sometimes it is a combination of soil temperature, moisture levels, and sunlight. Dandelions are all about degree days. Coneflowers bloom based on number of hours of daylight per day. You could see different plants responding differently, in almost opposite correlation to your theory, Jason, depending on what motivates their growth or bloom.

    Even soil conditions have an effect. Here in the sandy central sands of WI I have seen the tallest plants when we have rain nearly every day. I have seen Husker Red penstemon get to over 4 feet tall and rubeckia nitidia grow to 10 feet the same year when it seemed to never stop raining.

  7. Glad you can find a place to keep your Woodland phlox–they’re so beautiful. Everything you’ve shown looks so nice. I really like that Bleeding heart with false forget-me-not combination. I haven’t noticed height variations this year. Susie

  8. It does not seem that long ago, that you were showing us pictures of brown frozen soil. Wow, the difference in only a few weeks is amazing, you have a beautiful garden and I quite like the random Allium planting too.

  9. Thank you for telling us about golden Alexander. I just happened to see it on the side of the road last week and was wondering what it was. I will try to move some. Aquilegia canadensis here grows in gravel in full sun. I would never have thought it was so tough.

  10. I’m finding this Spring rather bizarre, some things are early and very tall (aquilegias spring to mind) others rather late – no Chelsea Chop for the achilleas this year. I envy you the edging of nepeta, one of my favourite plants, but my front garden is much loved by the local cat population as it is. If I planted nepeta, I think it would be instantly flattened by a series of cats. They’d probably fight over it. That roof iris is delightful.

  11. Plants often grow taller (and lean) when they are stretching for sunlight, and stay shorter when they are getting enough. Have any tree limbs been removed recently?
    You might want to re-think your decision about the woodland phlox. An old gardening trick when you have a pest like rabbits is to leave what they like as a sacrificial planting. The thought behind it is, if they are eating the sacrificial plant then they are leaving the other plants alone. Instead of getting rid of the phlox maybe you should plant a few more.

  12. Your spring bloomers are so beautiful and healthy. We had a late spring, too, but already summer has arrived. My spring bloomers like woodland phlox, which I love, have been long gone. I think we had 3 weeks of true spring-like weather. I did not notice a change in plant height, however.

  13. Maybe the cooler temperatures are keeping the plants more compact, I know it seems to make the colors of the spring bulbs brighter. Your columbine looks great, I really need to bring some of the native one into the garden, but I’m not sure I want them mixing with the ones I already have….

  14. I have never heard of your Zizia aurea, I don’ t think it is available here. How pretty. I love the Aquiligea, for some reason it doesn’t t seem to seed around like all the others do.
    My children used to love to turn the Dicentra flowers upside down and make a lady in a bath.

  15. So many lovelies. I agree–the Bleeding Hearts are lasting a while, although I’ve had some large nectar robbers piercing the sides–which is fine by me. Anything to help the pollinators! Maybe the reason the Golden Alexanders are shorter is that they had enough light and moisture and nutrients to bloom and fill out before they got too tall? Just a thought–I’m just making that up, but it seems plausible. I love Columbines, too. We used to have some growing wild in the woods here, but I haven’t seen them lately. Maybe too much understory competing with them?

  16. Lots of interesting plants and an interesting point you raised ! Are plants shorter if they have a reduced growing season ? I don’t honestly know. We had a very late spring last year, here in the uk, and I was amazed at the rate of growth once things actually got cracking. They seemed to catch up very quickly.

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