This winter was a long one for many of us, which has made the onset of spring particularly exciting. In this month’s post, we suggest ways to add interest to the garden when warm season grasses are still dormant or just emerging. Spring flowering bulbs, sedges, and cool season grasses can fill the gap until soil and air temperatures warm and the garden gets going.
Spring Flowering Bulbs
Last year, we decided to plant hundreds of bulbs around our landscape. We concentrated them in areas with large grass plantings that cover the ground in summer through early winter. Those spots can feel bare when the grasses are cut back. The earliest flowering bulbs will often peek out of the ground before the grasses are cut back. These early bulbs fill in quickly and provide a link in the succession of blooms and interest across the season.
We worked with Brent Heath of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia. He loves to pair grasses and sedges with bulbs, and he sent us a curated selection. We received the shipment in November and planted them mid-December. Most spring-flowering bulbs are best planted in fall, but here in the Southeast we can plant quite late.
In the South, Daffodils (Narcissus) are reliable performers and look fantastic in masses. Early bloomers like ‘Surfside’, ‘Las Vegas’, and ‘Marieke’ are favorites. Crocus, with their grasslike foliage, mingle well with sedges and other cool-season growers. Crocus tommasinianus is a small, yet powerful addition. It naturalizes and helps crowd out early weeds. Other naturalizers like Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and Star Flower (Ipheion uniflorum) also form colonies that fill gaps.
Although Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Winter Aconite (Eranthis) don’t do as well for us here, they are strong and reliable in cooler climates. Corydalis species and cultivars are great choices, too. You can find varieties that are blue, along with a range from yellow to red. They give an early pop of color, and their foliage helps cover bare ground and suppress weeds. Depending on where you’re located, different bulbs may be more suitable. The foliage of later-blooming varieties may persist into spring, but resist cutting them back. Other forbs and grasses usually push through the spent foliage and cover it.
Sedges and Cool Season Grasses
In addition to bulbs, sedges (Carex) and cool season grasses bridge the spring gap. Their photosynthetic processes are most efficient at cooler temperatures. They break domancy and grow early in the spring before the full heat of summer hits. Here in the South, many emerge in March, and by mid-to-late April are full and lush.
We really love sedges for spring interest. Most people use Carex for its foliage and functional qualities, but the blooms are worth noticing. The flowers differ from grasses and offer unique, intricate structures. Carex divulsa (Grassland Sedge) shows lush growth and charming blooms early for us in the Southeast. By late April, it’s already grabbing attention.
Carex grayi (Gray’s Sedge) is a favorite with our garden team. The blooms and seedheads of this North American native are remarkable. We have Gray’s Sedge planted in one of the bioswales near a greenhouse—what an eyecatcher! Carex rosea (Rosy Sedge) has some of the cutest blooms of all the sedges we grow. The flowering stems extend out over the foliage, which makes them stand out. It can take a season or two after planting to see and enjoy a full set of blooms, but it is worth the wait!
Carex bicknellii (Bicknell’s Sedge) is another wonderful native Carex, and is one of our “all-arounders.” It does well in dry to moist soils and isn’t fussy, probably because it lives in prairies as well as in rocky areas. It has small, intricate flowerheads that are distinctive among the sedges we grow.
Grasses have many advantages, but including warm season varieties means there’s a slow time. In garden areas with warm season grasses, layer with spring-flowering bulbs, sedges, and cool season grasses to give your spring garden a boost.
In Landscape Journal, we’ll show you our gardens and share our experiences in landscape management. We’ll also introduce you to or reacquaint you with some great, garden-worthy grasses. And you can help guide us toward answering your questions.
Intentionally setting fire to a landscape can seem counterproductive. But it’s a useful tool for managing forests, prairies, meadows, and other grasslands. Many of these ecosystems need periodic fire—historically caused by lightning—to set seed and reduce competition from woody species. Fire-adapted species play a key role.