Monday, February 25, 2019

Columbine in a Walled Garden

The ruins of an old stone foundation can create the perfect backdrop for a romantic garden. Last June I was lucky enough to visit one such garden in Mississauga, Ontario. 

The foundation is all that remains of an old carriage stable at the back of this century home. Plants now nestle in cracks and crevices and vines have begun to take advantage of the crumbling stone and mortar walls that enclose the garden. Where the old cement floor made it impossible to garden, raised beds were constructed and filled with shade-loving plants. 

Growing in this sheltered micro-climate are ferns, Solomon's Seal and Bleeding Hearts. Clusters of delicate pink and white Columbine, Aquilegia have colonized the sunnier flowerbeds.

I grow Columbine in my own garden, but the lovely pink flowers I saw that day made me fall in love with them all over again.

If you are still putting together your spring seed order, don't forget to consider Columbine. They are so easy to grow from seed, I'd even recommend them for a beginner. While you can sometimes find a limited range of Columbine at local nurseries, they can be quite pricy for a plant that is a short-lived herbaceous perennial. Seeds are the more economical choice.

The timing of their flowers is perfect– right in that spring lull after tulips are finished. As well as pretty flowers, Columbine has attractive deeply lobed, pea-green foliage.

Growing Columbine

Columbine is one of the nicest flowers you can find in the garden in late April/May/early June (depending on your zone). 

They will grow in average garden soil, but they perform best in rich, well-drained soil that is evenly moist. Give them full sun or light shade An exception to this would be in a southern garden zone. Columbine is at home in the cool days of early spring so they will appreciate a position that offers a little relief from the hot afternoon sun. 

Don't let the fact that Columbine is a short-lived perennial deter you from growing this plant. They are prolific self-seeders, so new plants always seem to pop up to fill the shoes of their fading comrads. 

Columbine has a deep, carrot-like root that does not make it easy to move them around in the garden. I have managed to move very young seedlings, but the more settled in they are, the harder it is to transplant them successfully. 

Direct sowing seeds in the garden

The time to plant Columbine seeds is in the fall, late winter or early spring. Seeds germinate best if they experience a period of cold temperatures (at least 3-4 weeks at 40 F / 5 C.). 

Scatter seeds for a more naturalized planting or sow them 12-18 inches apart. Press the seeds into the soil, but do not cover them. Columbine seeds need light to germinate. Seedlings should emerge within 3-4 weeks. When the young plants emerge and begin to grow, keep them evenly moist. Thin to 10 inches apart if necessary.


Columbine is deer and rabbit resistant.

Pale green tracks on the surface of green foliage in the summertime is a sign of leaf miner. While the tracks can detract from the appearance of the plant, leaf minors never seem to do Columbine serious harm. To deter this pest cut back the foliage after the plant finishes flowering. Fresh new growth will appear after a week or two.

Columbine in my own garden.

Listed from left to right below.


Companion plants might include Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) Lupins, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata), Foam Flower (Tiarella), Ferns, and Allium. 

Plant type: Short-lived herbaceous perennial

Height: from a little less than 1ft to 3 ft (depending on the type and growing conditions)

Spread: 1.5 to 2.5ft (again depending on the type of Columbine and its growing conditions)

Flower: Solid, bicolored and multicolored flowers

Bloom period: Spring

Leaf: Delicate, biternate foliage

Light: Full sun to light shade

Soil: Average to rich, moist, well-drained soil

Move: Columbine doesn't like to be moved or transplanted

Problems: Leaf miner

USDA Zones: 2-9

Columbine in my own garden. 

One of the things I want to point out about Columbine is the amazing diversity in size, shape and color of their flowers. Even in my relatively small collection of plants, there is quite a wide range of flower types and colors. 

Some Columbine flowers nod like bells on fine stems. Others face up or out and look a little like miniature Clematis flowers. Some blooms have short spurs that curl inwards while others have long spurs that remind me of a creature from an alien movie.

