April is an exciting time and there is plenty to do in borders:
- As perennials emerge, look out for losses and gaps and plan how you are going to fill them. Get new perennials in as soon as you can and sow drifts of hardy annuals into warm soil.
- Hoick out any weed seedlings whilst they are still small but keep a careful eye out for those self-sown seedlings which you want to keep such as foxgloves. You can move these seedlings into the best positions, watering them well after transplanting them.
- Lightly trim Mediterranean shrubs such as lavender, phlomis, santolina and Helichrysum (curry plant), nipping them back by 2.5cm-5cm to remove any frost damaged growth and keep them compact.
- Plant up all summer flowering bulbs by the end of the month including gladioli, Anemone coronaria and lilies.
- Once early flowering shrubs are over you can prune them if needed, this includes forsythia, Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) and Ribes (flowering currant).
1. Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Dicentra spectabilis)
If you don’t yet have a corner of your garden dedicated to the spring, then now is the perfect time to plan and plant one. Whatever space you have, it’s so important to squeeze out every season of interest and Dicentra spectabilis is the perfect place to start as it’s a model spring beauty. Its only drawback is that the plant boffins have changed its name, so I now have to remember to call it by its clumsy new moniker of Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Also known as Bleeding Hearts, this plant is a real heart warmer as it is one of the first perennials to emerge, synchronising with spring tulips and providing an opening act before the main summer performance. Its fresh green, lacy foliage is beautiful in itself, and goes well with the unfurling fronds of other ferns.
The heart-shaped flowers dangle on arching racemes and their unusual shape has also earned it the nickname of ‘Lady in the bath.’ Peel back the outer petals of the flower to reveal the naked lady within! I love the plain pink form, but there are also the cherry red hearts of ‘Valentine’, whilst the simple white of ‘Alba’ will lift a dark, shady corner.
Although Lamprocapnos spectabilis is reported to need reliably moist soil, I have successfully grown it in dry silt. A native to China, Korea and Japan, its natural habitat is in rock crevices and it copes in drier soils provided it is given a shady spot. Once flowering is over, cut the whole plant down to the ground and it will remain dormant over summer, happily giving up space to summer flowering perennials and not caring if it is completely swamped by them. Lamprocapnos spectabilis doesn’t develop a woody crown so it can be left in situ for years, quickly bulking up into impressive specimens.
2. Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’
You will want to reserve the sunniest south and west facing parts of your garden for the main summer display, but East and North East facing borders which receive sun for some but not all of the day are perfect for spring plants, as are dry spots beneath trees and shrubs. Epimedium provide excellent ground cover in these conditions, quickly forming spreading colonies. Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ is a lovely form. The flowers are tiny, and in other cultivars can disappear, but with ‘Frohnleiten’ they are a bright sulphurous yellow and stand out beautifully against the foliage. The foliage is evergreen but will be looking tatty by early spring. Cut it all off in March and you will be rewarded with new heart-shaped leaves decorated with fine green veining against a rusty red background.
3. Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’
Euphorbias or spurge are such valuable plants. Their chartreuse coloured flower bracts last for many weeks and they have the ability to really make other colours sing. Many are also evergreen, providing all year colour and structure. Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is a real stunner, and makes a striking combination with brightly coloured tulips. Its evergreen leaves are beautifully variegated with gold edges and develop pink tinges during cold weather. The lime-green flower bracts are splashed with darker green patterning and have a dark red eye.
4. Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’
The upright, lime green flowers of Euphorbias really make other colours pop. Combine Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ with the phenomenally long-flowering Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. This ‘perennial’ wallflower will survive the winter but it becomes horribly woody. However, cuttings strike with such ease and it is so floriferous that it’s definitely worth putting up with this drawback.
5. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
The pretty blue forget-me-not flowers of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ associate well with the sulphur yellow of Epimedium ‘Frohnleiten’ and its silver patterned leaves continue to provide interest long after the flowers have finished. You could even pair its silvery tones with a dark purple heuchera, such as ‘Plum Pudding.’
6. Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’
Pulmonarias produce early flowers which provide an important source of food for hungry bees awakening from hibernation. Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’ bears clusters of tubular, mauve to raspberry pink flowers on long stems above rosettes of silver-spotted leaves. As with all Pulmonarias, after flowering the leaves often get mildew but this is easily remedied by simply cutting them down to the ground. Water well and the plant will quickly bounce back with a fresh crop of lovely new leaves.
7. Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’
The two shrubs which I enjoy most at this time of the year are the flowering quince, chaenomeles, and the flowering currant, ribes. I am constantly popping out to admire my Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ which is covered in pendulous raspberry-red blooms that never fail to impress me. The bees love it too. If you fancy something a little different, plump for Ribes x gordonianum. The flowers are bi-coloured a subtle pink and creamy yellow which is exquisite.
8. Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’
Striking an oriental note is Chaenomeles x superba ‘Pink Lady’ with its gorgeous candy-pink blooms set off with golden anthers. With bold, cup shaped flowers adorning dark, twiggy stems, Chaenomeles are bursting with spring impact. They offer a palette which includes reds and pinks at a time when the garden is often dominated by blues and yellows. Chaenomeles look wonderful trained onto walls or trellis which shows off their blooms, but they can also be grown as free standing shrubs or even used as flowering hedges.
9. Exochorda x macrantha ‘Niagara’
Meanwhile, just around the corner, I’ve been coveting my neighbours Exochorda x macrantha ‘Niagara’ which is already smothered in masses of white blooms. ‘Niagara’ is a much improved version of the old cultivar, ‘The Bride’ with more compact and manageable growth which is perfectly suited to smaller gardens.
10. Viburnum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’
The viburnums are also just starting to unfold their buds including one of the best selections, Viburnum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’. Other forms of Viburnum plicatum have a very broad habit which is hard to accommodate in smaller gardens, but this one grows neatly upright, its tiered branches clothed in abundant lace-cap flowers which are prettily blushed with pink. This is a hard-working shrub which really earns its place, as in the autumn it rewards again with fiery red and orange tinted foliage. For the same qualities but in an even smaller package, plump for Viburnum plicatum ‘Watanabe’, which will happily grow in a pot or narrow border.
Given some sun, all three of these shrubs are easy-care plants and will even tolerate heavy clay. Like all early flowering spring shrubs and climbers, they are able to flower so early because their flowering wood grew last year. For this reason, any pruning should be carried out directly after flowering.
I shall definitely be treating my spring garden to an Exochorda x macrantha this year – which April flowers will you be plumping for? Whatever you choose, after planting keep an eye on the watering – our springs are becoming increasingly warm and dry. Give your new plants a good soaking every one or two weeks until they become established.