Small perennials bring spring blooms

nbrachey@charlotteobserver.comMarch 22, 2013 

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    Garden Q&A

    Q. Is it time to apply crab grass preventer to my lawn? How much time do I have to get this done?

    Aim to get this done in the next week so that you can kill the crab grass just after it sprouts. It is effective for about three months after you put it down.

Spring in the Piedmont is a time of exuberant color, with huge blasts of azaleas, dogwoods, forsythias and cherries. But a spring plant doesn’t have to produce a blast of beauty to captivate and charm. A trio of small beauties deserve a bit of space in your flower beds, where they can charm and delight us, if only briefly.

These little bits of beauty include plants such as lily-of-the-valley and jack-in-the-pulpit. Both undemanding small perennials produce memorable blooms in spring. Another is the native Eastern columbine.

Lily-of-the-valley: Beloved for its scent and the charm of tiny bell-shaped flowers, lily-of-the-valley is a reliable, long-lived perennial provided you meet its soil and water requirements. It is best to start with plants growing in pots or ones freshly dug and divided. These are most likely to transplant well and not suffer dried roots that can lead to failure to grow.

Botanically named Convallaria majalis, it requires partial shade, rich, woodsy soil and regular water. My plants came from a neighbor who died in 1976, but they have survived record-setting drought and heat, because I water them if necessary while they are in bloom and through the summer while the vertical foliage is still green. Plants are quite small, just 6 inches or so tall, which means they deserve a spot near the front of the partly shady flower bed. You don’t want their brief flowering season of a couple of weeks obliterated by a big, bouncing azalea. The pips, which are the tips of the roots from which the stems emerge, should go about 1 1/2 inches deep.

Jack-in-the-pulpit: This little native wildflower produces its own talking points because it bears a bloom that is unique. The common name derives from the single figure that seems to stand under a green hood resembling a pulpit, 6 inches or so high. The color combination looks very good in the cool of a partly shady flower bed.

The botanical name is a mouthful: Arisaema triphyllum, but most people know it by just the common name. It also requires rich, woodsy soil that stays moist through the growing season. The flowering stalk can be a foot or taller and rise above the foliage, which persists through the summer, then dies down and disappears. Like lily-of-the-valley, this is not a plant for the dry shade of the root zone of large trees.

Eastern columbine: The gorgeous red-and-yellow, nodding blooms of this columbine are so pretty, but the blooms are smaller than the hybrid columbines, which come in many spectacular colors. The Eastern columbine, sometimes called wild columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is a native wildflower, 1 to 2 feet tall, of woodland areas of eastern North America and less prone to attacks of leaf miners. The soil doesn’t have to be as rich and woodsy as for jack-in-the-pulpit or lily-of-the-valley, but it must be well-drained. The plants tend to be short-lived. Mine have played out in three or four years, but there is sometimes the bonus of seedlings in the bed, which grow to blooming size in a year or two.

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