Pleasurable Pairings for Spring

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Annual violas and a hosta I selected called “Carolyn’s Malex II” in a glazed strawberry pot that belonged to my grandfather.  There is a different miniature hosta in each of the 16 pockets, and it stays out all winter with no problems for the pot or the hostas.  Don’t you love the little faces on the violas?

Over the years, through trial and error, I have discovered some fail safe pairings for the spring shade garden.  These plant couples look great together while thriving in the same cultural conditions.  Their flower and leaf colors and textures and their habits compliment each other to make pleasing combinations.  Plus they are all easy to grow, requiring no watering, staking, or general fussing after they are established in good organic soil in part to full shade.

Hostas that come up early in the spring, especially miniature hostas, play nicely with almost every plant and are extremely easy to grow:

This pairing is one of my favorite color combinations in the garden.  Hosta montana ‘Aureomarginata’ comes up much earlier than other large hostas.  Its bright green and yellow leaves serve as the perfect backdrop for the orange and yellow flowers of Epimedium x warleyense.

Almost all my miniature hostas come out in time to join the blooming epimediums.  Here is Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Tama No Gempei’ with Hosta ‘Little Wonder’, but you could choose any epimedium and any miniature hosta for a delightful contrast.

A great full shade combination: Hosta ‘Emerald Tiara’ and Japanese woodland primrose, Primula sieboldii (purple form), thrive under my coral bark maple.  Japanese woodland primrose is a mat-forming primrose for full, dry shade not to be confused with Japanese primrose, Primula japonica, which requires moist conditions.

Annual violas and Hosta ‘Crumb Cake’ in a container that stays out all winter.  Small containers are a great way to display choice miniature hostas.

Another plant whose early spring color goes with just about anything is Spiraea japonica ‘Magic Carpet’.  I think I would take this shrub to a dessert island if I had to choose because its deep peach leaves are so gorgeous (and it has fabulous fall color too):

Dwarf spiraea, Spiraea japonica ‘Magic Carpet, with Italian arum, Arum italicum, and PA (Pennsylvania) native coral bells, Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’.  This is a year round combo because the arum and coral bells remain ornamental through the winter and the spiraea is a solid three-season plant.

‘Magic Carpet’ contrasts nicely with the color and texture of gold-leafed old-fashioned bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis ‘Goldheart’.  At first I didn’t like the idea of gold and pink together but with careful pairing ‘Goldheart’ is magnificent.

You can see some of the gold tones starting to emerge in the new leaves on this ‘Magic Carpet’, which is farther from the house.  It looks great with the dark red sedums in this strawberry jar, which also overwinters outside.

‘Magic Carpet’ even pairs well with spider webs.  Every spring I come out one morning to find all the spiraeas covered with webs.

Here are some more great combinations for early spring:

I think that PA native Celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, goes with everything in spring, but it looks especially beautiful with PA native Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica.

I am always captivated by the color combination of the buds of Burkwood viburnum, V. x burwoodii ‘Mohawk’, and the flowers of old-fashioned bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis.  ‘Mohawk’ has fantastic fragrance and spectacular orange-red fall color too.  It is a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society gold medal plant.

The airy bronze foliage and yellow flowers of fern-leafed corydalis, Corydalis cheilanthifolia, perfectly compliment the flower color of this 18th century heirloom primrose, Primula x polyantha ‘Old Brick Reds’.

Pulmonarias (lungwort) go with just about anything too:

The early blue flowers and narrow silver leaves of Pulmonaria ‘Diana Clare’ with the abundant pink flowers and silver-striped leaves of Lamium maculatum ‘Shell Pink’, which blooms from April until November and has evergreen foliage.  Pulmonarias also keep their beautiful leaves well into the winter.

I have collected over 25 varieties of pulmonaria, but then I let them self sow all over my garden with glorious results.  Above is a pink seedling pulmonaria with very rare Helleborus dumetorum subsp. atrorubens, but any red flowered hybrid hellebore would complete the pair.

More seedling pulmonarias paired with a purple strain of Lamium maculatum ‘Shell Pink’.

PA native wild ginger, Asarum canadense, and PA native dwarf Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans, carpet my woodlands in early spring.  Together they produce a subtle and peaceful beauty.

I never thought of cushion spurge, Euphorbia polychroma, as a shade plant but it actually thrives in quite a bit of shade: here with hybrid hellebore, H. x hybridus ‘Metallic Blue Lady’.  I also love the cushion spurge cultivar ‘Bonfire’ with red leaves.

