By the middle of March, we northern gardeners are chomping at the bit to get our hands into the soil.
Some of us scratch the itch by poring over seed catalogues, starting seedlings in sunny windows, or just obsessively watching HGTV.
Growing season for most of us is still a month or more away. But if you planned ahead last fall, you’ll have the jump on the rest of us when your super-early spring bulbs start to muscle their way out of the ground.
Spring bulbs are tough plants. They need to be, having evolved to emerge from the soil as soon as it’s thawed. A little light frost at night isn’t going to bother these flowers – they’re all about growing fast, blooming early, and fading from view by the time their more delicate cousins begin to emerge in May or June.
Our woodlands are full of early spring flowers that do exactly the same thing. They’re sometimes called “spring ephemerals” because they come and go so quickly. Trilliums and dogtooth violets are well-known examples in our woods.
In the garden, among the very first plants to bloom are the appropriately named Snowdrops, or Galanthus. There are at least 20 species of Galanthus found throughout Europe. Even though they’ve been known to gardeners since at least the fourth century, there are still new species being discovered – three new species of Galanthus have been discovered just in this century, growing in remote areas of Turkey, Georgia, Russia and Greece.
Snowdrops are lovely and delicate, tiny white blooms with yellow hearts. If you’d like to have snowdrops in your garden next spring, you need to act quickly in the fall – the bulbs are sold fresh rather than dried, so they don’t store well. Most suppliers only have them available for a few weeks.
Irises are usually thought of as an early summer bloom, but this tiny little iris is an exception.
Like many early bloomers, crested iris (or dwarf iris) is much smaller than its summertime relatives. That’s partly because it doesn’t need to be tall to attract pollinators – there’s just not much competition when everything else is still sleeping. It’s also because these plants put all their energy into blooming quickly rather than growing tall stems.
Crested iris is actually a North American wildflower. It’s found from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Georgia and Alabama, and as far west as Oklahoma and Missouri. It’s not native to this area, but this tough little bloom is hardy to zone three, so it will grow here.
Ah, what would spring gardens be without crocuses popping up in the lawn or in the rockery?
Plant them in the fall, give them some basic care, and crocuses will last a lifetime, emerging in early spring and then vanishing from view.
These little stunners even love coarse, gritty soil, making them perfect for Muskoka. They do best in full sun, but because they emerge before many tree leaves do, you can get away with planting them in areas that will be more shaded by the end of May when the trees are in full leaf.
If you plant them in the lawn, you will want to delay making that first cut – wait until the crocus leaves have yellowed, so the root systems have had time to absorb the energy they will need to grow again next spring.
Flowering trees and shrubs
When you’re planning your spring blooms, don’t forget to think about the tallest of all blooms. A great many of our most attractive trees are early spring bloomers. A brilliant yellow forsythia can make a dramatic statement when it bursts into bloom.
Dogwoods, too, tend to bloom early, but you need to be careful in Muskoka: there are dogwoods that are hardy to zone two, but not all are quite that tough. We will assess a site and carefully select the variety we’re planting, to ensure it’s going to have a long, and vibrantly-coloured life.