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Minter: Add a splash of pre-spring colour to your garden

Choose your March colour carefully, says gardening expert Brian Minter.
Pansy Cool Wave Mixture 2
Pansy Cool Wave Mixture

The following column was submitted to the Tri-City News from Brian Minter — master gardener, best-selling author, Order of Canada recipient and co-owner of Minter Country Garden Store.


We all need a late winter pick-me-up from some sturdy outdoor colour that can withstand nature’s fickle mood swings.

Cool spells and heavy frosts are still a possibility, so it’s important to choose March colour carefully.

What are the best cool-loving plants for a great display?

By far and away, the top performers are violas and pansies.

Pansies may be old-fashioned favourites, but the colour range of pansies today is fabulous, especially some of the new designer colours like creams, pink blends and citrus mixes.

Wallflowers are more suited to late May or June gardens, but ‘Fragrant Sunshine’ is a dwarf perennial unlike most others and will repeat bloom year after year.

With ‘Fragrant Sunshine’, we can enjoy early fragrance and colour and long continuous blooming.

I watched them over the winter in cold greenhouses, and even their foliage is beautiful.

Don’t forget its cousin, ‘Bowles Mauve’, which has a variegated form, great perfume and blooms well into late spring and summer.

Four-inch, winter-blooming heathers and spring bulbs, like grape hyacinths, mini narcissus, perfumed hyacinths, mini irises and crocuses, make a great show when combined with small shrubs or other winter flowers.

Helleborus, too, are now in full bud and bloom and seem to last for ages.

At this time of year, the soft colours of primroses blend beautifully with the bronze foliage of bergenias (zone 3), and heucherellas (zone 5), and the reds, bronzes and deep yellows need silvers, like dusty miller, around them to create a refreshing spring look.

The amazing ‘Caramel’ and ‘Georgia Peach’ heucheras also create magic with them, as does the wonderful heucherella ‘Stop Light’ (zone 5).

Hardy, outdoor Cyclamen coums are in full flower right now, and when used as a groundcover under shrubs and trees, they form a carpet of pink and white with amazing foliage as a bonus. They also perform great in containers.

If you look carefully at this time of year, you can find some early ‘Wanda’ primulas throwing out the odd flower here and there.

Today, we have the newer seedling varieties from England in a wide range of colours that accent their burgundy leaves.

The white and yellow ‘Wandas’ are my favourites because they look so rich with any backup foliage. They are great garden plants, unlike so many of the big flowered ‘acaulis’ varieties we see today.

They do best in partial shade and if you can, blend them with four-inch pots of the ornamental grass, Carex morrowii ‘Variegata’. This combination is beautiful in light shade under trees.

Once properly hardened off, the amazing early-blooming varieties of English daisies, like ‘Galaxy’, are a true bonus for early colour.

Either planted by themselves or spotted in among white winter heather or Carex morrowii ’Variegata’, the reds, pinks and whites of these small-flowered button daises scream spring. If you add in perfumed male skimmia, Himalayan sweet box (sarcococca) and winter-flowering Camellia sasanqua, you’ll have not only a beautiful show, but also some great perfume.

To make your early displays stand out, you need a good-sized accent plant, complemented by enough smaller ones to create an effect that makes everything jump. The good news is that many of these plants are perennials and as the seasons progress, they will keep these spots going all year round with the help of other accent colours.

These plants are the stuff that great gardens and containers are made of.

They’re not just a momentary splash — they’re a colour investment and are well worth the effort to find them.