I think this is one of the most beautiful combinations in my early spring garden, and it took me over 50 attempted photographs to capture it on film!  Siberian bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla,  cowslip primrose, Primula veris, and spring starflower, Ipheion uniflorum.

Same as above with Ajuga reptans ‘Metallica’.

I will finish my spring combinations with something for all you sunny gardeners: white stonecrop, Sedum album, with tulip ‘Little Princess’.

I hope I have given you some ideas for creative combinations to add to your spring garden.  Please leave a comment/reply with some favorite pairs from your own garden.


Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: My second annual Great Hosta Blowout is going on right now.  For details, click here.  Look for Carolyn’s Shade Gardens at the Bryn Mawr Farmer’s Market on Saturday, May 7, from 9 am to 1 pm .  My next open house sale is Saturday, May 14, from 10 am to 3 pm.

65 Responses to “Pleasurable Pairings for Spring”

  1. NWPhilly Eric Says:

    Are all these photos taken this year? I’m especially surprised that the two types of Lamium are blooming this early since my old-fashioned lavender pink blooming variety with mostly white leaves waits until late may to start blooming.
    Some of my favorite combos right now:
    – A colorful trio of Brunnera, Stylophorum diphyllum and Pink Bleeding heart.
    – Tall Leucojum surrounded by a carpet of yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon.
    – Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ with its dark red stems, purplish leaves from 2010 and charteuse inflorescense, together with a pink-flowering fern leaf Dicentra. eximia.

    • Eric, Every photo was taken this year, in fact, this week. Lamium ‘Shell Pink’ is the best lamium because it starts blooming early in April and doesn’t stop until December. Other lamiums, though quite lovely, just have their 6 weeks of bloom in mid-spring. Your combinations sound stunning. I love brunnera and Celandine poppy. Euphorbia ‘Purpurea’ doesn’t grow like it’s supposed to here, but I saw it at a friend’s house on Easter, and it was stunning. My Leucojum is heavenly this year. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your spring pairings. Carolyn

  2. Oh dear, every time I read your blog I come away with yet more plants I would love to grow. This time it is Primula sieboldii and Spiraea japonica ‘Magic Carpet – the latter even seems to prefer clay soil, that I could do… And of course don’t get me started on the epimediums… Some lovely ideas again.

  3. Beautiful! What’s your trick on overwintering pots in philly? I have had mixed results.

    • Kelly, The strawberry pots, which are both glazed, just sit exactly where they are all winter. If it is going to get really cold, I sometimes put the really small pots on my potting bench in the unheated garage, but I usually forget. Terra cotta will crack if left outside. Glazed pots do fine, but you have to be using plants that don’t mind having their roots frozen like hosta or Solomon’s seal. Carolyn

  4. I like the miniature Hostas, I’ve never seen them here. They are acttually very tollerant of dry conditions as long as they have enough shade. One of my favourites at present is just foliage. Heuchera, Hostas and Salamon Seal. Thanks you for the ideas.

  5. I kept thinking “Oh, this is my favorite”, then I would see a new combination and have to change my mind! Way too many favorites! All beautiful. I have never thought of putting hostas in planters – thanks for the idea!

    • Holley, Hostas actually grow faster in containers over the winter than they do in the ground. ‘Praying Hands’, the 2011 Hosta of the Year, looks fabulous in a container and doubles in size every year. Miniature hostas can be displayed for easy viewing in containers. I have an antique trough that holds my mouse ears collection: Blue Mouse Ears, Holy Mouse Ears, Frosted Mouse Ears, Green Mouse Ears, Mighty Mouse, and Mouse Trap. It looks very cute. Carolyn

  6. Carolyn these are stunning…I love the hosta “Crumb Cake” with those violas

    • Donna, ‘Crumb Cake’ is a miniature hosta introduced last year. It really has an unusual habit and leaf shape and a great color so I decided to display it in a small pot. I also planted two in the ground last spring, and they look beautiful this year. Carolyn

  7. What a timely post. I’ve spent the last few days contemplating plants for new flower beds and trying to picture various colours together and here are some lovely photos that just made the job easier. I love seeing other people’s choices of planting combinations as there’s always something I wouldn’t have thought of. The bright chartreuse hosta with the orange and purple violas is really eye catching.

    • Marguerite, ‘Crumb Cake’ seems to have been a big hit. My favorite colors in the garden are orange, purple, and chartreuse so that container is tops for me. I also have a whole terrace in my gardens dedicated to these colors. I used to not think much of theme gardens, but it really does help me focus my design and gives cohesion to the plants. Carolyn

  8. Such beautiful combinations! My Lamium is just starting to bloom.

  9. You have many wonderful combos and I am quite stunned at how well into spring all your plants are at this time. Hosta up here is barely even visible. I miss so many of these plants.

