Plant Early Bloomers This Spring

Photograph By
Cheryl Corson

This overlooked native tree, Carolina silverbell, flowers just after the dogwoods with blossom clusters attractive to beneficial pollinators. 

Customers like to buy plants when they’re in bloom. Urban plant retailers like Ginkgo Gardens and Frager’s can only fit so many perennial plants in their limited outdoor space. Put these together and you’ll realize that if you don’t know the range of available perennial plants, your new garden will look good each year primarily during the weeks in which you made your first big plant purchase.

You may wind up with a gorgeous, pastel early spring garden or a bold mid-summer garden, or a late fall garden. If you want some of each, you can special order plants. For example, ask our local retailers for coneflower (Echinacea), or Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), or hyssop (Agastache), or Chelone (turtlehead) in May, before they bloom. If you commit to a certain plant and quantity ahead of time, this is easily done, since the growers who supply the retailers have almost everything all the time. Alternately you can also practice Zen patience and start some perennials from seed, also sold at our retail garden centers plus stores like Yes! Market. We all want to plant in spring, but it’s good to save space for later-season plant showstoppers.

This Year Is Different

I often caution eager spring retail plant shoppers against buying too many early bloomers at once, but this year is different. Our record high December temperatures prompted many early spring plants to bloom well before their time. My Facebook news feed is full of folks sharing examples: quince (Cheanomeles speciosa), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), azalea, Daphne odora, iris, pincushion flower (Scabiosa columbaria), cherries, witch hazel (Hamamelis), camellia, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). Also still blooming in December were late-season perennials and annuals: passion vine (Passiflora incarnata), all kinds of roses, Michaelmas daisy (Aster “Blue Autumn”), snapdragons (an annual), black-eyed Susan (Rudebekia) and blanket flower (Gaillardia).

Many of us found guilty pleasure in these December flowers and warm temperatures. But now that it’s truly cold and those blossoms have turned brown and frozen, what price do we pay? The truth is that the early spring plants will not bloom again – this year. Or they may produce far fewer blossoms. This is a disappointment for humans, but it could be truly difficult for bees, which depend on much needed early nectar, and for birds in need of insect larvae to feed their newborn young.

What You Can Do to Help

Hopefully we will have a “normal” spring and not a snow-packed March. If so, and you’re in the market for a flowering tree, you can plant an early blooming native before it breaks dormancy so the blossoms will attract pollinators to your garden. Good species to choose from include serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier laevis), native sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria), cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida “Appalachian Spring”), and the underrated Carolina silverbell (Halesia diptera). All these are relatively small understory trees and well suited to Capitol Hill front or back yards.

Early blooming perennials beneficial to pollinators include those with smaller flowers in clusters that can accommodate multiple bees at the same time. It makes sense. While a daffodil, for example, is a good pollen and nectar plant, only one bee can get into this larger blossom at a time. Good early perennials to consider include early flowering native coral bells (Heucheras), native ground cover iris (Iris cristata), bleeding heart (Dicentra), columbine (Aquilegia), and the humble violet. Violets are not only plant nectar food for fritillary butterflies, they serve as host plants on which the fritillaries lay their eggs.  

Last but not least is the common dandelion. Not only are the tasty edible greens packed with Vitamin C and the deep root a powerful soil aerator, the flowers are, according to garden writer Rhonda Hayes, “an important first source of nectar for bees and other beneficial insects. Their blooms act as a bridge to survival for bees and other bugs that have managed to make it through winter until more plentiful blooms of spring appear.” See her blog, “In the Yard,” for more on this topic. If you allow the dandelion flowers to feed the bees and cut them before they go to seed, you can have the best of both worlds. Finally, if you’ve over-wintered any edible kale, collards, broccoli raab, or any other plant in the Brassica, or mustard, family, the tiny yellow flowers that appear after the plant has started going to seed will be another welcome pollinator nectar plant. Allowing these flowers to persist until a bit later in the spring will help feed the bees on very early spring days. See what this looks like:

Seed Shopping         

Winter is the time to read seed catalogues or seed grower websites, and one of the best is that of the Hart Seed Company. Over 100 years old and still family run, this company distinguishes itself in many ways, including selling seed only through independent retailers and not big box stores or by mail order. Ginkgo Gardens is the nearest retailer carrying Hart Seeds, Their seeds are also free of genetically engineered material.

Another way this company is a good corporate citizen is through its Donations Department. Here community gardens, food pantries, school groups, and others can receive 100 free seed packets for a mere $14.95 to cover shipping costs. They only ask for minimal information and email photos or follow-up showing how the project turned out. Here is the form:

Hart Seed Company has introduced several seed mixes this year, responding to the surge of interest in homegrown edibles and grassroots efforts to save the bees. In particular they offer Bee My Friend Mixture and Please Don’t Flutter-By. A new micro-green mix that their offer called Veggie Confetti is a sweet and savory mix of lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, radish, basil, and more, meant to be used as cuttings. Veggie Confetti can be grown indoors, so no need to wait for spring. The same is true for the organic kale seed mix called Nancy’s Baby Leaf Blend.

Read and Listen Up

We still have another month to read up on gardening while our garden hands are relatively clean. Two of my favorites are “The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control,” edited by Ellis and Bradley, and the updated and expanded edition of the now classic “Bringing Nature Home” by Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy. Local landscape architects Thomas Ranier and Claudia West’s “Planting in a Post-Wild World” is the newest must-read for garden lovers. What these three books have in common is a greater understanding of the interactions of plants, soil, birds, insects – and humans – in our designed and managed landscapes of all sizes. These are books one can return to again and again for inspiration and education.

The Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, just up the road, is hosting garden-related lectures in February including “Capital Houses, a Conversation with James Goode” and “Garden Inspirations with Charlotte Moss,” and more. This looks like a great series. For more see Enjoy the rest of winter!

Called Lenten rose for their usual bloom time, these bloomed in January but may send up new blossoms soon.
Seen recently at the huge Baltimore MANTS trade show, the Hart Seed Company’s line of Veggi Confetti offers micro-green seed mix options for home gardeners, available at Ginkgo Gardens.

Cheryl Corson is a local licensed landscape architect and writer who enjoys helping individuals and organizations with landscape design and construction oversight. She has worked on the Hill since 1998. See

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