Columbine blooming in late May in my garden. 

Another one of the self-seeded Columbine in my garden.

Aquelegia canadensis in a private garden.

One very distinctive looking flower is the native Aquelegia canadensis. The long tubular spurs are only accessible to long-tongued pollinators like hummingbirds and hawk moths.

Aquelegia canadensis is native to eastern North America. It has yellow flowers that have long, red spurs. Aquilegia canadensis freely self-seeds and will naturalize to form colonies. This species form has good resistance to leaf miner. Attractive to hummingbirds. It likes moist, rich well-drained soil. Light shade. Height: 24- 36 inches, Spread: 12-18 inches. USDA zones: 3-8.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Nora Barlow' is a selection that has frilly red, pink and green tricolored flowers.

Aquilegia vulgaris has fluffy flowers with short spurs that might be described as hooked. These curled spurs, which look a little like the talons of an eagle (aquila in Latin), gave Columbine its botanical name.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Barlow mixed' comes in shades of pink, blue, purple, almost black and white. I have both pink and purple in my own garden (see below).

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Barlow mixed' in my garden.

Columbine seeds can be purchased from local garden centres and any number of mail-order companies, but I found the listing for Swallowtail Garden Seeds particularly intriguing as there are 30 Columbines conveniently listed on just one page (they ship to Canada, the USA and international). Check out the pale blue Alpine, the petite Dwarf White or maybe you might like the sweet mix of cream and purple that the Olympica offers.

I haven't ordered from Plant World Seeds (international shipping), but they have some very interesting and rare Columbine seeds that have me seriously tempted.

I hope this post has inspired you to grow some Columbine this spring. They are an old-fashioned cottage garden favourite that is sure to bring a bit of romance to your garden even in the absence of crumbling ruins.

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  1. I love columbine! Nora Barlow is an especial favorite of mine and I don't even know how I acquired her. I really need to incorporate some more of them into the gardens. Thank you for the breath of Spring.

    1. I planted Nora Barlow years and years ago and it continues to surprise me every spring.

  2. I adore how the crumbling carriage house has been given a new life with as an amazing garden. It's gorgeous. I have the native columbine growing all over as it reseeds readily. They are great for our early hummingbirds.

    1. I did have some native Columbine, but it has never spread as well as I'd like. I wonder if it isn't too dry for its liking here. This spring I think I'll start some new plants by seed.

  3. They are lovely flowers, I bought a yellow one last year (so unusual) and hope it returns this spring.

    1. I am not a huge fan of yellow flowers, but I have seen yellow Columbine and agree that it's really pretty.

  4. So happy to see you featuring that lovely garden. It was one of my favourites. I actually traded columbines with another one of the homeowners on the tour - gave her one of my purple singles for one of her pink doubles. Hope it comes back. Great post!

    1. Thanks Stephanie. I must get in touch with you to find out the date of this year tour. It's one of the best.

  5. I love columbines and hope mine do well this year. We may still get some snow next weekend. Your flowers are so pretty. Walled gardens just remind us of "The Secret Garden" don't they? Lovely!

    1. Like so many little girls, The Secret Garden was a childhood favourite. Recently I listened to an audio version and even enjoyed it as an adult.

  6. Now I need a crumbling wall...thanks for the gorgeous photos! I love columbine too, and have started a minor collection. I moved into a house that had three kinds growing wild, including Nora Barlow. I have added another Nora Barlow, a red and white harlequin one and some blue ones. Let's hope they make it through the winter!

    1. I hope the do make it through the winter for you. I think I take my Columbine a bit for granted. This spring I think I will make more of a point of adding new plants.

  7. How wonderful to see one of my very favorite flowers profiled! I'm always thrilled to find new seedlings, and I love their prolific ways. The babies are often surprising when they begin to bloom!

  8. What a beautiful garden! I have self-seeded columbine growing in cracks in my steps at my new garden. They do love sharp drainage!


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