Spring comes earlier when gardens are planted with early-season shrubs

Signs of spring regrowth and new life are slowly poking through in Colorado. Hold tight; the plant world is just warming up.

In the next several weeks, nature begins opening the curtain on early-riser trees, shrubs, perennials and the many varieties of bulbs that were planted last fall.

Take photos of plants that catch your eye so they are remembered when buying new plants this year. Notice where they are growing and, if your landscape conditions are similar, they might be a good fit in your garden as well.

If you plant them this year, spring will arrive sooner in your garden next year.

This is a short list. Ask your knowledgeable garden center professional for help with other plants that match your growing conditions.

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (cornus mas)

Cornus mas grows as a large shrub or small tree (20-foot), and is very adaptable to Colorado growing conditions. Pretty, rounded clusters of bright yellow flowers pop open in late winter to early spring (often mid-March in Denver) before leaves emerge. Bees are grateful for the early season blooms.

Medium green leaves appear later in spring, followed by dark red edible but sour-tasting fruits that mature in mid-summer. Two trees will help with fruiting. Fall leaf color ranges from green, yellow to purple while winter exfoliating bark adds even more seasonal interest.

Plant Cornelian Cherry Dogwood in full sun to afternoon shade locations in average to well-drained soil. It has medium water requirements and suffers few insect and disease issues when properly grown. Use as a specimen plant or as a hedge for screening.

Another early spring blooming tree to look for is Redbud (Cercis canadensis spp.), commonly called Eastern Redbud. Nothing will stop you in your tracks like a blooming redbud tree with its electric rose-purple flowers that bloom on bare branches in April to May. This is a perfect understory, or small yard tree, since it only reaches about 20-30 feet in height with similar spread. Plant in average to well-drained soil in sun to afternoon shade locations. Beautiful heart-shaped leaves turn a pleasant yellow color in fall. Grow them in groups, shrub borders and near patios.

Pawnee Butte Sand Cherry (prunus besseyi “Pawnee Buttes”)

Can a low-growing, ground-covering shrub have it all? Yes, this low-maintenance, drought-tolerant shrub discovered near Pawnee Buttes in Weld County provides year-round interest. Pawnee Butte Sand Cherry stands 18 inches tall and 4 feet wide. It starts out with loads of fragrant white flowers in April that attract bees and butterflies and later in fall produces black cherries that wildlife adore. The small leaves turn a showy purple-red in fall. Prunus besseyi is a valued selection from Plant Select, meaning it’s tough as nails and attractive in any landscape. Plant in sun to partial shade and well-drained soil. Plant on slopes, rock gardens and front of the border.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora or alnifolia or canadensis) is another early riser shrub to consider. Their early- to mid-spring white blooms aren’t the only reason to grow them. The edible blueberry-like fruit is delicious, but you’ll have to compete with robins and other birds for the ripe berries. Serviceberries grow well in our soil conditions, are very cold-hardy, drought-resistant and have splendid red to orange fall leaf color. Depending on the cultivar, sizes range from 10 to 20 feet tall.

Hellebore or Lenten Rose (helleborus spp.)

One group of evergreen, long-lived, durable and deer-resistant perennials that bloom early are must-haves for shady gardens. After the first of the year, they can bloom as soon as a few weeks in mild winters or later in a cold year. Hellebore is another plant loved by bees as an early pollen source. The cup-shaped, rose-like nodding flowers come in many colors, from red, pink, maroon, yellow, cream to white to near black. Seed packets with mixed colors are available, too; seeded plants usually take a few years to get established.

Hellebores grow from 1 to 2 feet and prefer moist, well-drained soil in shady and wind-protected sites. They re-seed easily, which is great because the more hellebores the better.

Pasque Flower, Easter Flower and Meadow Anemone (pulsatilla patens)

One of our very own Rocky Mountain wildflowers, pasque flower, is a sure sign of spring when the snow starts to melt in the foothills. It grows from 6 to 12 inches with fuzzy, crocus-like lavender flowers; the seed head is a beautiful, ornamental feathery plume. Cultivated, larger versions of pasque flower (pulsatilla vulgaris) are readily available in garden centers and online. They come in more colors including white, violet, and crimson red. Plants remain attractive through the summer, although the leaves may die down.

Plant pasque flower in full sun and well-drained soil. It is quite drought-tolerant once established. Avoid heavy fertilization. Unfortunately, deer like this plant. Plant with spring blooming bulbs and place in front of a sunny border and rock gardens.

Harriett McMillan, horticulture specialist at Echter’s Nursery and Garden Center in Arvada, says that spring blooming “bread and butter plants in the landscape shouldn’t be overlooked. Durable and dependable plants have their place among newer plants on the market.”

These include candy tuft (Iberis sempervirens), an evergreen, low-growing, full-sun-loving perennial. The bright white spring blooms are eye-catching and the lush dark green foliage is tidy and slow spreading the rest of the year.

Basket of Gold (aurinia saxatilis) is a reliable, medium-sized plant for borders and draping over walls and rocks. It has vivid yellow blooms in early spring and pleasing gray foliage. Basket of gold is very drought tolerant and will grow in practically any hot, sunny location. It is deer resistant, too. (Careful, though: This plant likes to seed everywhere if the seed heads aren’t removed.)

McMillan also points to vinca minor, known as common periwinkle, and touts its reliability as a “grass turf replacement for no-traffic shady areas. It’s an evergreen groundcover with a tough nature that has few disease and insect problems.” Vinca minor grows tiny, lavender blue flowers in early May.

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