Celebrate spring with these unique perennial ideas.


Pretty Perennials

Looking for something besides tulips to inspire you? In her woodland and rock gardens, this Wisconsin expert grows flowers that you may not recognize, but will want to try.

Springtime would last all year, if Jean Stevens could control the weather. She doesn't have anything against the other seasons. But Jean barely can wait to see fresh, young buds unfurling from her magnolia and redbud trees. Every day, green shoots of trilliums, epimediums and other unusual blooms nose up from the floors of the woodland and rock gardens that she tends in a rural neighborhood about 3 miles south of the western Wisconsin city of Eau Claire.

"It's just the best time of year there is," Jean says. "Every spring is a fresh beginning, when you can try something different."

Patches of the dark soil Jean enriched with compost and mulch still show between the many perennials in her gardens. The spare, controlled look of her spring garden delights Jean. She'd rather see the tidy, individual shape of each plant's leaves and flowers than the blowsy, full-grown look of the gardens later on.

But, like children, the plants don't stay young very long. A wine-colored stem of a sprouting peony soon turns thick and green, topped with full, pink blooms. You can see the ruby threads that stripe stems of Jean's astilbes. Those, too, soon disappear beneath the foliage and the frothy flower heads of the plants.

Jean, who's an Extension Service master gardener, works April through October designing and planting the flower beds at the Eau Claire Country Club. "In the summer, I garden at work all day. Then, I come home and do it until I go to bed," she says. "It's heaven!"

At home, Jean devotes most of her time to two parts of the yard. When walking through her woodland garden, you feel like you're in a forest, even though it's just steps from the two-story contemporary house Jean shares with her husband, Shad.

A Shady Site for Blooms

It's gardening on a grand scale: Jean's woodland garden runs the entire length of the property and about 75 feet deep. In spring, when the trees haven't leafed out, dappled light filters through. Clumps of blooming perennials paint the ground with dabs of yellow, white, purple and blue.

Instead of tulips, which herds of marauding deer love to chomp, Jean plants daffodils, which wild- life usually leave alone. She prefers white Thalia daffodils. "I don't like too many colors," Jean says. "When my garden is in full bloom later in the summer, the color is too busy for me."

A striking combination of bright-yellow celandine poppies, Virginia bluebells and white tril-liums seems so natural, you'd almost think that Mother Nature planted them there. Brunneras yield masses of tiny, blue flowers, each smaller than the tip of a pencil eraser, peeking out from heart-shaped, green leaves the size of your palm.

Trilliums, which grow wild in the woods, do well in moist, shady gardens such as Jean's. Their spiky, three-part petals grow in white, yellow and rosy pink above green or mottled-green foliage.

Many visitors to Jean's garden never have seen an epimedium. Also called barrenwort, this perennial grows about a foot tall, adding spikes of dainty flowers in a variety of colors such as yellow, pink or white. Long spurs tip the ends of some petals.

Rhododendrons in pinks and whites dot the pathway of bark mulch that meanders through the woods. At a tranquil spot, a bench joins a 3-foot statue of St. Francis.

Jean pushes her shovel into the crumbly soil to transplant a Glaucidium palmatum. The plant's floppy-petaled, lavender blooms about 3 inches wide open above green foliage resembling maple leaves. To find rare treasures such as this plant, she thumbs through specialty catalogs and haunts many nurseries. "I like to grow things people haven't seen before," Jean says.

Old-fashioned flowers such as peonies and irises still find homes here. But years ago, when the Stevenses lived in a house with a small, steeply sloped backyard, the site taught Jean something new.

Solutions for a Slope

"When I got introduced to rock gardening, it was like it opened up a whole world," Jean remembers. "The more plants I saw, and the more plants I was introduced to, the more addicted I became!"

In her sunny rock garden, which faces the northeast, Jean cultivates ground-hugging phlox in a soothing rangeof mauves, purples, whites and pinks. Pasqueflowers, with their hairy, nodding purple blossoms and fuzzy leaves, provide additional color and texture.

Euphorbia polychroma, also called cushion spurge, lights up the landscape with bright-yellow flowers and chartreuse leaves. Groups of pale-blue dwarf irises about 4 inches tall spread in larger patches every year. Once it's established, a rock garden doesn't need a lot of water.

For height in the garden, Jean adds dwarf conifers such as weeping larch and spruce, as well as yellow spirea. She uses buff-colored rock to mulch the spaces between plants, creating the spare, well-defined look she prefers.

Other areas of the yard bloom with roses, lilies and various perennials and annuals from summer through autumn frosts. Then, winter silently drapes the woods in snow. During the cold months, Jean combs through garden catalogs and plans all the changes she'll make next spring--the best time of the year.

Advice From the Gardener

  • Don't forget annuals. "These plants keep blooming at times perennials don't," Jean advises. "I love growing a combination of Verbena bonariensis, Nicotiana sylvestris (flowering tobacco) and purple cleome. They go together well and often re-seed themselves. I have a big bed where I mix peonies and Siberian iris. After the perennials are done, then the annuals take over."

  • Visit gardens that inspire you. "Even if you know there are things you're never going to be able to achieve with your money or your space," Jean says, "you usually can take away some ideas and make them work for you."

Where to Buy Plants

You can find some woodland and rock garden plants at local garden centers. To buy epimediums and Brunnera macrophylla: Shady Oaks (free catalog), Box 708, Waseca, MN 56093 (800/504-8006); Heronswood Nursery ($5 for a catalog), 7530 N.E. 288th St., Kingston, WA 98346 (360/297-4172). Also, Forest Farm ($5 for a catalog), 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544 (541/846-7269).

If you want to buy celandine poppies, as well as various trilliums: Forest Farm and Heronswood. To purchase Glaucidium palmatum: Heronswood. For pasqueflowers: Shady Oaks, Forest Farm.