Category Archives: Spring Bloomers

What’s Going On in the Garden?

At White Flower Farm, we welcome hundreds of visitors each year during the growing season, and we invite them to take leisurely strolls around our display gardens. But because not all of our customers and fellow gardeners are in range of the farm, and because even those who visit might like an occasional behind-the-scenes peek at what’s happening here, we’re introducing What’s Going On in the Garden?, a series of occasional emails devoted to providing glimpses of what’s blooming in our borders, along with notes about the activities in our gardens and greenhouses. We hope you’ll enjoy this chance to garden alongside us.

To start the series, we had to begin with this year’s Tulips, which were spectacular. In the midst of a cold and often gusty spring, these jewels of the early season taught us all something about beauty, resilience, and grace.

There is tremendous range of color and form in the Tulip world, and the variations extend to Tulip foliage. The bold colored blossoms of Tulip ‘Arjuna’ were enough to make this variety a standout in our spring border, and the rippled leaves with golden edges added another layer of interest.

The farm’s head gardener, Cheryl Whalen, and her staff always incorporate plenty of Tulips into display beds, but new this season, we had the pleasure of watching the Tulip trial garden we planted last fall come to life. Last October, our horticulture team and gardening staff worked together to plan and plant the garden, and the bulbs were laid out in neat, tidy rows, each carefully labeled. The purpose of the trial was to grow each and every variety we offer – roughly 130 in total – and watch the individual varieties develop, study their characteristics including color, height, and blossom time, and make certain their performances were consistent with what we advertise. The trial also allowed our staff to conceive of new Tulip combinations. The earliest Tulips began blossoming in early to mid April. Mid-season varieties came on strong shortly after, and the Tulip season ended with a grand finale in mid-May. As the trial garden demonstrated, planting an array of Tulips with various bloom times allows gardeners to orchestrate waves of color, a rolling sequence of bloom at a time when the garden – and gardeners – are starved for color.

On a chilly morning in April, members of the White Flower Farm staff review the activity in the Tulip trial bed.

This year’s unusually cool spring meant the Tulips were forced to endure a hard frost, and we all kept our fingers crossed that night. In the morning, the plants were bowed down and seeming to shiver, their stems and foliage showing the alarming watery appearance that indicates potential tissue damage. When this happens, the key is to leave the Tulips undisturbed. Touching them may cause tissue damage that could significantly worsen the effects of the cold. In this case, the sun’s heat soon warmed the atmosphere, and by that afternoon, the Tulips were standing themselves back up by degrees. Plants subjected to a freeze may not always rebound, but if the duration of the freeze is short, they are often able to shake it off. The Tulip show went on, the flowers bringing bright pops of gorgeous color to the landscape. The spectrum of Tulip colors, sizes, and forms – from classic goblets and Parrots to fringed and Peony styles, made the trial beds pure joy to behold, and they were a magnet for visitors to the White Flower Farm Store and display gardens.

Tulip ‘Purissima Blonde’ and other Tulips were bowed down in the trial garden after the temperature plummeted to 30 degrees F overnight. But the plants all shook off the cold and got on with the show.

Elsewhere around the farm, Tulips were showcased in a variety of ways that offer plenty of inspiration for home gardeners. Cheryl and her staff always plant bulbs in strategic places throughout beds and borders, and this year was no exception. In the beds nearest the store, Tulips were densely planted amid Daffodil bulbs. When the flowers emerged together this spring, the effect was a confetti of spring color.

Head gardener Cheryl Whalen creates new bulb mixes each year. This combination featuring two Tulip varieties and one Narcissus was a favorite that will be appearing in our fall catalog.

Along the Lloyd Border and in other display beds, clusters of colorful Tulips were planted out amid existing shrubs and emerging perennials, creating a river of bright, bold color to draw the eye along. In some cases, Cheryl and her staff planted Tulip bulbs amid perennial ground-covers such as Myosotis sylvatica (Forget-Me-Not), Ajuga (Bugleweed), or Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (Creeping Jenny).

Different Tulip varieties in a range of harmonious colors are woven into the display beds at the farm. The blue ground cover is Myosotis sylvatica (Forget-Me-Not), a pretty partner for Tulips.

Tulips were also positioned in front of emerging shrubs such as Viburnum carlesii Spice Baby™ and Cotinus coggygria Winecraft Black® (Smokebush), so the emerging foliage or flowers could serve as an attractive backdrop. The colors provided by ground covers and shrubs heighten the effect of any Tulip display, creating a layered look and lively color contrasts.

Tulip ‘Sweet Light’ glows in the early spring garden with the fragrant flowers of Viburnum Spice Baby™ and our Hyacinth May Day Bouquet Collection adding color and perfume in the background.

Tulips, generally speaking, should be treated as annuals. While some varieties, including Species Tulips and Perennial Tulips such as Darwin Hybrids and Impression Tulips, may flower for up to three years, the majority should not be relied upon for repeat bloom in subsequent springs. At the farm, we are in the process of digging up and composting all of this spring’s Tulips and ordering the varieties we will be planting this fall. The fun of this process is that each autumn brings the opportunity to try new varieties and color combinations. Removing spent Tulips from the spring garden also opens up bare spots that can be filled with annuals or perennials that add a different kind of beauty to the garden as the season progresses.

