Light up the spring garden with easy-to-grow early spring flowering shrubs like azaleas, lilacs, forsythia, and fothergilla. These spring stunners provide eye-catching flowers for you as well as pollen and nectar for the early bees and beneficial insects. While certain spring shrubs can grow quite large, many of newer cultivars are extremely compact, making them perfect for small space gardens or tucking between perennials.
Buying early spring flowering shrubs
Before you rush off to the nursery, consider the growing conditions in your garden and ask yourself these questions:
- How much space do I have? Some early spring flowering shrubs are very compact and grow just a foot or two tall and wide. Others, can reach heights up to fifteen feet or more. Consider the mature size of the shrub, not the size it is when you buy it.
- How much light do I have? There are shrubs that thrive in sunny spaces, and those that prefer less light. Choose accordingly.
- How much work do I want to do? If the thought of pruning shrubs every year or two stresses you out, consider growing those that generally require little to no pruning. Many recently introduced shrubs are dwarf in stature and stay compact without the need for frequent trims.
- Does my landscape offer interest all spring? Choose shrubs that flower at slightly different times to offer a long show of spring color. Some, like witch hazel bloom extremely early, while others, like lilacs flower later in the spring.
The best early spring flowering shrubs to grow in gardens:
Azalea (hardiness varies by species, but many are hardy zones 5 to 9)
Azaleas are a type of rhododendron and very popular shrubs for adding bold and bright color to the spring landscape. They thrive in slightly acidic soils that are amended with compost and prefer a partly shaded location such as beneath deciduous trees. A woodland garden is ideal! There are evergreen and deciduous species of azaleas with many showing excellent cold tolerance for northern gardens. The roots of azaleas grow shallow and an annual application of bark mulch or compost to the root zone will keep them growing well. ‘Cannon’s Double’ is a hardy deciduous azalea with eye-catching peachy-pink flowers. The deep green foliage develops a reddish tint in autumn, adding late season interest. ‘Rosy Lights’ offers a pop of vibrant pink to the spring landscape with deep pink flowers that last for weeks.
Forsythia (zones 5 to 8)
One of the best known and loved early spring flowering shrubs, today’s forsythia are a far cry from the large, wild-looking shrubs your grandparents grew. Traditionally, forsythia grow eight to ten feet tall and wide, with long arching branches. When covered in their bright gold spring flowers, they’re breathtaking. However, once those flowers fade and the leaves emerge, the plants can look unruly. Thanks to plant breeders, today there are plenty of new cultivars of forsythia with more rounded growth habits and compact growth. ‘Show off Sugar Baby’ is very dwarf, growing just 30 inches tall and wide, yet still provides a burst of golden blooms in early spring. ‘Show off’, is a larger cultivar, growing up to five-feet tall, but with a super dense flower display that leaves the branches virtually smothered in the small yellow blooms.
Dwarf fothergilla (zones 4 to 9)
Fothergilla is an underused landscape plant but is becoming better known thanks to its charming bottlebrush white flowers that emerge in early spring. This North American native shrub grows just three feet tall making it ideal for mixed borders as well as perennial gardens. The flowers are also fragrant and attract early bees and other pollinators. Fothergilla isn’t just for spring, as the foliage turns a brilliant combination of red, yellow and orange in the autumn.
Witch hazel (zones 4 to 8)
‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel is one of the first of the early spring flowering shrubs to bloom, often flowering while the garden is still in the grip of winter. It can also grow quite tall, maturing to a height of almost twenty feet. Witch hazel is best planted in a woodland setting beneath tall deciduous trees or in sunny mixed gardens and borders. The flowers are very unique: each bright yellow petal is wispy and narrow but together, the effect is breathtaking. And while they look delicate, the cold tolerant flowers can tolerate the unsettled weather of late winter, lasting up to a month.
Lilac (zones 3 to 8)
Beloved for their large flower clusters and rich fragrances, lilacs are long-lived spring flowering shrubs that are surprisingly easy to grow. They do best and produce the greatest flower show when planted in full sun. Gardeners aren’t the only ones who love lilacs, as they’re also very attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Plant size depends on the lilac. My ‘Miss Kim’ lilac is fairly compact, growing just six feet tall and wide. The common lilac, a classic early spring flowering shrub with deep purple, heavily perfumed flowers can grow up to fifteen feet tall. There are hundreds of cultivars available to grow so be sure to read the labels at your local nursery so that you pick a lilac that fits your garden space.
