Mid-spring is a dynamic time when plants emerge from the ground so quickly it's hard to keep track. Turn around and the bleeding hearts are dangling their pink lockets next to the blue-green leaves of giant blue hosta, with a robust clump of ‘Munstead Blue' lungwort nearby and several Japanese painted ferns for artistic punctuation. It's interesting how a subtle plant such as the painted fern, with its grey-green fronds and low stature, can appear drab on its own but becomes elegant when accompanied by companions.
Because I'm very fond of ferns, I love to combine a cluster of maidenhair ferns—their wire-thin stems suspending trembling little leaflets—with the burgundy-centred leaves and tiny white flowers of ‘Dark Eye' foam flower, and highlighted by pale blue ‘Dirigo Ice' woodland phlox. Lovers of summer phlox will be enamoured with this early-blooming species (available in shades of white, pale blue, lavender and purple), which makes an excellent groundcover in a woodland garden, where it will spread by creeping rhizomes to form loose mats.
One of my favourite groundcovers is Siberian bugloss, which blooms in May in my garden, with winking blue forget-me-not flowers that rise above broad heart-shaped leaves. (The variegated forms are intriguing, most especially the green-and-pewter-coloured ‘Jack Frost', but these have more value as ornamentals than as functional groundcover.) Siberian bugloss, adaptable to sun or shade, forms wide clumps of handsome leaves that remain in good condition into fall. I like to combine this plant with something bright, such as Bath's cheddar pinks, and the ferny leaves and unusually large flowers of ‘Ivory Hearts' fringed bleeding heart. (The finely cut foliage of this perennial and lacy petals of cheddar pinks are stylish contrasts to the broadleaf bugloss.) Unlike its larger common cousin, this cultivar excels in a sunny position in moist soil, and keeps up its floral display throughout the summer.
The late-spring plant everyone wants is purple gas plant, which is reputedly so difficult to grow that few make the attempt. More's the pity because it's really just slow to establish, but then it's long-lived. (The plant's lemony volatile oils are said to be combustible, but that miracle remains to be witnessed in my garden.) The gas plant's tall, pink-purple flower spikes are gorgeous next to its soulmate, the shell pink peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt', with its deeply fragrant, double flower heads that tower above its foliage. The artistic tension in this duo springs from the harmonious pink hues, which are offset by the contrasting blossom forms: the tall spikes of the gas plant and round globes of the peony.
I like to be a bit provocative and set a chartreuse cat among these pink pigeons by adding my favourite spring plant, the acid-chartreuse cushion spurge. This specimen is a real eye-opener. As the season progresses, its bracts turn a pleasant blue-green that provide outstanding, long-lasting colour until November.