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Past Articles Library | Tips for Growing Columbine

On a walk the other day, I saw this beautiful flowering plant. While I am not an avid supporter of landscaping a mailbox bed, this plant did bring a smile to my face. The vibrant bluish purple and white blooms with the yellow centers really drew my attention as I walked down the street. But seeing the blooms sort of made me sad because I knew the beauty would not last as the season warmed and the fact that this flowering plant was a short-lived perennial and the blooming was the last stage before death, or was it.

Columbines (Aquilegia) are labeled a couple of different ways. They are a short-lived perennial and a biennial. Once they send up flowers, the plant will die and you will be starting over again but do not worry. The columbine is a prolific seed producer and one that really likes to crossbreed if given the chance. Having said that, if you want a “pure breed” make sure to either only plant one type every few years or keep the different species as far apart as possible.

At this point, you may be wondering where you can grow this lovely plant. Columbines love to grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 8. As a matter of fact, if you take a walk in the mountains in these zones you will find common columbines growing as wild plants.

When it comes to adding columbines to your landscape you will need to do some homework. What is it? Well, it is nothing too taxing and starts out by pulling out a chair and observing the planned planting area. What you are looking at is the amount and type of sunlight. Since columbines grow in shady areas in the wild, domesticated columbines have the same requirement. The best area in your landscaping is one that receives morning sun, which is less in intensity and shade in the afternoon. To help you pick the best location, also consider planting your columbines in areas where trees are near. While this area may give full shade, it is more likely to provide dappled shade, which will also work.

Beyond the sun requirement, this short-lived perennial requires well draining soil and cool temperatures. While you can improve the drainage ability of the soil, the outdoor temperatures is another thing. But do not be discouraged. Columbines have adapted so that when the weather warms they will dieback and then return with a flush of foliage once the weather cools until a killing frost.

Yes, you can plant a columbine from the nursery in your landscaping but……you can just as easily start them from seed. To begin the process, the first thing you need to do is to expose them to a little cold. This will mimic what the seeds would be exposed to in their natural environment. If you want to start them indoors, you will first need to place the seeds in a paper envelope that is labeled and put in the fridge for two to three weeks. If you decide to use this approach, make sure that you do not have any fresh fruits or vegetables in the fridge. These fresh foods produce a gas that can kill or reduce your germination rate.

Once the time period has passed, you can take your seeds out and get ready to plant but………there is another issue. Columbine seeds can take up to 30 days to germinate. To give your seedlings time to form their second set of true leaves and to give time for the hardening off process, make sure you plant your seeds indoors at least 8 to 10 weeks prior to your local frost free date.

If you do not want to go into the artificial cooling process, plant your columbine seeds in the fall when Mother Nature will do it for you.

Regardless of which technique you decide to use, make sure you keep the soil moist but not dripping wet.

When it comes to planting columbines in your landscape, remember these plants like room to spread. To give this room, make sure to space them at least a foot apart. Also, consider adding a light layer of mulch around your plant columbines. Not only will this give a finished look but it will also aid in keeping the soil cool, which is something the columbines need.

Now that you have the lowdown on this short-lived perennial, how can you enhance their beauty? Since these plants really show their worth during cool weather, consider adding to the landscape bed flowers that compliment the texture of the foliage and growth habit of the columbine. One of my favorites for this is the phlox. There are two general types of phlox, which includes garden and meadow. Both of these thrive in partial to full sun and produce large amounts of blooms during the summer, which is the time when the columbine is not blooming. Since phlox is a short plant, it will take the eye away from the non-blooming columbine.

Toad lily (Tricyrtis spp) is the second plant I like to mix with the columbine. Unlike the phlox, this plant blooms in the fall when the weather is cooler. While the toad lily does bloom at the same time as the columbine, it does not compete instead it complements the color and shape of the columbine blooms. If the columbine is not blooming yet, the two different foliages create visual interest in the landscape design.

Foam flower (Tiarella spp) is the last plant I would suggest you combine with columbine. This plant is a perennial that provides visual interest created by its emerald green leaves. The flowers bloom up a tall stalk and can be either pink or white. The plant blooms all season so that it provides color when the columbine is not blooming. When the columbine is blooming though, you do not have to worry about the foam flower taking away from the blooming columbine. This unique plant’s vegetation typically grows to a height of six inches. As stated before, the flowers appear growing up a stalk. This stalk can reach three feet, which fills in an area where few columbine blooms exist.


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Fertilize Container Plants

Because container gardens are usually grown to show off a lot color, the plants in them require more frequent fertilizing.

It's good to feed them every two weeks with a water-soluble complete fertilizer like a 20-20-20 or a hyrdolized fish fertilizer.

Regular feeding will help them fill in faster, and produce more flowers.

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