Spring has taken its time arriving this year. Nature has gifted us with snow, sleet, rain and high winds, followed by mild temperatures, and then a plunging thermometer. It’s been the coldest April in the Chicago area since 1881. As Mark Twain once put it, “In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours.” It sure has felt that way.
For Hursthouse designer Jeff True, some plants, like forsythia, automatically trigger thoughts of spring. But it’s often a lonely shrub, flowering by itself in the midst of an otherwise dreary landscape. “Not much of anything else is happening at this time of year and that’s o.k.,” True says. “In my own garden, I want Mother’s Day into Memorial Day looking fantastic.”
Timing is Everything
In early spring there’s usually little color. “It’s a lot of brown twigs and the grass isn’t quite green,” True says. He calls March and early April the “blah” time when few plants are blooming. “There’s usually just a little bit of interest—maybe a few daffodils—but then by late April and May, a garden often looks dynamite.”
Creating an eye-catching, mid-spring display takes planning and careful plant selection. When True selects spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, he chooses varieties that bloom from mid-to-late spring (mid-April through May). Early bloomers like February Gold and Tete-a-Tete daffodils are often finished by then. Because these early daffodils are small, they’re a welcome sight, but often there’s little else flowering at that time.
In his own garden, True likes a big display all at once. “I’d rather see bulbs putting on a display when everything else like magnolias, viburnums and serviceberries look great. Even if the overall bloom season is a little shorter, I’d much rather have the whole composition looking terrific all at once.”
When designing a spring garden, True takes into consideration the approximate time when trees and shrubs are expected to bloom. “There are so many spring annuals that go into beds and containers, but it’s really the trees and shrubs that I personally enjoy. You expect color in a container planting, but when you have a specimen plant blooming away in the landscape it’s even more fun.” Here are some of his favorites.
Early to Rise
“There are certain plants that I love in the spring,” True says. Alliums—ornamental onions—begin sending up their big strap-like leaves while the daffodils are emerging. Another is Dicentra ‘Luxuriant’ or bleeding heart, which features dangling, heart-shaped flowers atop mounds of deeply dissected leaves. “Bleeding heart is probably at the top of the list. Plant it in the right place, it’s beautiful.”
While daffodils, muscari and hyacinths are the darlings of spring bulbs, True also likes using tulips in the right location, especially in formal settings. “I don’t like them naturalized and sporadic. I like them planted in a mass or combined with other bulbs and they’ll look terrific because there’s a big punch of color.”
Ground-covering hellebores are often blooming by mid-April, sending up dark green leaves and clusters of white, pink or rose-colored bell-shaped flowers. A bonus—the deer and rabbits leave them alone.
True likes using multi-stemmed serviceberry trees (Amelanchier) for their ongoing performance throughout the year. “I like plants that are proven and durable and will take our crazy Chicago winters and summers and will perform consistently. Autumn Brilliance serviceberry is one that we plant the most and it’s one of my preferred ornamental trees because of its multi-season interest.”
Serviceberries wear a cloud of tiny white flowers in spring followed by red berries in summer. Come fall, the leaves turn a pale gold. “You can’t beat the fall color. And, the fruits are not messy because the birds clean them off. In a visible place—outside a key window or near a patio or on a foundation—it’s a winner.”
A white fringe tree is a small, native tree that’s useful in woodland gardens. It can be used as a specimen plant in groups, borders, or near buildings. Its most outstanding feature is the fragrant, strap-like, white flowers that are borne in six- to eight-inch-long fleecy panicles in late May to early June. “It’s a little different—the flowers unfold later than other ornamental spring trees. Everything else has broken bud and leafed out, but it’s just last. And when it flowers, it’s a big show.”
Magnolias are the prom dresses of the garden. “I love them in the spring—I have one in the front of my house.” True chooses bulbs to bloom at the same time as his Dr. Merrill magnolia (Magnolia loebneri ‘Dr. Merrill’). “When the fuzzy buds unfold in full-scale bloom, it’s a show stopper—it looks unbelievable.” He cautions that, as with any spring blooming tree, nature and weather can put a damper on the display. “Some years you have a short window of time when they look amazing and other years it’s longer.”
When it comes to spring flowering shrubs, viburnums are at the top of True’s list, especially those with fragrant flowers. “I’ve always loved viburnums in the spring for the scent and the color,” True says. “I tend to plant them closer to walkways and patios. It’s another winner of a plant.”
One of his favorites is the Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), often used for its smaller size. “I can plant them closer to paved spaces, whether it’s the front walk or porch where the fragrance can be enjoyed.” Both Korean spice and Judd viburnums offer intoxicatingly almond-and-vanilla-scented flowers that cloak the shrubs. Fall color can be an outstanding wine-red color.
Although it’s not fragrant, when Mariesii viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) blooms, its horizontal branches are loaded with so many flowers it looks like it’s covered with snow. “It just shines. It blooms like crazy and you can’t beat that. It’s a great specimen plant and can hold its own.”
Need a little more inspiration? Come explore.