General gardening topics

How to plant and grow Aquilegias (Columbine)

Last updated on June 8th, 2022

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This is an elegant flower and the good news is they are quite easy to grow, so nearly anyone can take advantage of these perennials. They typically reach a maximum height of around 60cm, although you can also get some alpine rockery style varieties that grow much smaller. Their eventual growing height makes them perfect to plant in the middle of a border garden that needs varying heights of vertical plants.

You can also find Aquilegias available in a range of colours and flower styles to some extent, so this further makes them an ideal companion for any garden design you might have.

These plants bring with them small, rounded leaves with tall flower stems that will make their way high above their foliage. The flowers are quite distinctive and are known for having the five petals that come out from the base of the flower accented by the larger 5 sepals.

Many of the varieties also have spurs that arch backwards from the flower and it’s the spurs that have the nectar. As mentioned, you can make a colourful arrangement with a variety of Aquilegia flowers including yellow, red, pink, purple, and even light shades of blue and black/purple shades.

In the spring, these flowers will bloom, usually just after your other spring bulbs have finished and right before your early summer flowers make their appearance. They bring to your garden many pollinating insects and bees at a time of the year when very few other flowers are in bloom, so they are great for helping you do your part to help out bees.

They self-seed easily

Aquilegias are quite easy to grow from seed and, if you leave them to their own devices in your garden they will self-seed themselves in your garden, so after a few years you start to notice young Aquilegias springing up in locations where you didn’t plant them. If you want to avoid this, you can deadhead them when they have finished flowering.

The good news is they’re not very fussy and they require very little attention. In the winter they die back (as do most perennials) but then they come back every year in spring, providing colour year after year.


Caring for Aquilegias

They don’t like being crowded

As mentioned, Aquilegias are not a fussy plant. They grow successfully in a variety of conditions but they don’t tolerate being overcrowded. It’s important that you give them enough room and take into consideration the fact that they will self-seed every year so they’re going to need extra room to come back or alternatively you can deadhead them to prevent them from going to seed.

Planting

When you plant them they should be planted deeply in the soil. At the same time, you need to make sure that the crown remains at ground level if you are planting Aquilegias using potted plants. This is the best way to get instant results instead of growing them from seed.

Water well until they are established

A newly planted Aquilegia must be watered until it gets itself established and starts to put on new growth. If you decide to plant more than one variety at a time in the same area be advised that they could cross-pollinate. For a lot of people, this is great because it means a new combination of flowers and colours but if you want to limit yourself to one true variety, don’t plant more than one variety in the same garden.

Alternatively, you can cut your plants back before the seeds are produced to prevent them from seeding and simply try different varieties every year.

Cross-pollinating

Bear in mind that these plants could cross-pollinate with some of the neighbouring plants you have in your flowerbeds and provide you with a hybrid too. Again, this is something to consider when you set up the spacing in your garden and for some gardeners, this is a great opportunity to see what nature produces, while for others it’s not something they want. The choice really is up to you.

Plant Aquilegias in full sun if possible

Most of the varieties, especially the varieties we recommend towards the end of this article grow in full sun. Many of them prefer full sun in the morning, whereas certain varieties require some shade during the warmer afternoon.

Some varieties will grow in a more shady spot

If you have more of a shady spot in your garden you want to fill there are a few varieties that are tolerant of shade. Making sure that you know what the light exposure is going to be in the area of your garden where you plan to grow them will help you to find the perfect match.


Feeding and Watering

In terms of food, you can add well-rotted manure or homemade compost when you plant the Aquilegia and then apply mulch around the top to help with water retention. Like most plants, they don’t like drying out in the summer and they don’t like drowning in the winter either.

To be fair, they don’t prefer drowning any time of the year so make sure that you water them enough to prevent them from drying out but that you don’t overwater them and that the soil is free-draining too.


Soil

In terms of soil, they prefer to planted deep into well-drained and fertile soil. However, they will grow well in almost any type of soil, even clay soil, as long as they don’t get waterlogged.

One of the reasons you might consider removing the plant before it has an opportunity to produce seeds is if you have clay soil. In this situation, you can grow one variety quite well but if you can’t amend the soil to give it better drainage over winter and you live in an area with harsh or very wet winters, they often don’t survive and need to be replaced the following year anyway.


