March 23, 2011 — Now that snowdrops are up and blooming, I’m on the hunt for the first violets. Their basal foliage rings are already growing in sunny patches, and it takes only a day or two for them to send up fresh stems with flowers. Many forms and colours of sweet spring violets (both purchased and grown from seed) have passed through my garden but alas, only a few have stayed. Despite providing them with partial shade and consistent moisture, they’ve been unpredictable in choosing to settle down or move on. Although I provide what I believe violets need to grow and reproduce, they seem to require a fine balance of conditions on the ground and precise temperatures to succeed.
An example is the little Labrador violet (Viola labradorica, Zone 4) with unique black-flushed leaves and diminutive purple flowers. It’s early to bloom, and makes generous expanding mounds when satisfied. Despite being well within its hardiness range in my Zone 6 garden, Labrador violet just will not be satisfied. I have probably brought a dozen plants into the garden, but find only one or two each spring. I wish it could tell me what it wants!
Another disappointment is the reluctance of Johnny-jump-ups (V. tricolor, Zone 7), to produce seed here. This short-lived perennial is grown as an annual in cold regions. It’s a self-pollinating hermaphrodite, requiring only the jostling attentions of a bee to move pollen around in each flower. I’ve seen gardens with lawns of self-seeded Johnny-jump-up (taking over from thin grass) just two miles south of my location, but I can’t get a plant to set seed in my garden for even a token showing the following year. Ironically, Johnny-jump-up is a main breeding parent in the development of many annual violets and violas (marketed as pansies) sold each spring. Among its children is the Sorbet series of violas I plant in containers. The breeding trend in recent years has been to make smaller flowers in greater numbers on annual plants like pansies and petunias, and Sorbet violas are one of these reduced size and maximized flower count creations. And surprisingly, the Sorbet violas produce seed that lodges between paving stones for the winter, and sprouts the following spring. I tell you, it’s a mystery to me.
But perhaps I should focus on the successes and mention thick patches of the marsh violet (V. cucullata, Zone 5) that line the edge of a stone walk. I have two selections, the wine-red ‘Red Giant’ and purple-blue ‘Royal Robe’, both with heart-shaped leaves and a propensity to spread aggressively by exploding seed capsules. At the same time these were planted, I also brought in several pots of ‘White Czar’ marsh violet, with milky white flowers, a yellow centre and fine dark netting marks. These have almost disappeared, and only occasionally do I discover a white flower blooming among the red and blue marsh violets. My favourite perennial plant expert, Allen Paterson, has written that ‘White Czar’ is possibly a hybrid of the frost-tender Parma violet (V. odorata ‘Czar’, Zone 7), and those chilly, frost-vulnerable genes could account for the dwindling of white violets in my garden.
I’ve saved the best for last, and that is a healthy patch of the confederate violet (V. papilionacea, syn. V. sororia var. priceana, Zone 5). These sweet white flowers have a tracery of blue veins that bleed out into the petals, producing a shade of blue-grey resembling the coats of Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War. I remember them from many years ago in my grandmother’s Zone 7 New Jersey garden, and then was more recently surprised to see them in the Port Colborne, Ont., garden of a friend, Mary H. Mary was kind enough to give me some clumps, and I’ve been nurturing them in the shade of tall Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris). They’ve been returning reliably, and this spring I’ll move little clusters around to help them spread. Truthfully, I’ve never met a violet I didn’t like!
Early spring clean-up
With snow completely gone from the front garden, I was out on a fine sunny afternoon last week, cutting down the variegated ‘Morning Light’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, Zone 6) that stood so beautifully in last winter’s snow. Clumps of ornamental grasses begin to grow so early in spring, that if I wait until mid-April to cut down the old stand, I end up cutting off the tips of newly emerging shoots. I left a good scattering of wispy stems for the birds to gather for nest making, which cooing cardinals and scurrying robins indicate has already begun. While out there, I noticed almost no winter damage on rose canes, and in fact, they are showing red swellings where foliage buds will soon break.
Thanks for visiting with me at Making a Garden, and I hope you’ll stop by again next week.