    • Donna, Hosta just came up and just the early emerging varieties. Now we are in the middle of unseasonably hot weather and everything is flying out of the ground and going by. We still had daffodils until yesterday, which is very late. I much prefer the cool wet spring we were having. Carolyn

  10. Too many wonderful combinations to comment on individually, but you have certainly provided inspiration. I love your blue strawberry jar! I am also delighted to discover there is a woodland primrose that doesn’t need so much moisture! I really hope I can get them to grow for me, as they are so beautiful!

    • Deb, Japanese woodland primrose grows in huge patches under my American hornbeam whose umbrella like canopy repels the water and whose extensive surface roots suck up any water that makes it through. This is definitely a primrose for full dry shade. And you won’t believe the colors and flower shapes available. You can order it from Arrowhead Alpines (local customers can get it from me). It goes dormant in July. Carolyn

  11. Very nice combinations. My favourite combination in my own garden (and iit was just by luck) is Apricot Beauty tulips and purple muscari. They have bloomed at exactly the same time for the last two years.

  12. I won’t be growing the beautiful plants you have but I enjoy looking at the way you combine them. They are all stunning. The magic carpet and red sedum definitely stood out in the blue jar.

  13. Wow, this post is proof that hard work in the garden has its rewards. You must have a green/pink/purple/blue/orange/yellow thumb! All of your plants look very healthy, and the combinations are quite thoughtful. Like you, I love the little faces on the violas. The Epimedium you have gives wonderful-looking blooms. I also love the idea of taking Spirea “Magic Carpet” to a desert island!

    • Kate, There would have to be a lot of other plants on the dessert island besides ‘Magic Carpet’ for me to be happy, but it is such a great shrub. Beleive it or not, I work extremely hard but the garden itself is very low maintenance. Carolyn

  14. You can’t beat the Virginia Bluebells/Celandine Popply combo, I just the blue and yellow.

  15. Carolyn I had no idea there were so many different pulmonarias and lamiums, I have a yellow flowered varigated leaved lamium that was given me (so no idea of name) and it’s been in flower 2 weeks or more now, my fav of your pairings is the blue and yellow of the celendine and bluebell, really like your strawberry pot, Frances

    • Frances, Lamium does not come in yellow so you must have yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon. Unless you have the clump-forming ‘Herman’s Pride’, this is a plant that is extremely invasive in the mid-Atlantic US. If you were one of my customers, I would be advising you to dig it all up and dispose of it in the trash ASAP. Maybe it doesn’t behave that way in Scotland. Carolyn

      • thanks Carolyn, I was given the yellow flowered varigated leaved plant to use as a ground cover, it has been in nearly 3 years and has not travelled very far but is doing nicely and it doesn’t crowd out other plants, the primroses still come up too, the flower isn’t much it’s the leaves that make it a nice plant and they appear to be evergreen, here anyway, I didn’t know what it was and I posted a photo on my blog last year and other people told me it was lamium, I’ll see if I can find the link, thanks anyway, Frances
        p.s. photo from my blog if the link works:

      • Frances, It is definitely Lamiastrum galeobdolon, yellow archangel. Carolyn

      • I just did a search for ‘yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon.’ and found a webpage with photo it says > Fast-growing perennial ground cover that may be either trailing or upright depending on conditions. Yellow archangel, also known as yellow Lamium, < and it looks like the plant I have, where it is it has room to spread so I will keep an eye on it, thanks for the info, Frances

      • Frances, Just so my mid-Atlantic readers don’t get any ideas about planting this plant. Frances lives in Scotland, and it doesn’t appear to be invasive there. Do not plant this plant in the mid-Atlantic. You will never get rid of it. Carolyn

      • islandthreads Says:

        Carolyn is right please do not plant in north america, when I did the search on the plant I found websites with horror stories about it’s invasiveness in north america, I am going to keep an eye on mine here in Scotalnd UK and if it looks like it could be getting out of control it will all come out,
        Carolyn many thanks as always for your help, Frances

  16. Thank you for the intro to Primula sieboldii and the celadine poppy… I have quite a bit of dry shade, since we are on a hill, and those would be lovely introductions.

    And I understand – it can be difficult to do the most beautiful areas of our gardens justice with the camera!


