Adding splashes of color and height to the May garden are a number of unexpected columbines of mixed parentage. Some are single colors while others are bicolored. Note the long spurs behind the purple flowers while the bicolored ones have short spurs. The spurs actually contain the nectaries that hummingbird adore. ANDREW MESSINGER
This is one of our native Thalictrums (pubescens) found on Long Island. It prefers a shady and damp location while the garden varieties will tolerate full sun. ANDREW MESSINGER
Baptisia "Lemon Marange" is much denser than "Royal Candles" with bright yellow flowers that last up to two weeks. The purple in the background is from Thalictrum "Black Stockings." ANDREW MESSINGER
Thalictrum "Black Stockings" towers over just about all the other June garden plants aside from some Lilium. A large and tall plant, it puts on a wonderful show from May into June but it can take a good deal of space. ANDREW MESSINGER
Baptisia "Royal Candles" has a lupine-like flower, but the plant is much hardier than a lupine as well as being a reliable perennial. Small plants may take a few years to be a great performer, but then they never stop. ANDREW MESSINGER
The Japanese maple to the left was only 2 feet tall when the Crocosmia bulbs were planted to the right of it. Now the maple shades the Crocosmia most of the day, causing the leaves, then the long arching flower stalks, to lean far forward toward the sun causing the stems to weaken and fall. Late in the summer when the plants go dormant they can be lifted, the bulbs harvested and moved to a sunnier location.
For the past 10 years or so, my garden at home has always peaked or been most beautiful and interesting in July. This wasn’t on purpose, just how it happened. This year though, while the garden may still peak in July, June was simply spectacular — and totally by accident. Blame it on the columbines. Easy to grow, full of surprises and oh so promiscuous.
I’ve actually purchased a few columbines over the years including Lime Sorbet (tall, double white with a green tinge and no spurs), Chrysantha, which is a tall, long-spurred yellow, and Canadensis, which is the native columbine.
Several others have been provided to me for testing but none of those gave notable results; however, they may have left some of their genes in the garden, so to speak.
Every year as I see a columbine show up here and there in the beds, I pull out the ones that I see as inferior and allow the others to freely bloom. It’s difficult to get them to produce seed that will be true to the parent’s color and habit as the flowers are loved by bees, hummingbirds and other insects who may inadvertently cross-pollinate them. This is why they are considered such a promiscuous plant. But this is also why they provide so many surprises.
If the seed is dropped on bare ground some of it will inevitably germinate, and the local fauna probably does a bit of seed distribution also. The result is columbines that showed up this year in virtually every one of my beds resulting in hundreds of plants in a rainbow of colors, heights in short spur, long spur and spurless flowers in solid colors as well as bi-colors. On several evenings as the sun was setting and the columbines were showing off I uttered “wow” on several occasions.
When I found an isolated plant that I thought had some merit, I tagged and photographed it. I will collect the seed in about two weeks. It then takes several years to see what the results are — and that’s half the fun. I wish I could offer you some seed, but that could be a daunting project. Nonetheless, if you can find columbines at local garden centers, even if they’re finished flowering, grab some and plant them in your lightly shaded gardens.
When the seed pods brown, make sure there’s some undisturbed ground under the plants where the seeds can drop and just leave them there. They will either germinate this summer or next spring with the surprises coming the following spring. Columbine seeds need light to germinate so don’t cover them. The seed also stores well in an airtight container in the refrigerator. These seeds can be sown indoors next spring or scattered in the garden next spring. Remember: Never cover the seed as they are light germinators.
Another plant that has come into its own in my long island bed is Thalictrum. There is a native in this group, Thalictrum pubescens, which flowers early in the summer in wet wooded areas, and it works well in native, moist planting areas, but there are much more spectacular varieties for the more formal garden.
Thalictrum “Black Stockings” grows to about 5 or 6 feet tall, has a mass of small blue/purple flowers and blooms in May and June. It was discovered in a nursery and is considered a cultivar. It’s totally hardy and needs some staking to help with wind resistance, but the stakes are easily hidden. The stems emerge green then darken as the plant fills out during the season. A mature plant will be close to 3 feet in diameter so it can be a space filler.
Thalictrum rocherbrunnianum from Japan is an even larger plant, and while it’s usually 3 to 6 feet tall I’ve seen it as tall as 9 feet. While the stems are sturdy and strong some internal hidden staking will prevent the stems from breaking in strong storms. This variety will self-seed, and I had one plant show up 150 feet from the parent plant, where it still lives. Seedlings generally show up the following spring and can easily be confused with columbine seedlings so look carefully.
