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How to Grow Columbine

With spring flowers that are instantly recognizable due to their unusual spurs and fascinating color combinations, Columbine is a fantastic choice for gardeners who wish to work with native plants when adding colorful, pollinator-friendly selections to both woodland and sunny gardens.

On average to good soils, Columbine will thrive with little help from the gardener, and will continue to re-seed itself in the garden, often popping up where you least expect them. It’s a joy of spring to see the first hummingbirds finding the brightly colored blossoms, so plant them where you’ll be sure to witness the antics of these little airborne acrobats.

When & Where to Plant Columbine

Plant either bare root or potted plants in early spring or fall in well-drained, amended soil rich in organic matter. Columbine prefer a dappled-shade position in hotter climates, but do well in sunny positions (such as open meadows or alpine situations) in cooler climes.

If planting bare root, dig a hole deep enough to allow the fleshy, flexible roots to reach downwards, and make sure the rhizome is approximately one inch beneath the soil.

Light: Full sun to dappled shade depending on your growing zone and the heat of your summers. Full sun in hot summer areas will encourage summer dormancy and foliage burn, however, full sun in cooler summer zones will result in better bloom and more compact plants.

Soil: Well-drained soil that stays evenly moist but not boggy or constantly wet is preferred. Dappled-shade situations, such as you might find at the edge of a woodland, are perfect for Columbine. Such a site keeps roots and foliage cool whilst providing light to encourage good blooms. Heavy clay soils are not tolerated well; Columbine prefers sandier, loamier soils on the fatter side of average. Be aware however that too-rich soils can encourage vigorous upward growth that could require staking.

Spacing: Space 15”-18” apart, slightly less for dwarf varieties.

songbird bluebird columbine
Songbird Bluebird Columbine (Customer Photo by Paul P.)

Columbine will spread naturally through seeds usually scattered around the base of the plant – as well as popping up in other places in the garden. The clumps grow bigger with time and can be divided with great care.

Planting: Plant in early spring or in early fall for flowers next season.

How to Grow Columbine Throughout the Season

Growth Habit: Depending on species, Columbine will grow from 1-3’ tall, and about 18” wide. Plants form a soft, mounding clump of bluish-green, deeply-lobed foliage that emerges in early spring. The fascinating, spurred flowers come in a huge array of colors and are often bi-colored. They are borne above the foliage from the center of the plant. After flowering, foliage can be cut back to encourage new, fresh foliage clumps to emerge. In areas with hot summers, especially in a full-sun position, foliage often remains dormant and reemerges in the fall. Seedlings can also seed themselves into the cracks between rocks or walls and remain green throughout a mild winter.

Staking: No staking is necessary, unless plants are grown in exceedingly rich soil.

Watering: Keep soil evenly moist and do not allow Columbine to dry out significantly during its first year in the ground. As they become established, Columbine are more drought tolerant, with deep tap roots that can access moister soil deeper down.

Fertilizing: A top dressing of compost or well-rotted manure is sufficient to keep Columbine blooming well and not becoming overly leggy.

Mulching: Mulching is a good idea for Columbine, as it thrives in an evenly moist environment.

columbine root system
Ready-to-plant Columbine root system
planting columbine
Columbine should be planted at the same soil level found in the potting container.

Columbine: End of Season Care

Trimming & Pruning: After blooming, foliage can become ratty and brown. Often leaf-miner (Columbine’s biggest pest) will disfigure the leaves with their white, intricate tunnels. Cutting the foliage to the base (and throwing it away) will encourage new foliage to emerge for the season. If, however, you live in a hotter climate, or the plant is situated in a full sun location, it may go dormant for the rest of the season until cooler temperatures prevail.

blackcurrant ice columbine
Blackcurrant Ice Columbine is striking with it's rich magenta paired with pale yellow color scheme.

Dividing & Transplanting: If dividing, divide carefully. Columbine has deep roots and it will sulk after transplanting. Try to dig down as deeply as you can in a circle around the clump and lift the clump without breaking the soil ball. Lay that on the ground and divide quickly with a sharp spade, trying to retain a good amount of soil around the roots. Replant the divisions gently and keep well-watered.

Pests & Disease: Leaf miner is the best-known scourge of columbine. It winds its way through the leaves between the leaf surfaces, and thus is not affected by sprays. The damage is purely cosmetic however and many a clump of Columbine in a cool summer will remain green with these white tunnels ‘decorating’ the foliage. But if you wish to work towards removing this pest in your garden, cut the foliage to the ground and throw it away – do not compost it. New foliage will emerge if temperatures are not scorching.

Additional Concerns: Columbine is a vigorous re-seeder, but the re-seeding does not tend to get out of hand, and in fact, can elicit a smile from the gardener when he or she sees a lone seed sprouting from an odd location such as a wall or between pavers.

Columbine are promiscuous and will interbreed. If you have several species or cultivars in your garden, you are not likely to have seedlings that come true from seed, but you may have the joy of selecting your own favorite sport!

Columbine: Extra Info

Companion Plants & Design Advice: A favorite spring combinations is a yellow variety of columbine paired with the tiny blue flowers of either perennial forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla) or annual forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica). The softly-lobed and fairly low-growing foliage of Columbine makes it a sweet choice near the edge of woodland gardens, or in sunnier spots with a bit of afternoon shade. En masse, that foliage also can act as a foil for early spring bulbs such as tulips, and will hide the yellowing tulip foliage as it expands.

Additional Uses: Columbine is a wonderful nectar source for hummingbirds, and gives these little birds one of their earliest snacks in our North American gardens. The nectaries of the flower are found at the end of the unusual spurs that make Columbine flowers so recognizable in the landscape. With tubes that long, pollination by insects is mostly the work of those with long proboscises, such as the hawk moth.

In addition to attracting hummingbirds, Columbine is a deer resistant choice for the landscape.

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