  17. You’ve got some great combos here and have given me some good ideas.

  18. You certainly are a master at plant combinations. There were many I liked, especially the orange/purple violas with the hosta in the pot. I think it is their cheerful faces that attract me. The orange spirea is stunning – I don’t think I have seen it up here. A favorite combo of mine is red bleeding heart with virginia bluebells. Add a uvularia and it is very bright for spring.

    • Patty, All the commentary on ‘Crumb Cake’ with the violas has validated my decision that this was a special enough hosta to feature in a container. ‘Magic Carpet’s’ leaves fade to gold with orange highlights during the summer and then go back to orange in the fall. The bleeding-hear/VA bluebells/bellwort combo sounds wonderful. Carolyn

  19. Hey, I’m just back from 10 days in the UK and can’t believe how busy you’ve been on your blog! These pairings are all lovely (although as you know I am not a huge fan of heuchera!) – I particularly like the Jacob’s ladder and wild ginger together.
    A new favourite Spring pairing for me was one I saw last week at the RHS gardens in Wisley (which were at their peak of Spring flowering). Sadly I didn’t get the specific plant names but the duo was a beautiful dusky peony (maybe ‘May Music’) with an epimedium, perhaps ‘Pink Elf’, that picked up the colour in the peony flower. These are probably my two favourite flowers, but I had never thought about them in combination before.

    • Jill, I am glad you mentioned the Jacob’s ladder and ginger combo. I love its subtle beauty and soothing colors. I would never think of a peony and epimedium together because of the size difference but I bet it was quite beautiful. I would love to see a photo. Carolyn

  20. Louise Thompson Says:

    Dicentra ‘Goldheart’ with Mertensia virginica behind it: yummy!

  21. Everything is so beautiful!! You truly have a spring garden. My pink lamium is just starting to bloom but I don’t think my gorgeous varigated brunnera is coming back this year. Last summers heat/drought must have been too much. I really like the ginger and Jacob’s Ladder together.

  22. What great combos. You are the only gardener I have seen who uses Magic Carpet to the extent it should be. I try to steer customers to it, but many avoid orange in their garden, which is their loss as far as I’m concerned.

    • Les, Orange and purple, separately and together, are my favorite colors in the garden (aside form green). My ‘Magic Carpet’ combo also includes Hypericum ‘Briggadoon’ and lots of alliums. I just love its deep peachy color. Carolyn

  23. A red frangipani and a pink one are waiting for your collection. 🙂

  24. These are all amazing combinations–thanks for the great ideas! I have Cushion Spurge in the shade here, too, but never thought about putting it next to the Hellebores. What a great pairing! By the way, I planted your Galanthus today and will keep you posted on their progress. I gave them a little water, and we’ll have rain tomorrow, so they should be all set. Thanks so much!

    • So glad you got the snowdrops you won, and they are safely planted. I think my cushion spurge planted itself next to my hellebore, and I contributed to the combination by leaving it alone. Some of the best pairings are achieved by not trying to control your garden as I am sure you know. Carolyn

  25. Carolyn you have a great eye for marrying plants together. Too many wonderful combinations to comment on individually but I love the yellow/blue palettes of celandine poppies and bluebells. Hostas and epidiums are both a colour and texture contrast – the delicate with the sturdy. Have a soft spot for containers so adored the hosta in the strawberry pot idea and the way the sedums oozing out. A joy of a post – thank you

  26. I so enjoyed your post-each picture was an absolutely beautiful mix of plants!!

  27. I love your pairings Carolyn. I especially like the ones with Hosta. We are fond of Hosta with hardy Geraniums or Astilbe. I haven’t been so fond of Pulmonaria in the garden in the past, yours look great, I am often told to try Blue Ensign, are you fond of this one.

    • Alistair, ‘Blue Ensign’ is a very unusual pulmonaria because the leaves are plain dark green without spots and the flowers are cobalt blue instead of pink and blue. I grow it and like it, but if you want that look, ‘Benediction”, if you can get it, is a superior plant with even deeper blue flowers and more refined leaves with just a few spots. Carolyn

  28. Thanks for the information on Pulmonaria Carolyn, I will look out for Benediction.

  29. Nancy R. Newman Says:

    Is it possible to visit your gardens? I am a member of the Wissahickon Garden Club and would love to talk with you about spring plantings. My garden is on a tour in late April and I would love to discuss…

    • Nancy, I am a retail plant nursery so you can visit and talk with me while you shop for plants. You can make an appointment to shop or you can attend an event. My last event before I close for the summer is the weekend of June 16, hours TBD. If you sign up for my customer email list by emailing me your phone number, you will get notification of all events. Contact information is on the right sidebar of my website. Thanks, Carolyn

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