Viburnum (hardiness varies, but many are hardy to zones 3 to 9)
Viburnums are among my favorite shrubs for the garden, offering beautiful spring flowers with many also having ornamental fruits and spectacular fall foliage. ‘Summer Snowflake’ is a spring garden essential, growing up to eight feet tall but with a unique tiered branch structure that shows off the creamy white flower clusters. Korean Spice viburnum is a medium-sized shrub that grows four to six feet tall and produces richly fragrant pink and white flowers in early spring. Be sure to plant it where the intoxicating blooms can be appreciated.
Japanese andromeda (zones 5 to 8)
This broad-leafed evergreen shrub is also called the lily of the valley shrub. It can grow up to ten feet tall and six to eight feet wide, although many newer cultivars are far more compact. The foliage is very ornamental, especially in spring when the new growth is tinted in fiery bronze-orange. When the flower clusters open, they quickly steal the show. The long, pendulous chains of white or pink bell-shaped flowers contrast nicely against the glossy leaves and attract early pollinators. It’s quite shade tolerant, even flowering well with just a few hours of sun each day. And, it’s deer-resistant. ‘Mountain Fire’ is popular cultivar with bright red spring foliage that matures to deep green and large clusters of pure white flowers.
Flowering quince (zones 4 to 9)
Flowering quince is an extra early spring bloomer that is often the first shrub flowering in the spring landscape. This is a tough plant that can persist in the garden for decades, eventually growing six to ten feet tall, depending on the cultivar. Most flowering quince have sharp spines, and when used as a barrier plant or hedge, can keep deer and other wildlife from your garden. The pretty flowers are apricot, orange or red, and last for weeks. They’re followed by green fruits that can be made into jellies. Plant flowering quince in a sunny spot in the garden for maximum flower power.
Success with early spring flowering shrubs
Once you’ve selected and bought your shrubs, follow these simple tips to make sure they settle into their new spot.
- Plant smart – Don’t plant shrubs in a hole in the lawn. Instead, tuck them in a shrub or perennial bed where their roots can spread and they’ll be safe from lawn mower damage.
- Water – The first year after planting, shrubs appreciate a regular supply of moisture to help them adapt to their new site. Water weekly if there hasn’t been a deep rain.
- Mulch – Mulching around the roots of your shrubs reduces weed growth and holds soil moisture. Ideally, shrubs should be planted in a garden bed, not a lawn. However, if you do plant in your lawn, mulch reduces potential damage from lawn mowers and trimmers. Apply a three inch layer of bark mulch on the soil surface. Avoid piling mulch up around the stem of the plant.
Care and maintenance of early spring flowering shrubs
While most flowering shrubs are low maintenance garden plants, there are a few things you can do to encourage a heavy flush of blossoms each spring.
- Prune at the right time. That is, if you need to prune at all. Most of my early spring flowering shrubs are compact plants and rarely require me to grab my hand pruners. Occasionally, branches break or are damaged by snow or storms, or they end up growing into each other’s space. That’s the time to prune. I’m a fan of allowing a shrub to grow into its natural shape which means I don’t shear or shape my shrubs. If you wish to prune or shear yours, be mindful that depending when you prune, you could be removing next year’s flowers. If you must prune, do so right after the plants finish flowering. For more info on pruning flowering shrubs, check out this excellent article from Proven Winners.
- Topdress with compost. Each spring, before I refresh the bark mulch around my shrubs, I add an inch deep layer of compost to the soil. This promotes healthy growth and healthy soil.
- Fertilize when necessary. I don’t fertilize my shrubs every year. As long as they’re flowering well, I just give them their annual application of compost. If you notice signs of poor growth like smaller leaves or branch dieback, you can apply a slow-release organic fertilizer intended for flowering plants. It should be applied early in spring as late summer or autumn applications can encourage late growth which could be damaged when the cold weather arrives.
For more information on growing trees and shrubs in the landscape, be sure to check out these articles:
Do you have any favorite early spring flowering shrubs?