By Steve Smith
If there was one perennial that personified a cottage garden, it would be Delphiniums. They are the epitome of what I think of when I picture a Victorian border or even just a simple country garden. Their tall stature often anchors the back of a bed and provides the height that is critical in keeping the eye moving through a landscape design. When I moved to the Northwest 30-plus years ago, I couldn’t wait to grow these beauties.
Growing up in Southern California (15 miles from the Mexican border), the weather was not conducive to perennials like Delphiniums because there was no distinct winter to force them into dormancy, so they just kept growing. For perennials to do their best, they need to rest for months and that doesn’t happen there. In the Northwest we have perfect climate for perennials that can easily provide 10 months of non-stop color. This is accomplished by planting early, mid, and late bloomers and combining them so there is a constant succession of flowers throughout the season. While most perennials only bloom for six weeks, Delphiniums are special in that after their initial bloom in early spring, if they are cut back and fertilized, they will re-bloom in September. You can find Delphiniums in the garden center this time of year in many varieties and often already budded up and showing color. Gallon-sized plants will have multiple stems, while 4-inch starts will only have one stem and will need another year to get established. Plant them in full sun and stake them before a rain or wind storm knocks them down. Sometimes Delphiniums are labeled as larkspur, so don’t get confused – true larkspurs are annuals and are much smaller. My favorite is “Black Knight,” which has dark, midnight-violet blossoms and can reach 6-feet tall. The Aurora series is a wonderful collection with 3- to 4-foot stems that are excellent for cut flowers. The color range runs from white to purple to various shades of blue, and each one has a white center, called the “bee”.
“Green Twist” from the New Millennium series caught my eye the other day. It has large white flowers tinged green, with a white and green bee – often double or semi-double. The stems reach 5-feet tall and are great for arrangements. The Guardian strains only grow to about 3-feet tall, which is perfect for smaller gardens, but the flowers are large and double as well. Colors are white to shades of lavender and blue.
All Delphiniums attract hummingbirds and other pollinators, like butterflies and bees, and are deer resistant. Slugs can be a problem in early spring, but after that the flowers are fine. Feed them with a balanced organic food, give them lots of compost, and they should be happy. If you can’t get them to live more than a few years chances are they are staying too wet.
Now is the time to shop for Delphiniums; once they are gone the nurseries won’t have them again until next year.