What are we planting in the trial garden in place of the Tulips? Loads and loads of Dahlia tubers. And we’ll have plenty to tell you about that as the flowers begin to emerge in late summer.

Here Come the Hellebores

In March, when the White Flower Farm display gardens are just waking from their winter sleep, the staff’s work detail is mostly about clearing away debris and making plans. But there is at least one notable exception: The Hellebores are showing plump buds that are ready to pop.

Hellebore buds popping up in the late winter garden.

In cold climates like ours, these rugged, beautiful perennials are one of the earliest signs of spring. Their habit of flowering in late February and March, during the season of Lent, and the Rose-like form of their blossoms, are why they are often called Lenten Roses. Gardeners prize these plants for their flowers and their foliage, and for a robust, cold-hardy disposition that makes them fuss-free, long-lived additions to any shade garden.

One of Spring’s Earliest Bloomers

Winter might not be fully over when Hellebores stoically send up their buds. Unlike other early performers that might get nicked by frosts, Hellebores are just fine in cooler temperatures. Plant them wherever you need a cheering early spring display.

The single, highly ornate flowers of Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘Rio Carnival’ can wake a garden from its winter slumber.

Hellebores come in a disarming array of colors – from pearly white and cream to butter yellow, rose, burgundy and almost black, with blossom forms ranging from single to doubles, all accented by a center of yellow stamens. Single Hellebore flowers are intriguingly complex in their anatomy but always large enough to notice from a distance. Showy doubles offer layers of petals. Many Hellebore blooms feature design details. There are freckles. There are hems and bands of contrasting colors. Breeders are developing varieties that have upward-facing flowers, which some regard as an improvement on the nodding or partially hidden blossoms that are characteristic of most earlier and classic cultivars.

The golden blossoms and buds of Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘California Dreaming’ bring the glow of sunshine to the late winter and spring garden.

The appeal of Hellebores lasts far beyond early spring. The flowers don’t fizzle when warmer weather arrives. The colorful blooms remain over an impressively long period. Months go by, and even as the flowers fade, they remain beautiful. Some would say they get better as time passes and the colors deepen or blanch.

The various colors and forms of Hellebores can be combined with splendid results. The Hellebore Honeymoon® Mix blends tones from ivory and pink to deepest red and near-black.

Ornamental Foliage for All Seasons

While Hellebore flowers often get the most attention, the glossy dark green, palmate foliage is of equal value in any shade garden. In many climates, the leaves are evergreen unless covered by snow. (In winters that are cold but not particularly snowy, Hellebore foliage may get scorched or tattered, but affected leaves can be pruned away, and as spring comes, the plants send up plenty more.)

The dark green, palmate foliage of a Hellebore, lower right, keeps its great looks all season. Here, it’s grouped with Hosta ‘June,’ left, and the golden, variegated blades of Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) ‘Aureola,’ top.

In an additional boon for gardeners, the leathery, serrated leaves are unappetizing to deer and voles (as well as other pests), which give Hellebores a wide berth.

It should be noted that Hellebore leaves, stems and roots are toxic and can cause a dermatological reaction in some people so we recommend wearing gloves and long sleeves when handling or cutting them. (Additionally, no parts of the plant should be eaten by humans.)

Hellebore Wedding Party® ‘Shotgun Wedding’ is a spectacular double with beautiful design detail on the multi-layered petals.

Caring for Hellebores

Hellebores prefer dappled shade and a compost-rich, well-drained soil. Under these conditions, they are trouble-free, but patience is imperative. These are not fast-paced perennials. Hellebores slowly but reliably gain size and bud count every year. When planting them, remember to give them sufficient space to expand. The winning formula is dappled shade and generous spacing.

In circumstances when Hellebore foliage gets beaten down by snow or tattered by the cold, some gardeners question whether to snip the foliage in autumn or wait until spring. In colder climates, you might as well snip it off in autumn and let the buds swell leafless. In warmer parts of the country, Hellebores may remain evergreen without suffering any damage. In that case, prune off leaves in late winter before the buds swell to make room for new growth. New leaves initiate rapidly no matter which way you play it.

Dividing Hellebores is not recommended. Although these plants may be slow to settle in, once they do, they rarely need division and may resent it.

Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘Paris in Pink’ pots up beautifully in a container.

Garden & Landscape Uses

Hellebores are at their best when planted in groups. Mass them in woodland areas where they will naturalize, or plant in 3’s and 5’s under trees and shrubs, along a pathway, or at the edge of a shady border. Create a dynamic display of contrasting colors, forms and blossom times by planting Hellebores with companionable shade-dwellers including Hostas, Astilbes, Hakonechloa (Japanese Forest Grass), Ferns, Heucheras, and Tiarella.

Hellebores also perform well in containers, and they make an impressive window box display with lasting appeal. Due to their thick, plentiful roots, you’ll want to afford them sufficient space for root growth and provide regular water. If winter seems too long, consider hosting a Hellebore or two indoors during the coldest months. On a windowsill, these beautiful plants blossom in the dead of winter. You’ll have flowers to carry you through the dullest days.