Spring Border Design for the Northwest
Designing spring borders is always a bit of a challenge. Some plants are stubborn and refuse to flower at the same time each year. Other plants are just emerging and are not partial to the competition. (I uprooted sweet woodruff [Galium odoratum, Zones 4–8] for this very reason from my garden.)
When planning your design, keep the rest of the year in mind
A spring border is one of the most important parts of the garden to plan. You want to be sure of planting things that look amazing in the spring without leaving large, empty spots for the rest of the year. We’ve all seen a huge swath of spring onions in a garden that looks great for a couple of weeks before turning into a sea of dying leaves and then an empty spot. If you go to kindergarten in the spring, you will only find things that are in bloom at that time. The sales factor in the nursery is all about bloom. With planning and searching, you can buy things that will either bloom a little later or be in kindergarten later in the year. The spring border should also have some interest in summer and autumn. Evergreen pieces look very different in winter, when the perennials are dormant and the deciduous bushes are bare. Remember, plants with variegated foliage can add to both the color combination of the design and their blooms.
Decide how much space you want to use for non-spring plants
If half of the plants in your bed are spring-interested plants and the rest of the plants bloom at different times of the year, it is more of a mixed border than a spring border. A nice spring border will make a big impact when the garden isn’t very busy but can look more subdued later in the year. In summer, when everything is lush and abundant, these spring stars would be lost in abundance. Plan ahead for the type of ad you want to have. Below I describe the three layers of a simple edge design for high spring impact.
Bright, lacy flowers of three-leaved cardamine cover the edge of this design closest to the sidewalk. Photo: Susan Calhoun
Front layer: three waves of white flowers serve as ground cover
I like plants that are bright and stand out on our gray early spring days. This design has bright reds and pinks in the background that gradually turn purple as the season progresses.
The front of the border is planted with one of my favorite ground covers. three-leaf cardamine (Cardamine trifolia, zones 5-8). This evergreen tree reaches 6 inches in height in shade and can grow in almost any type of soil. The sweet white flowers bloom over the foliage at the beginning of the year. It continues to bloom through the rest of the summer and fall. This slow spreader is snail proof (a big plus in my garden) and easy to care for. Meanwhile, snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis, zones 3–8) have finished flowering and only their strappy leaves remain. A snow-covered epimedium (Epimedium × youngianum ‘Niveum’ Zones 5–9) throws breezy white flowers and new purple foliage to cover the dying snowdrop. This strain is not as aggressive as some of the epimedes in our region. Using well-mannered plants that will grow well with others is key to creating such boundaries.
The bleeding heart of ‘Bacchanal’ has taken over from the faded foliage of the short-lived three-leaved cardamine, with the hellebore ‘Jade Start’ anchoring the design during the transition. Photo: Susan Calhoun
Middle layer: Hellebores and bleeding hearts add height, drama and flower power
In the second layer, various species of hellebore (Helleborus spp. And cvs., Zones 4-9) and other perennials are used to complement the white flowers of the ground cover. ‘Pacific Frost’ hellebore (H. argutifolius ‘Pacific Frost’, Zones 5–8) has brightly colored green and white foliage so it looks good when it is no longer blooming. I also recorded ‘Florence Picotee’ hellebore (H. ‘Florence Picotee’, Zones 3–9), double white, near the back of the middle layer, and ‘Tiffany’ hellebore (H. ‘Tiffany’, Zones 5-9), single white, in the center of the middle layer. Behind ‘Tiffany’ is an amazing green floral hellebore named “Jade Star” (H. ‘Jade Star’, Zones 3-9). All hellebore roots are ideal for shadow or partial shade areas with sufficient water in dry months. When this planting develops in late spring, the purple and red colors will begin to show up. Hear ‘bacchanal’ bleedingt (Dicentra formosa ‘Bacchanal’, Zones 3–9) will have dark purple-red flowers, new foliage on hellebore ‘Pacific Frost’ will turn purple, and new leaves from snow-covered epimedium will also turn a variegated green and purple.
The foliage of the camellia towers above these perennials, including the colorful hellebore “Pacific Frost”. Photo: Susan Calhoun
Back Layer: Large shrubs add structure, screening, and interest in the late season
At the back of the border there’s a big, old, pink blooming camellia (Camellia cv., Zones 6-10). While I’m not a huge fan of pink, it was here when I bought the house and it has vital info from a neighbor. Because I made up my mind to leave it, I built the rest of the spring border around it. Nearby, a Camellia “Christmas” (C. sasanqua ‘Yuletide’, zones 7-10) flowers next to a Golden Crane® hydrangea (Hydrangea angustipetala ‘MonLongShou’, zones 6–9). Both bushes take shade. The camellia ‘Yuletide’ blooms in late fall and early winter and the hydrangea Golden Crane® blooms in late spring and summer. The camellias and hydrangeas serve as the backdrop for the rest of the bed. When spring turns into summer, the greens take over. In the lower areas of the bed, the brightly colored hellebore ‘Pacific Frost’ and the blooming heart ‘Bacchanal’ flowers are beautiful as the hydrangea blooms. After spring it’s a muted palette but still full and lush.
Use the same ideas to structure other beds for year-round interest and structure. Photo: Susan Calhoun
Think about design principles as you work
So you can follow some of the design principles that apply in this garden bed when designing your own bed: First, choose your color combinations and start with a floor cover of this color in the lower layer. The second layer is the next. Accent colors can take up to 50% of the space, and the rest should be the main color, all with the same flowering period (spring). The final top layer can be made up of more plants that have the same main color, with 20% of the plants having that accent color. Make sure you try out some fun textures (grassy, shiny, colorful) and think about how they’ll look in three months, and then again in six months. Plan for the foliage to provide interest and screening for the months to come.
– Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
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