Spring is really the time for woodland plants to shine. In the height of summer, with the trees fully in leaf, the space around and beneath the deciduous canopy can seem quite difficult to make interesting. However, with some good design, Spring can be the time for these areas to come to the fore. In a frantic race to flower and set seed before the tree canopy closes in, there are numerous shrubs, and perennials that come into their own at this time of the year. I have been looking at some spring garden ideas for my garden and below are some suggestions that may help make these 'difficult' spaces a little bit more enticing.
If your soil has a pH that is neutral to acidic, then why not try any of the number of rhododendron species and cultivars that begin flowering in April. One of my favourites is Rhododendron hodgsonii. It has tight balls of rose to magenta flowers and, with is long, slender fingers of metallic green leaves and its cinnamon, peeling bark, it is a plant for all seasons. Situated on the edge of the tree line, away from the heaviest of the tree roots this will make a shrub of over 1.8m.
On a smaller scale, you could try the shorter growing R. 'Penheal Blue' with its deep violet blue flowers. This rhododendron will mature to a size of about 1.5m. The leaves of this variety have the added advantage of turning a reddish bronze in autumn.
The cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, here in Scotland, is in full flower at the beginning of April. This shrub will reach a mature height of between 2.5m and 4m, and planted on the edge of the tree canopy, its dense clusters of sulphur yellow flowers will clothe the branches in a shroud of yellow.
Happier in the deeper shade is Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green'. It is a small shrub, which at maturity will reach about one metre in height and during spring it produces large clusters of yellow green flowers. These flowers are heavily fragrant and in a sheltered corner the fragrance will linger - an ideal location to put a seat or bench. The skimmia also has glossy green leaves that reflect any light in all directions adding another dimension to the planting.
Pulmonarias can be used to great effect as ground cover beneath and around the larger woodland shrubs. The deep blue flowers of Pulmonaria longifolia 'Betram Anderson' have red-purple sepals and red stems and the semi-evergreen leaves are spotted white and silver. The flowers will last well into May, with the red stems and sepals picking up on the cinnamon colouring of the rhododendron bark.
Brunnera 'Jack Frost ' has heavily brushed silver mottled leaves and is happy even in complete shade, as long as its roots do not dry out. During spring it produces a mass of blue 'forget-me-not flowers'. The silver leaves also help to lighten the shady understory during summer when the canopy has filled in.
Wood anemones are perfect for the edge of the canopy, beside a path, perhaps. As long as they are not crowded out by other plants they are happy in the humus rich soil. I love the variety Anemone nemorosa 'Robinsoniana' which has an almost ghostly, lavender blue colour, but the larger flowered A. nemorosa 'Leeds Variety' would be very effective as a counterpoint to the blues and yellows, and the white flowers team well with the silver leaves of the Brunnera.
Bergenias make excellent ground cover plants for the canopy edge. I like the white flowered Bergenia 'Bressingham's White' The deep green glossy leaves are tinged with red and the white flowers are grown on stiff red stems and have pale pink sepals.
Within this planting I would included some hellebores to give some winter interest. For example Helleborus x ericsmithii, H. foetidus or any of the H. x hybridus varieties are invaluable for adding winter colour and the leaves are good ground cover for the summer months. Finally, I would scatter through the area, random clumps of daffodils such as the pure white Narcissus 'Thalia' and our native daffodil N. pseudonarcissus.
Sometimes it is good to plant for interest the whole year round, but occassionally, planting for impact for a particular point in time gives you something to look forward to each year. That anticipation can make the effect all the more exciting.