Gardening Blog

Transitioning from late spring to early summer

It’s with a certain sadness that I bid adieu to the last daffodils to bloom in my garden. Known botanically as Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus (Zone 4), they bear flowers with small, red-rimmed golden cups (or coronas) that are surrounded by pure white recurved petals (known as perianth segments). Native to Switzerland and commonly called “old pheasant’s eye”, their blossoms are deliciously fragrant, and a perfect example of a genus going out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Apart from Switzerland, one of the best places to see old pheasant’s eye growing wild is in northern England, up to the Scottish Borders where—in a climate not unlike that of their homeland—they have naturalised over hundreds of years, and now cover entire hillsides. All you have to do is follow your nose, as you’re likely to smell their sweet scent before actually clapping eyes on their breathtaking flowers en masse. They’ll naturalise in Canada too (albeit more slowly), providing you let them set seed and allow their leaves to mature.

With just a little forethought and planning, it’s possible for gardeners who love daffodils to enjoy over two months of cheerful, sunny blooms that squirrels mostly ignore—unlike tulips! Bad-tasting and mildly toxic, most critters steer clear of Narcissus species and cultivars, which are largely pest- and disease-free. Several early-flowering cultivars bloom with the crocuses (‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’, ‘February Gold’, ‘Tête-à-Tête’ and ‘Jetfire’) and planting these varieties along with mid-season cultivars—and old pheasant’s eye, of course—will guarantee you up to three months of non-stop daffodils.

The seasonal end of one genus marks the beginning of another: Perfect “bridging plants” that transition us from late spring to early summer are the peonies—sentimental favourites that are well known for their lavish blooms and carefree habits.

The first peony to bloom in my garden is Paeonia ×smouthii (Zone 4), a hybrid between the fern-leaved peony (P. tenuifolia) and the common garden peony (P. lactiflora). Named after M. Smout, a Flemish chemist from Mechelen, Belgium, the cross was first introduced commercially in 1843.

Beautifully bridging the gap between spring and summer, this was one of only a dozen plants I brought to Beaverton when I moved here from Toronto nine years ago. Visitors are always surprised to see a peony that blooms at the same time as the daffodils.

Smout’s peony flowers at least four weeks before most common garden types, and precedes tree peonies by about two weeks, making it a perfect spring/summer transition plant. It’s seen here with the yellow foliage Tradescantia (Andersoniana Group) ‘Sweet Kate’ which will shortly erupt with navy blue flowers, and Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’.

The “Play Column” (top right) by Coburg, Ontario, artist Marika Lugas is planted with blue and white clematis, hybridised by the brilliant Raymond Evison, OBE, VMH. Raymond and his family were incredibly kind to me and my Flower Power (HGTV) crew when we were “stranded” on Guernsey (Channel Islands) due to bad weather 10 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.

Next time, we’ll look at several other shrubs and flowers that take us smoothly from spring to summer, like this lovely bridal-wreath spirea (Spiræa ×vanhouttei, Zone 4), first introduced in 1862 and widely planted across Canada. Considered low-brow by some gardeners—possibly due to its vigour and resistance to pests—when pruned correctly so that it’s fountain-like habit is accentuated, it’s a beautiful thing.

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