Don't let a little five-letter word - frost - stop you from planting. The frost-free date for southeast Michigan is May 12, and May 16 for northwest Ohio, according to the National Weather Service. I can see why you are a bit leery, because in practice the danger of frost usually continues into late May. After an early Mother's Day, you can do some digging with confidence.
Before you hit some of the local plant sales, find that drawing you did of your yard. If you don't have one, now is a good time to get a piece of paper and a sharp pencil and draw a map of your landscape as it is right now. Include the sidewalks, deck, driveway, and trees that won't move. Then, make a few copies of just the "hardscape layout" and set them aside. That bare-bones map lets me dream big and work out plans. If you don't like what you have dreamed up, or it has gotten out of your budget range, you can crumple one of the copies and start over again.
With that drawing in hand, pencil in the shrubs and flower beds you already have growing. If you know the names of the plants, jot them down, too. If not, a simple description such as "pink bush" works well. It's a good idea to make notes of when things flower. If you know the pink bush flowers in the spring, but is done by late summer, then you might want to plant something around the base of it that flowers later in the summer. Got it? That's the beauty of gardening. You try to find combinations that will keep your garden in bloom from spring until late fall.
This is what you "have." Now, you need to make a list of what you don't have. Let the map be your guide. You may need a medium plant that flowers in the fall, or a tall spring bloomer for the back of your garden, close to the house. With a new landscape, you will need plants with some structure, such as tall native grasses, shrubs, and trees. Take this wish list with you when you go plant shopping and head straight for the Master Gardener to help find the right plant for your garden.
Need some ideas for that planting list? Well, as you know, I am usually full of them. If you need structure, put some of your landscape budget into native grasses. They fill in nicely and don't require a lot of water or work on your part. You may have to divide them in three or four years, but get some help from the person who will be receiving the gift. I like Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii. It gets up to seven feet tall and can grow in just about any soil. Its tall blades are dark green and it has beautiful seed heads in the late fall. Because they get pretty tall and wide, give them some room when you plant them.
Tall coreopsis can be a great cutting flower as well as one of the taller plants in a background. So, it's a "two-fer" plant: two for the price of one. Coreopsis tripteris grows four to six feet tall and is very prolific. My niece had it growing in her garden in central Illinois and had a tough time getting rid of it when she changed her landscape plan. To me, that is a good sign that the plant will survive without a lot of care. Its yellow blossoms are nice to cut and bring into the house; they give off a light fresh fragrance.
How about a plant with some "wow" appeal? Columbine will always stop people in their tracks. Try aquilegia Canadensis, or wild columbine, in your garden. It grows about 18 inches and has yellow and red flowers. They can also handle some shade. They will attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
You might have a lot of yellow, red, and white flowers blooming, but it can be tough to find blue ones. How about smooth aster? Aster laevis can grow up to four feet tall and will produce lots of pale-blue flowers in the late summer and early fall. This middle to front-row flower will also attract butterflies.
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