Thalictrum delavayi is a variety from China that can grow from 2 to 4 feet tall with lilac flowers. The treat in this species is the double-flowered form called “Hewitt’s Double,” whose flowers last longer than the species’ parent. I really like this one but have found that it may not be as reliably hardy as the species. Still a great plant to have.
There is also a yellow variety, Thalictrum minus, which only grows to 24 inches and has more of an open habit than the other types. The roots are stoloniferous so it will spread a bit but is clearly not invasive or an issue.
Thalictrums are great plants for pollinators and seem to attract a number of butterfly species. Just keep in mind that some of these can be massive plants and may need to go in the center or rear of some gardens. I’ve had no issues with insects or diseases.
Another plant that has finally come into its own in my long border are a couple of Baptisias. These plants are in the pea family and have pea-like flowers. Alan Armitage reports that they can be confused with lupines, but I don’t think an experienced gardener would be confused. These plants are larger than lupines, have stronger stems and, for the most part, are reliable perennials whereas the lupines will rarely last for more than two years, L. perenne excepted.
A number of hybrids and cultivars have been offered over the years, but be patient. These are not sprinters. They can take several years to mature unless you are buying larger (as in 2-gallon pots) potted Baptisia at local garden centers. You can buy smaller plants online.
This year, two varieties that I planted in 2015 are simply spectacular and bloom in June. These are Lemon Meringue, which is 3 feet in diameter and about 40 inches tall with yellow flowers, and Royal Candles, which is dark blue and about 4 feet tall. Purple Smoke is another variety in the garden, but I much prefer Royal Candles as they are much more robust and floriferous. In all, there are about 30 Baptisia varieties now, and some are bicolors.
Baptisia, like other legumes, don’t take well to being transplanted so choose the sites carefully. In my eight years growing them, no signs of any disease or insect problems, and they never need feeding. Thermopsis is similar to Baptisia and they are often confused, but Thermopsis flowers later and is yellow. All of these plants do really well in sandy soil with a bit of compost added, and once established, they rarely need water.
Another surprise in the early spring was a planting of Anemone blanda that I did many years ago. These plants are grown from wrinkled and gnarled bulbs that are more like pellets that you’d swear could never grow, but they do. Planted in the fall, they flower when just about nothing else is blooming, and the flowers are generally blue and white though there are some pinks. Sown in drifts, the Grecian windflowers really brighten up the edge of the garden and rock gardens. Plants grow about 4 inches tall with the flowers a few inches over the foliage.
Best of all, these bulbs will naturalize. Helped by seed distribution by mice, chipmunks and birds over the years, the plants begin to show up in unexpected places as well as extending their range where originally planted so they’re great for naturalizing and the foliage, which lasts into early summer is unobtrusive. Just be sure you don’t weed out the seedlings as they emerge.
These bulbs prefer full sun to part shade and don’t seem to be a target for deer or rabbits. Best for mass plantings, but that only means plant them in large groups. Bulbs are available at most garden centers in the fall or from your favorite mail-order bulb supplier. John Scheepers offers a mixture of 200 bulbs for only $37.
Just a few observations from the spring garden, and I hope you found some inspiration. Keep in mind that next year’s gardens start now, with planning. Keep growing
Now’s the time to be looking at your iris and peony plantings. If they seem to be flowering less with fewer buds but plenty of foliage, then it’s time to make a note to dig them in late August/early September for division and replanting.
We’re only 10 days to two weeks from the annual Japanese beetle invasion. I’m seeing the yellow bag traps being advertised, but please, please don’t use them. All these traps do is attract the beetles from blocks and maybe even miles away to your property. Many beetles will find plants to feed on and not your traps. There are much better ways to manage this annual invasion. Some years they can be bad, some years not. It all depends on how moist the soil was when the eggs were laid last summer — which was very wet. Neem oil can be used as a deterrent on plants like roses, but have a second line of defense ready.
If you’ve gotten into succession sowing salad greens in the cut-and-come again method, you can probably extend your harvesting season well into the summer if you set up a hoop system to put a sun filter like ReMay over the hoops as it gets hot. Using sod staples to keep the fabric pinned to the ground and leaving the ends of the tunnels open will result in soil and air temps inside the covered tunnel as much as 15 degrees cooler than the ambient air temperature. This reduces the bolting caused by heat and will also reduce your watering as the sun won’t be baking the soil.
If you once planted Crocosmia bulbs in a spot that was originally sunny but is now shaded by other plants keep an eye on the foliage during the summer. Once the flowers from varieties like Lucifer have faded and the foliage begins to brown, mark the area where the foliage emerges from the soil. When the foliage is totally brown, the plants can be dug, the bulbs retrieved then replanted in a new and sunnier location.
One fine body…