Here's the view from the main entrance to the garden looking west. The path leads toward the shade garden, with a lilac and redbud tree in bloom on the left. In addition to its 2,500 trees, shrubs, and perennials, the Test Garden features 17,000 bulb plants, including the white daffodils in the foreground.
Test Garden manager Sandra Gerdes notes that the lilacs are blooming earlier and earlier. "You used to say they peaked on Mother's Day," she notes. "Now, many of them are in bloom on Tax Day [April 15]." Mount Baker lilac is an especially early variety with very fragrant single white flowers, and growing 10 to 12 feet tall.
There's an old "truism" that says gardeners never sit. Well, maybe they would sit if they had a comfortable bench, like this weathered beauty that sits in the Shade Garden. Even in spring, it's a dry spot to enjoy the redbuds in bloom and the emerging ferns. A simple flagstone path keeps visiting feet dry. Eastern redbud is a small woodland tree whose branches are flocked with tiny pink flowers in spring before the appearance of attractive heart-shaped leaves.
Spring doesn't have to be only about flowers. This 'Jack Frost' brunnera brightens the shade garden from spring until fall. The silvery leaves sport bright green veins. Dainty blue flowers in spring are the icing on the cake.
A second variety of brunnera -- 'Variegata' -- spreads out under the dappled light of the Shade Garden. Also called Siberian bugloss, brunnera is a hardy perennial that likes cool, moist, shady conditions. This well-behaved foliage star grows about a foot tall and about 2 feet across.
Located at the far west end of the Test Garden, weeping crabapple 'Louisa' is a stunning focal point in spring. Like most flowering crabs, Louisa's branches are completely obscured by the flowers, which are white tinged with pink. Very hardy and reliable, flowering crabs are a must for any northern garden.
Here's a close-up of the flowers on the 'Louisa' crabapple. The thin, weeping branches fall almost to the ground. Flowering crabs come in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and shapes, though most are relatively small or medium-sized -- perfect for home gardens.
What would spring be without tulips? The Test Garden gives rise to a wide variety each spring. Tulip 'Quebec' is a Gregii variety that grows about 14 inches tall and produces multiple flowers per bulb.
'Pink Impression' is a Darwin hybrid tulip that blooms mid-spring and reaches about 2 feet. Although many tulips should be replanted each year, 'Pink Impression' is a long-lasting variety that can be used like other perennials.
Another Darwin hybrid, Daydream's flowers start out yellow, then fade to orange as they mature. Most tulips are at their best in the North; Daydream is a good choice for Southern gardens, too.
Our walking tour of the Test Garden has reached the halfway point. Here's the view toward the main entry, which is at the midpoint on the south side of the garden. In the middle of the crab-ringed plaza, the fountain awaits the warmer weather. The tulips in the foreground are 'Daydream'.
Unlike home gardeners, Sandra can't afford to allow service areas to look anything but great. This photo, taken in back of the potting shed, shows one of the 'Emerald Green' arborvitae that line the north wall of the Garden, with evergreen periwinkle (Vinca minor) at its feet.
Though grown mostly for its shiny evergreen leaves, periwinkle produces pretty blue flowers in spring. This easy-to-grow groundcover does well in shade, forming a dense, 6-inch-tall mat of foliage that chokes out weeds.
This spring-y color combination is brought to you by blue periwinkle ('Sterling Silver' variety) and yellow waldsteinia. Like periwinkle, waldsteinia makes a great groundcover, with evergreen leaves that resemble a strawberry plant's foliage. It flowers in spring and early summer and is suited both to sun and partial shade.
Continuing around the oval, we've now reached the far eastern end of the garden. We are looking back toward the shed from the small pond. A cluster of Japanese maples adds a touch of spring color.
A bit farther down the path we come to the deck garden. (The small deck is to the right, out of camera range.) Backing up to a Japanese maple, this spring festival features red 'Parade' tulips, white daffodils, blue grape hyacinths, and the golden-green foliage of tansy. Note: although tansy sports attractive ferny foliage and summer-blooming yellow flowers, its leaves are poisonous.
Although many of the flowers of spring are brilliant red, yellow, and orange, Sandra makes certain to include colors from the cool side of the spectrum. Blue flowers, like these grape hyacinths (Muscari) are sprinkled throughout the garden to provide counterpoint to the hot colors of the tulips and daffodils.
Spring flowering windflowers (Anemone blanda) are another blue bloomer that look great paired with brighter blossoms. Although planted as bulbs (actually rootlike rhizomes), anemones will drop seed each year to spread throughout an area.
Yet another cool-color perennial, pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) gets its common name from the fact that it blooms around Passover. The large violet flowers are striking, especially when their fuzzy stems are lighted from behind. (Note: like tansy, pasque flower is poisonous, so not well suited to gardens with small children and pets.)
Another plant whose common name evokes a spring event, Lenten rose (Helleborus niger) features large, nodding white and purple flowers. Like its earlier-blooming cousin the Christmas rose, the Lenten rose is a reliable addition to any garden.
It's helpful to think beyond bulbs when planning a spring garden. Here, pinkish bergenia forms a pleasant contrast to 'Red Riding Hood' tulip. Bergenia, which also goes by the too-cute common name pipsqueak, tolerates even deep shade. Although hardy to Zone 3, its leaves may suffer winter damage in Zones 5 and colder.
We're now at the end of our tour. Even as spring is winding down and the daffodils and tulips are starting to fade, other plants are preparing for their day in the sun. This dwarf fothergilla will soon be covered with white, bottle-brush-shaped flowers. You can almost see them now, impatiently waiting to burst out of their buds.