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Spring plants for small spaces

Short on space, or restricted to pots? Here are some lovely spring gems for your garden. Plant addict Andy McIndoe recommends some spring treasures for small spaces.

Dicentra spectabilis, bleeding heart

As clouds of blossom fill branches of trees and shrubs, and drifts of spring bulbs colour the ground beneath, little spring blooming gems sparkle in small spaces. These are plants that will tuck in almost anywhere: between perennials that fill the front of the picture later in the season, in narrow borders, in pots and containers. Some relish the sunshine, others thrive in shade, but everywhere in the garden there are plants that shine like spring stars.

Pulmonaria or Lungwort
Pulmonaria (lungwort). Image: Adobe Stock

Purple wonder

If I had to choose one small shrub that I know will deliver more than expected in its first year it would be the perennial wallflower, Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. This is a great gap filler in a sunny situation that loves poor, dry soil. It grows quickly and flowers from now well into winter.  The fragrant purple flowers are very attractive to butterflies and it is an easy plant to mix with cottage garden favourites, such as rosemary and lavender. Try it in a pot with purple sage, or in a border with santolina.

Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. Image: Adobe Stock

Shady character

Many spring sirens are good in shade, so are ideal to add colour under deciduous trees and shrubs, or in small shady gardens. Brunnera macrophylla is reminiscent of myosotis, the forget-me-not, but it has slightly smaller more vivid flowers. Choose the cultivar ‘Looking Glass’ or ‘Jack Frost’ and you have the advantage of silvery foliage that extends the season long after those spring flowers have faded. This is a great plant amongst shade loving evergreens such as sarcococca; the silvery leaves and bright blue flowers of the brunnera really lift the shade.

Brunnera macrophylla
Brunnera macrophylla. Image: Adobe Stock

Spring green

The lime green bracts of euphorbias are a real sign that spring has arrived. Their green apple acidity in the garden palette seems to sharpen other shades and adds life and vibrancy to the planting. Some are just too tall, others are invasive. The compact Euphorbia ‘Black Pearl’ is a real winner with stout upright stems and attractive heads of lime green flowers with black eyes. It is an ideal plant for a narrow border in sun or semi-shade.

Euphorbia 'Black Pearl'
Euphorbia ‘Black Pearl’. Image: Adobe Stock

Bee forage

I am a great fan of our native primrose, Primula vulgaris, especially as it seeds freely on my light, sandy soil. It also hybridises freely with coloured primroses and polyanthus resulting in some attractive offspring. This is a really useful plant to tuck into a border along a hedge or fence and perfect for naturalising in town and country gardens. It mixes extremely well with any of the pulmonarias, (lungworts). These are lovely spring flowering perennials, often with the benefit of spotted or silvery leaves that remain attractive, often rivalling the beauty of any hosta. The big bonus of both primroses and pulmonarias in the garden is that they are both excellent sources of early nectar: so important for bumblebees when they emerge early in the year.

Primula vulgaris
Primula vulgaris. Image: Adobe Stock

Sun worshipper

Another good pollinator plant, Pulsatilla vulgaris is known as pasque flower. The nodding anemone like blooms are filled with pollen-laden golden stamens and are rich in nectar. This is one for a sunny spot, great in a narrow border alongside paving, on the rock garden or in a pot. Although it starts as a modest alpine, when the flowers fade the stalks grow up and explode in clouds of fluffy seed heads. These are useful for cutting for flower decoration.

pulsatilla vulgaris
Pulsatilla vulgaris. Image: Adobe Stock

Lastly, no spring garden is complete without the delicate beauty of Dicentra spectabilis, (bleeding heart – main image). This plant produces its rhubarb-pink fleshy stems and maidenhair like leaves at a time when there is still risk from frost damage or destruction. The arching heads of pendent deep pink teardrop flowers cannot fail to delight. Dicentra is modest in its use of space and dies down quite soon after flowering.

If you would like to know more about spring flowering plants for pollinators check out my online course on Gardening for Wildlife at


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