Three Early Spring Favorites in the Rock Garden at Chatfield Farms

March 15, 2023 Horticulture Department

Gardens are especially exciting in the early spring. While much of the landscape remains dormant, bulbs erupt in vibrant displays of life that fill us with anticipation of the transition of seasons. Spring in Colorado is erratic, often filled with wintry weather and deceivingly warm days. Months before it is safe to plant tender annual flowers, there are bulbs that flourish in the chaos of our spring.  

Rock gardens provide a perfect sanctuary for these determined little flowers, and there are bulbs that thrive in every habitat, from dry and exposed gritty spaces to shaded woodland environments.  

Lenten rose, snowdrops, dwarf iris, cyclamen and crocus all begin to bloom late in winter. These are followed in the early spring by daffodils, hyacinths, anemones and pasqueflowers. Eventually we see ornamental onions, grape hyacinths and tulips. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does include a few of my favorite varieties blooming this time of the year:

  • Helleborus angustifolius. The dark, evergreen leaves are a foundation plant in the rock garden. Its pale green flowers bloom throughout the late winter and cool spring. It reseeds sporadically throughout the garden, which is a welcome gift for an ever-changing garden. Typically, 1 to 1.5 feet tall and wide, it is large for a rock garden plant, but smaller than most woody foundation plants, and offers a different color and texture than other evergreens in the rock garden. It performs best in shade to part-shade areas that hold a bit more moisture.  
  • Iris reticulata. Most of the dwarf cultivars come from the reticulate species of Iris, but there are many similarly early flowering and dwarfed species. These bulbs perform exceptionally in well-drained, sunny locations. They’ll bloom for several weeks in February or March depending on the weather. Beloved by bees, these flowers also hold up in snowstorms. 
  • Tulipa humulis. The best tulips for rock gardens are called species tulips. Tulipa humulis is just one of many ‘species tulips’ that are perfect in a rock garden. They are later blooming, in April and May, when the threat of snow and frost still looms.   

Bulbs inspire the feeling that spring has come, offering a new and fresh start. Hold on to that inspirational feeling; the bulbs you see in the early spring are best planted in fall. Not much else in gardening is as satisfying as experiencing the bulbs you planted last year emerge and signal the transition of seasons.   


This article was contributed by Erik Howsharhorticulturist at Chatfield Farms.


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