Because I want my garden (and those I design for other people) to be beautiful and carefree (well . . . within reason), I try to avoid pushing the limits of my plant hardiness zone. On any plant hardiness map, the dividing line between Zones 5 and 6 runs right through the approximate location north of Toronto where my own garden lies.
Therefore, I stick to plants that are supposed to be hardy to at least Zone 5 (5a and 5b, actually) unless I personally know from experience that the plant is one that will flourish acceptably in the area.
To find out what Canadian plant hardiness zone you are in anywhere in Canada, I love this interactive map from HGTV.com on which you can click your province and scroll in to your location. It will also offer a list of plants that will grow in that zone.
This spring has provided us all with the pleasant opportunity to see just how early things may bloom. If your April garden is looking a little less lively than you’d like, here are some of the plants and flowers that will brighten it up in Zone 5 and thereabouts. Note, however, that many of these are best planted August through October, so you may be planning ahead, rather than doing, for the time being.
Crocus Good ol’ crocuses come in a range of colours. I like to mix streaky mauve ones with white and plant them irregularly in the shrub garden opposite my picture windows where they can stand alone and I have a close-up view of them, but they also do combine well with other bulbs. In addition, Crocuses are useful for naturalizing (see below under muscari) in the lawn or in field areas due to their very early bloom time. They are typically finished before it is necessary to mow, and before dandilions bloom!
Daffodil and Narcissus Spring staples, you can see them blooming in the background of the next photo below. They range from whitish, to bright yellow and orangey, large and small, so will go with various colour schemes, and they are similar to Forsythia in the way they punch up the grey early springscape.
Inspired by William Wordsworth, and also since I do feel they are more casual and informal, somehow, than my front gardens, I planted mine in the grass on a hill far at the back of my property where their large, yellow flowers reflect any light and can be seen all the way from the house. They are utterly carefree, and also nice for spring bouquets once established.
Forsythia Spoiled Victoria and other warm climate gardeners often dislike this exuberant plant, but I think one’s appreciation for it is directly relative to how bad one’s local winters are. For me, years of living near Toronto cause me to associate it with the end of our nasty, long, Central Canadian winters and I am thrilled to giddiness at the swelling of its buds each year. (In case subscribers have not already noticed this.)
I believe the nasty habit of clipping it unnecessarily into structured little bulb shapes may turn some observers against the plant. My preference is to leave it more unstructured. The option of clipping branches for a hit of spring indoors in late winter is another attraction this plant holds for me.
Fritillaria Meleagris, “Snake’s Head Lily” is a beautiful, wild-looking bulb that spreads slowly and blooms white to pinky-purple. It has the added advantage of putting off squirrels and some experts recommend planting them among bulbs squirrels favour in order to put off the squirrels. However, in my opinion, their mood and style is very different from that of most tulips, so they don’t necessarily suit the same garden style.
They are another bulb that is highly recommended for naturalizing in grass or lawns, and would be aesthetically compatible with hellebores and daffodils.
Goldflame Spirea Nature’s first green isn’t gold in the case of this unusual shrub; it buds out in a glowy, coral red that catches the spring sunlight and makes magic out of it. Sometimes a little later to bud, it is still one of the first really thrilling things to banish the post-winter blahs. I include a photo below.
Muscari, Grape Hyacinth Cheeky and a bit aggressive, they are, nonetheless reliable
early bloomers under still leafless deciduous trees and complementing taller bulbs. This year I will be pulling them out of my walnut tree garden in heaps and carting to the very back of my property where I will dig them in patches or “drifts” into the grass with the expectation that they will “naturalize” and eventually create a carpet of blue in the grass to be enjoyed each year before the lawn needs mowing.
Hellebores These beauties can form large clumps in favourable conditions. Sadly, I have to compare my efforts with those of my relatives gardening on Southern Vancouver Island, where hellebores reseed prolifically and bloom in January; however, with coaxing and, in my case, dividing the clumps with a shovel, I am just thrilled to see these early bloomers in late March through April and they are in full bloom now in my garden.
Clip last year’s evergreen leaves when the snow melts to encourage vigorous blossoms.
Early Tulips Well, by the time I post this, my early tulips are over and I have taken advantage of knowing which colours were where in the
garden and also where gaps existed, in order to divide and redistribute them (note how pleased I am about this burst of timeliness). A second flush of tulips is now forming lovely vignettes with Forsythia and the early, red leaves of Goldflame Spirea.
Scilla Sibericus This is one of the first early bloomers that ever entered my life as a gardener and it is still a favourite. It is uniquely delicate and it blooms earlier than almost anything else (Galanthus excepted).
Galanthus, Snowdrops have just finished up at the time of this writing, although they did bloom into early April. This year, they began early,
Dicentra, Bleeding Heart These may normally bloom a little later but this year I have two stunning patches of white ones in full bloom on either side of my front door. In this sheltered spot they came out a week ago.
Tradescantia, Spider Wort Chartreuse- leaved varieties of this perennial colour the landscape and act as an accent to other plants throughout the growing season. In summer, dark purple flowers are the perfect foil to the brilliant, light-catching leaves, but in early spring especially, this plant spices of the garden. One of my all-time favourite plants because it adds so much for such a long time frame. Like spice though, all you need is a pinch.
More April colour: Forget-Me-Not, Hyacinth, Flowering Crabapple, Creeping Jenny, Lamium, Pansies, Vinca Minor (Periwinkle)
This strange spring, Lilacs are teasing me with their lumpy little buds. They don’t usually bloom here until May and usually well after Mother’s Day, but they are I am looking ahead because a garden makes you do that.
A last suggestion: When you buy spring bulbs to brighten your indoors in late winter, you can plant them outdoors as soon as the ground is workable for more garden flowers next year.
What is your favourite plant for April colour?