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Native Gardening with Jimmy: April blooms for sun or shade

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Posted on: April 11, 2024

By JIMMY ROGERS

Each year, April surprises and delights me. A fresh flush of rich foliage replaces the tired, semi-evergreen leaves of winter. Blue, pink, red, purple and yellow flowers decorate the whole garden, just in time for porch-sitting weather.

I’ve assembled a superstar lineup of native plants that begin blooming in April. If you’re just starting your garden or haven’t heard of these before, now is an excellent time to visit a native plant nursery to see what the plants will look like blooming in your garden. Any buds on the plants will likely still bloom after planting, and even if the plant is nearly done flowering by the time you bring it home, remember that it will come back bigger and better next spring.

Plants for Sun

I’ve ordered this section from most sun-loving and dry-loving to those merely tolerant of sun and drought. 

A plant that evolved to survive on unforgiving rocky outcroppings, moss phlox (Phlox subulata) has a showy, low carpet of pink flowers, happily filling in borders and dripping down rock walls. It’s relatively slow-growing the first year, so consider a larger size when purchasing. Moss phlox is not a true groundcover, as weeds will periodically find their way through the dense, pointy leaves, so it will do best in places with less competition.

My favorite groundcover for sun is golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). A relative of the carrot, its leaves provide food for black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars (Papilio polyxenes), and the golden bouquet-shaped flowers attract a host of pollinators, large and small. In my garden they bloom almost all year, with the tallest flowers forming in early spring. Just as importantly, they will grow to eventually cover an area of one cubic foot with green foliage, blocking new weeds extremely effectively and letting through larger late-season plants like asters and goldenrods.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), an underused border plant, has a misleading name, as it is not a grass. Related to irises, these short clumps of grass-like leaves will grow to about a foot tall before producing many tiny purple or blue flowers. Unlike most irises, blue-eyed grass can tolerate dry clay fairly well, especially as the plants  mature. It’s easy to break a clump into individuals and transplant, which is a great way to create a persistent path border.

One of the more unusual spring bloomers is native columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Its delicate blue-green leaves and candelabra of red, bell-shaped flowers will contrast with the rest of your garden. Despite its delicate appearance, columbine frequently appears in poor and even rocky areas. It can be difficult to guess where it will be happiest, so I recommend planting a few starter plants in different locations. Those that persist will generate copious seeds that can be poured into the hand from their dry seed pods. Toss the seeds into every sunny, low-growing bed and let the columbine decide where to come up next year.

Lastly, few plants say spring quite like a preponderance of violets (Viola species). Unfurling heart-shaped leaves throughout March, violets will put up purple, yellow or even white flowers all through the first half of the growing season. They’re easily dug from a friendly neighbor’s yard and will immediately begin spreading themselves. A dense layer of violets will not only push back against early weeds, but will also play host to caterpillars of the elegant fritillary butterfly.

Plants for Shade

I’ve ordered this section from more dry-tolerant to those wanting more moisture. None enjoy standing water for long, though.

A creative gardener can find many uses for woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum). The evergreen, succulent leaves will spread an inch-tall matt across bare ground, through rock gardens and along the bases of trees. The stems are fragile, but each broken piece is likely to root and begin growing again. Woodland stonecrop will tolerate direct sun, but spread more readily in part shade. In April,  they will hide under a blanket of tiny white flowers. 

Another spreading groundcover for shade, creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) sends out runners across the ground, periodically punctuated with a stunning blue or purple flower. It may not always grow densely enough to crowd out weeds, so consider interplanting it with a community of low shade plants for even coverage.

Either coral bells (Heuchera americana) or foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) are an effective shady groundcover. When mass planted, the wide, decorative leaves add an attractive texture, interrupted only by showy flower spikes. Choose coral bells for longer-lasting foliage through the fall or foamflower for longer-lasting white, feathery blooms.

In a shady garden with rich soil, consider Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans). Graceful, arching fronds emerge from the center of the plant, tipped with small blue flowers. It grows in clumps, increasing in size each year, with a maximum height of a foot and a half.

I always smile when I see a new bloom on a stand of spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), as it reminds me of the friend who gifted me the plants. It divides easily, grows rapidly in new plantings, and puts out a new purple flower each day. Its foliage resembles an iris and I find it gives garden beds a lush, moist appearance, even on dry days.

You can find these plants at the native nurseries and seasonal sales listed on the Maryland Native Plant Society’s website (mdflora.org/gardening). Ask for straight species, rather than cultivars, as leaf color and flower changes can impact the relationships these plants have with wildlife. Good luck plant hunting and remember to enjoy the April blooms!


Jimmy Rogers is an avid native gardener in the city of Laurel.

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