Deadheading to prevent self-seeding

If you don’t want your Aquilegia to self-seed, you should cut it back in the middle of summer before any seed pods start to form. You can remove the seeds of course before they are dispersed and then plant them elsewhere in your garden or sow them into seed trays if you don’t want the original plant to get overcrowded but you do still want more plants to grow.


Location

Just as you need to consider how much sun and shade they will get, you need to consider the position in your garden. Despite the fact that they are tall they are very light plants and are better for the middle of a border and often look well growing between shrubs and roses.


Very little care and maintenance needed

Once you have planted and they are established, there is very little in terms of care and maintenance required because they will happily grow year after year without needing much attention. You should water them regularly during any dry spells and make sure that they have the right growing conditions when you first plant them in your garden.

Mulching

Adding mulch on top will keep the roots cool and will go a long way towards helping your plant survive by retaining moisture in the soil because they prefer moist but free-draining soil.


Aquilegia Propagation

If you are going to propagate Aquilegias, you can allow the plant to produce seeds after they have finished flowering and simply drop as they may, or you can collect them before they disperse and scatter the seeds yourself, exactly where you want them to germinate.

Seeds take two years from germinating to flowering

The seeds do require light in order to germinate so if you have them you can simply press them into a weed-free area in your garden at the end of summer and they will germinate the following spring. Bear in mind though it will take two years from the time you plant the seed for them to produce flowers, after that, they will come back year after year.

Sowing seeds indoors

Alternatively, you can start cultivating the seeds indoors by placing them in a bag of seed compost in your refrigerator for about two or three months before you plant them outside. This makes the seeds think they have been through winter.

Then, take the bag out of your refrigerator, scatter the contents into a seed tray or a pot and put it somewhere warm with indirect sunlight until the plants germinate.

Transplant the strongest seedlings and harden them off in a sheltered location before you put them directly in the ground.

You can learn how to grow perennials from seed in this guide here.


Common Aquilegia Problems

These plants are not prone to a lot of pests because the leaves are poisonous so most animals leave them alone. In fact, you don’t usually even have problems with snails or slugs.

Leaf miners

One of the biggest problems you will notice includes leaf miners. These pests tunnel inside the leaves and this results in an unsightly mess of shrivelled leaves that you will need to cut away.

Powdery mildew

You also want to look out for powdery mildew. As mentioned these plants need a lot of space and air circulation to grow well and if they’re overcrowded this can lead to powdery mildew.

Downy mildew

Similarly, be on the lookout for downy mildew. As soon as you find any type of mildew, be sure to remove the affected leaves, even those that have already fallen off the plant and dispose of them. Then spray with a fungicide to help control the mildew.


Some of our favourite varieties

A native of Britain, they grow quite well in all UK gardens and there are ample varieties from which to choose. We have included some of our favourite varieties and you can find these listed below.

Aquilegia ‘Koralle’

This Aquilegia produces long red and yellow coloured flowers at the end of spring. It prefers being planted in full sun and reaches an eventual height of approximately 80cm, making it one of the taller varieties.

Aquilegia ‘Heavenly Blue’

This variety produces flowers that are light blue and white between May and June and grows to a height of 85cm. It is another taller growing variety.

Aquilegia ‘Rose Queen’

This variety gives you pink flowers with many-branched, flowering stems, each of which reaches about 80cm in height. The flowers on this Aquilegia are usually produced between May and June.

Aquilegia ‘White Star’

If you are looking for an Aquilegia that produces pure white flowers, this is the one to choose because it has stunning white flowers.

Aquilegia ‘Yellow Star’

If you want lemon-yellow flowers sitting on top of blue-green foliage and you need something that’s slightly shorter, around 60cm in height, this is the perfect Aquilegia. It is one of the slightly medium-sized varieties.

Aquilegia ‘Nivea’

This variety is one of the earlier bloomers and produces flowering stems in April. It likes full shade and gives you white blooms on stems that reach 80cm in height.

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guinness’ (Magpie)

Just like the bird, this variety has deep purple and white as well as black flowers. It is a unique Aquilegia because it prefers shade and grows a little bit taller than other varieties, eventually reaching around 90cm.

Aquilegia ‘Petticoat Pink’

As the name suggests, this one looks like a frilly petticoat with pink flowers and is perfect for someone looking for a variety that is a little distinctive.

Last update on 2022-03-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at john@pyracantha.co.uk

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