Northeast: Spring Gold Leaves

Tiverton, Rhode Island, Zone 6b

Newly emergin plants in April usually greet me like old friends at a reunion—I’m always amazed at how many plants are in the garden, and I always find myself asking, “Who is that?” It’s often not until many plants unfurl their second or third sets of leaves that I recognize who they are, after not seeing them for so long, and they begin to contribute to the garden scene. The exceptions to this rule are those plants with yellow, chartreuse, or variegated leaves. These plants, with part or all of the leaf lacking in chlorophyll, are often at their most vibrant now. Their leaves radiate an intensity that fades when the heat of summer arrives and the riot of color from their blooming neighbors overshadows them. In early spring, however, they’re the stars of the awakening garden.

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ (USDA Zones 2-8; pictured), with the bright golden yellow foliage supported by vibrant pink stems, provides a brilliant backdrop to the pink and white flowers. One of the earlier perennials to flower, it prefers the cool spring air. While it is quite tolerant of full sun in April, it is best sited in the shade where it won’t be burned by the hot sun later in the season. The brilliant gold will fade to a beautiful acid yellow in shadier locations, brightening up even the darkest spot. I have tried to give it the best of both worlds—I planted it in a spot that is in full sun in the early spring, and as the sun climbs higher in the sky, the lower branches of a fir tree provide the shade necessary to keep the plant happy until it recedes into dormancy later in the season.

Another of my favorite foliage plants for the early spring garden is Filipendula ul-maria ‘Variegata’ (Zones 3-7). With its bright creamy white leaf centers, it screams to be noticed. The low basal foliage, which spreads to about 15 inches, will gradually rise until it reaches 24 to 30 inches in height. In midsummer, it’s topped with frothy, off-white flower clusters that loosely resemble feather dusters. Beautiful flowers, yes, but not nearly as flashy as those early-spring leaves.

When it comes to bright foliage, few perennials will outshine gold-variegated comfrey. If you come across Symphytum xuplandicum Axminster Gold’ (Zones 4-7) while out plant shopping, don’t pass it up, even if it does seem expensive. This relative newcomer to American gardens will be well worth the money spent. The bold, felted leaves, with wide margins of creamy yellow gold, will be the talk of your spring garden, and will remain so throughout the rest of the season. The arching leaves arise from robust mounds, gradually rising in height, with elongated leaves that form flower stalks topping out at four feet. Small clusters of nodding blue flowers emerge on the tips of the stalks. Leave it to flower if you must, but here at the nursery we cut it back to the ground before it blooms, to spotlight the leaves. Perennials like these help brighten the early spring garden until the warm days of May and June provide me with enough color to make the gray days of winter a distant memory.

Worth Growing: Geranium pratense ‘Victor Reiter’
This hardy geranium (to USDA Zone 5) boasts deeply cut wine-red foliage. From mid-spring to midsummer here in southern Rhode Island, this dark-leaved geranium produces beautiful violet-blue flowers atop wiry stems to 18 inches. Standing alone or used as a foil for early-emerging yellow-leaved perennials, it is sure to be one of the first plants of the season to be admired in your garden.

To Do in the Garden: Early Spring

  • Scratch in compost or aged manure to the top six or eight inches of soil in garden beds. Be aware of plants that may not have broken dormancy.

  • Dig, divide, and move snowdrops after they have finished flowering, but while foliage is still visible. This allows you to see how much space they need and how large the clumps will look after division.

  • Photograph perennial gardens to use as a guide for areas that need bulbs planted in the fall.

  • Cut back the remains of any perennial and ornamental grasses before new growth begins.

  • Be sure to get your mail-order plant orders in early, to ensure the best selection possible.

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