We are in the second half of spring, which many people consider to be summer. May and June in central North Carolina offer endless opportunities for gardening, which made picking three plants for this article impossible.
Searching for a high-impact, native tree with bold foliage and fragrant flowers? Ashe’s Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla var. ashei) is what dreams are made of. This small understory tree has a pyramidal growing habit reaching 15 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Unlike the straight species, this variety will quickly develop flowers on low branches, allowing passersby to enjoy the fragrance up close and personal.
Though the blossoms are intoxicatingly fragrant and beautiful, it is the large showy leaves that really make this a standout specimen. With silver undersides, the foliage offers a tropical look even in shady locations.
Site in an area with consistently moist, rich soil as it suffers in extreme wet or dry conditions. Though it is tolerant of low light, best flowering occurs in bright exposure of 6-plus hours of direct sun.
Poppies and larkspur are easy annual flowers to grow from direct seeding in late fall, as they are cool season plants that develop tap roots, therefore they do not transplant well. They prefer full sun and moist, well-drained soil and grow all winter. As the days increase in length and the soil warms they burst into bloom, creating the ultimate cottage garden look.
I love all poppies, but I have a special devotion to the old-fashioned “bread seed” varieties, Papaver somniferum, that I was introduced to as an intern at Montrose Gardens over twenty years ago. They provide one of the most dynamic displays of late spring and I simply cannot imagine gardening without them. The soft-green lettuce-like foliage stands out while the flower stalks can reach up to 4 feet tall. Every stage of the poppy flower is noteworthy, from emergence to drying. Poppies offer architectural value and color while being an easy and inexpensive plant to fill in open areas of mulch space during the off season.
Fancied by a wide variety of pollinators, especially honeybees, the poppy flowers have a short duration of bloom but the vibrant colors are unmatched by any other plant. And after the petals fall, you can watch the seed head swell and ultimately dry. When the small “windows” open on the dried seed head, that is the sign that the seed is ripe and can be collected for the following year. Store your seed in the refrigerator for best germination in the fall.
The perfect complement to the poppy is my all-time favorite blue flower, larkspur, though you will find it comes in many colors. This tough as nails spring bloomer truly puts on a display like no other. The common name “larkspur” is a bit confusing as it is shared between the perennial Delphinium species and annual varieties which are technically in the genus Consolida, of which there are more than 50 species. I grow C. ajacis which is native to Eurasia and can be cultivated in zones 2-11 at various times of year.
Do not eat larkspur, as they are toxic to humans and livestock. However, that toxicity can be a great advantage to help deter deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. In my experience, this has never posed a problem for my house pets (cats and dogs) or the many children who interact in my garden. Adored by pollinators such as bees and butterflies, larkspur will reliably self-sow, making your job even easier. Be sure to allow your plants to fully dry out before removing them to ensure the seed is ripe.
Want to make the most of your square footage? Consider planting strawberries as a groundcover under blueberry bushes. This combo will provide an extended harvest while reducing maintenance like weeding and mulching. Both enjoy full sun and moist, well-drained soil, making them a match made in garden heaven.
Blueberries are the most remarkable edible, native shrub. The white flowers in spring attract bees, followed by the delicious fruits of summer. Brilliant red fall color provides ample interest, while the exfoliating bark on the multi stem branches adds winter appeal.
Plant at least three cultivars because blueberries are dioicous and need cross pollination from different varieties. My favorites for central North Carolina are ‘Climax’, Legacy’, and ‘Powder Blue’, all of which perform well in this zone 7-8 climate and match our average chill hours, meaning they won’t bloom too early.
Blueberry bushes are acid loving plants, like azaleas and camellias. Amend the soil surrounding the hole with ground, aged pine bark sold as soil conditioner. This will ensure a lower pH level which allows the plants to absorb micronutrients more efficiently. Apply an acid based organic fertilizer once a year for best growth and development.
Strawberries have long been a favorite evergreen groundcover of mine. They are one of the easiest fruits to grow and provide delicious harvests. Many new varieties are day neutral, meaning they flower and set fruit even through the long days of the summer and have bright pink or white flowers. ‘Chandler’ has been a reliable variety in my garden for more than a decade but look out for a new cultivar ‘Snowy Belle’ from Bushel and Berry. I grew this last year and harvested fruit every week from May to January.
Combined, blueberries and strawberries maximize your space and provide year-round beauty and bounty.
Brie Arthur is an author, horticulturist, and international speaker living in Fuquay-Varina, NC. She has been dubbed a revolutionary for her leadership in the suburban foodscape movement. For more information, visit BrieGrows.com or email Brie@BrieGrows.com.