Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Hepatica as labeled, and Primrose veris (cowslip) in my garden. Ephemerals turbocharge their lifecycle to leaf out, bloom and set seed before tree canopies shade them out.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Hepatica as labeled, and Primrose veris (cowslip) in my garden. Ephemerals turbocharge their lifecycle to leaf out, bloom and set seed before tree canopies shade them out.

I’ll never stop loving the workhorses of the garden – the long-blooming perennials and annuals, the shrubs with multiple seasons of interest, and all the plants that furnish evergreen color and presence in the dark days of winter. 

Pansies, wallflowers, geraniums, yarrow and hydrangeas generously offer bloom after bloom for months on end. Japanese maples are beautiful bare, as leaves emerge and as they explode in color before departing in autumn. A mugo pine shrub (Pinus “Mugo”) will provide its stalwart shrubbiness, like a spiky green gnome, 365 days of the year. These deliver the best bang for your buck if you have a small space or only plan to garden certain times of year.

Some plants may not bloom as long, but their flowers are so deeply romantic, bodacious in layered petals or swooningly fragrant, as to seem indispensable. I’m thinking of roses, lilacs and peonies. These lead singers find their way into my gardens despite their diva-like behavior or calling in sick regularly.

With all these distractions over the years, it took me awhile to come around to the less flashy supporting members of the garden cast – especially the ones that bloom and almost instantly disappear, leaving no leaves to remind/warn you of their presence. Not only am I likely to plant over and through so-called “ephemerals,” but giving precious garden space to something that blooms for two to three weeks and vanishes seemed crazy from a design standpoint.  Ephemerals turbocharge their lifecycle to leaf out, bloom and set seed before tree canopies shade them out.

The first one that made it into my garden was the old-timey looking bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), which blooms for mayyyybe three weeks, and then when the heat gets too stultifying, it hauls up its skirts and heads underground until next year. Those little hearts are so sweet and hang high over spring crocus and smaller daffodils adding color at another level.

However, if I would blame someone for adding another plant category to my already crowded garden and psyche, it would be Dan Hinkley. The Indianola-based plant explorer sells his rare Windcliff plants, https://danieljhinkley.com/plants/,at the Seattle nursery where I work. They are often tiny and of infinite variety, and regularly blow my mind.

Some examples are perennial anemones, hepatica, meconopsis and trillium for spring, or autumn crocus bulbs in fall. Did you notice meconopsis in there? Meconopsis is the heralded Himalayan blue poppy, jointly adored for its blue-sky flowers dancing in air and feared for its propensity to leave the planet after a year or two. I had one for two whole seasons, a fact that fills me with unjustified pride. The Rhododendron Species Garden even hosts Blue Poppy Day, which this year falls on May 21, https://rhodygarden.org/events/blue-poppy-day-2022-art-in-bloom/.

Now I tend to plant all these jewel-like wonders in the same area, since they are mostly lovers of moist soil with partial shade. The extra bonus of this is I know to cram new hellebores, lilies or daisies elsewhere.  It’s a place where neither I nor the squirrel-hunting dog walk often, so it’s working out all right so far.

I think the ideal thing would be to have a raised bed or planter where you could showcase these plants in season and shuffle it to a less prominent spot the other 347 days of the year. I squished two weensy sun-loving Globularia nudicaulis (a.k.a. naked-stalked globe daisy), which have almost navy-blue round pea-sized flowers in my railing box by the front door where I can keep an eye on it. I can’t wait for it to bloom again.

However, (you’ll be relieved to know) I have found a rationalization to add these tiny, blink-you-missed-them visions. The reason I strive for a four-season (or in Seattle’s weather, really something like a 16-season) garden is to appreciate all the notes and chord changes of nature’s annual symphony. Much like holiday celebrations, these garden highlights act as touchstones to the earth’s movement through the year. It makes me feel grounded to cook pumpkin pie in fall and pick fresh raspberries in summer.

So – despite my resolution to decrease the one-itis in my garden – I think adding more notes can only increase one’s mindfulness and connection to nature, for those who will take the time to do so. Thus, the two-week thrill of yellow Primula veris popping out from under my white-blooming Spirea “Ogon” is a hallmark of March’s crazy weather, reminds me to hunt for my variegated trillium to see if they survived living so close to the barbecue (it’s a high-traffic area), and to divide my snowdrop bulbs. Task-stacking, mindfulness and more plants – win-win-win!