About 15 years ago, I finally learned the secret to growing great foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) in the South. Easy to start from seed in August, I plant new plants each autumn to flower the following spring.
As I was scanning my photo library, considering the many garden plants I could write about for this article, I came across a file of photos, all taken during the month of April – not all in the same year, but all in April – gardens ranging from Jackson, Miss., to Louisville, Ky. It reminded me just how abundant the garden is this time of year. This is the season when gardening seems effortless. Well, almost. The weeds are as high-spirited as the annuals and perennials, so diligence in their control is necessary; but still, the garden is lush and growing rapidly, and the vibrant green of spring radiates from its very heart. There is a certain pristine quality about all of the plants emerging fresh and new.
Denizens of the shade appear early to take advantage of the available light before the trees are in full, leafy dress. Native wildflowers mingle with their counterparts from across the sea. Exbury hybrid azaleas in flamboyant shades of gold and orange command attention from across the garden, while subtle ephemerals such as lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) catch the eye of the more astute and curious. By midsummer, their foliage will have faded, leaving behind spires of berries that will eventually ripen to sensual shades of red.
Left: One of the Exbury hybrid azaleas, Rhododendron ‘Gibraltar’ commands attention from across the garden with its flaming orange flowers borne in large clusters on bare stems. Middle: The white flowering form of the Japanese roof iris (Iris tectorum ‘Alba’) makes itself at home at the edge of a woodland garden with morning sun and light afternoon shade. Right: ‘Heavens to Betsy’ is a form of our native woodland geranium (Geranium maculatum), selected and named for its very large and glossy foliage that remains attractive throughout the summer. Its pink blooms are an added spring bonus.
On the eastern edge of a friend’s garden in Memphis, where morning sun streams in under the high limbs of the resident oaks, white Japanese roof iris (Iris tectorum ‘Alba’) unfold their silky petals – a plant whose delicate appearance belies its rather tough and vigorous nature – and Saruma henryi, a distant and unusual Japanese cousin of some of our native gingers, bears its soft yellow, though fleeting, three-petaled blooms. Rather than creeping along the ground, it forms an upright clump with its flowers appearing at the top of its stems rather than ground level.
In my garden, April means anticipating the yearly flowering of a native woodland geranium I selected and named almost 15 years ago, Geranium maculatum ‘Heavens to Betsy’. In bloom, its typically pink flowers may not stand out as anything special or unusual, but the plant was really selected for its foliage, growing to nearly double the size of typical G. maculatum and taking on a glossy, polished sheen. Long after its flowers have gone, the foliage remains beautiful and provides welcomed texture against the broad, pointed leaves of Hosta and the lacy fronds of a dozen or so species of fern. It almost reminds me of a miniature mayapple (Podophyllum).
In the sunny garden, life is stirring, too. Shrubs such as Weigela florida ‘Rubidor’ are practically throwing a temper tantrum with deep, red blooms set off by newly unfurled leaves of screaming gold, demanding your attention. Wildflowers bloom here as well, and one of which I will never tire – Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) – takes center stage now with its pale, powder blue flowers. One of the few perennials that offer good fall color, its foliage turns a luminous shade of gold in the garden.
As April comes to an end, the bearded irises begin to flower, and their show will continue well into the first weeks of May. One of the first to appear is ‘Flying Solo’, an iris known as a “median bearded” variety because of its slightly smaller flowers, borne in great profusion. Given to me by my friend Kelly Norris of Rainbow Iris Farm in Bedford, Iowa (www.rainbowfarms.net), it has grown astoundingly fast and even as a small clump, afforded me nearly three weeks of bloom its first full season in the garden. It is a winner in my book! It will be followed later by a tall bearded iris lovingly known as ‘Back Door’, a plant raised from seed by a gardener in my hometown in the 1960s who has long since passed on and who grew it by the “back door” where most visitors came and went. It was passed on to me more than 30 years ago and in 2010, I was able to locate one plant that still remained. It will flower for the first time in my garden this year.
Alongside the iris and helping carry late April’s show well into the month of May are the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). Many years ago, I finally learned how to grow these most successfully. Even though their seeds are tiny, they are not difficult to grow. I start them in early August in small trays, keeping them warm and evenly moist, and wait the two to three weeks it takes for them to germinate. Sow them as thinly as possible in the tray so the plants have room to grow for a few weeks after they sprout. Once plants have three to four leaves and are ¾ of an inch or so tall, I transplant them to individual 4-inch pots where they will continue growing until it is time to plant them outside in late October. By then, they should fill their pots completely with lush, green leaves and be ready to go out into the garden. They will overwinter, despite cold weather, as green mounds of leaves. Growth will begin again in late March and continue through April, with the rosettes expanding to nearly 2 feet wide before sending up their 4-to-6-foot towers of blooms near April’s end.
Left: Lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) appear in spring and their foliage lasts until late summer, followed by foot-tall spires of red-orange berries. Right: Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), a tough native wildflower, puts on a multi-season show with pale blue spring flowers, feathery summer foliage and spectacular golden fall color.
April continues my love affair with the spring season. Its abundance of blooms and the exuberant growth that comes with plentiful rain renews my soul and my gardening spirit. Each day brings a new discovery, a new bloom and a renewed sense of optimism for the season ahead. I hope it does the same for you.
A version of this article appeared in an April 2013 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Troy B. Marden.