How To Grow Columbines (A Comprehensive Guide)

Columbine, also called crowfoot or granny’s bonnet, is an easy-to-grow stunning perennial flower that does well in various climates.

Columbines are unique, with tall stalks ranging from six inches to three feet tall, a dangling bell-like shape, and nectar-filled spurs that are irresistible to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Columbine flowers have pastel petals and are often bi-colored, blooming in various bright colors that ensure they stand out on their own and look even better when you plant them in a group.

Despite their delicate look, columbines are hardy, drought-tolerant, and resistant to various diseases and pests. 

They can withstand cold winter temperatures well and are mainly grown as ornamental perennials due to their toxicity to humans and animals when ingested.

Columbines have evolved into many variations and hybrids, making them suitable for different planting styles, garden spaces, and designs.

Read on to learn how to grow columbines and enjoy eye-catching colors in your flower bed, garden, or backyard. 

Columbines Overview

Common NameColumbine
Botanical NameAquilegia
FamilyRanunculaceae
Plant TypePerennial
Size When Mature6-24 inches wide, 6-12 inches tall
Sun ExposurePartial/Light shade
Soil TypeWell-draining, loamy, or sandy soil
pH of SoilNeutral
Blooming TimeSummer, spring
Color of FlowersRed, pink, orange, purple, yellow, white
Hardiness Zones3-9 (USDA)
NativityEurope, Asia, and North America
MaintenanceLow to moderate

Planting Columbines

Columbines are planted mainly by sowing seeds gathered from existing plants. Columbines are easy to grow from seeds or nursery plants and even self-sow when left alone after getting established by spreading their seeds to nearby soil.

You can choose from multiple columbine varieties, and seeds are available from retail nurseries, mail-order suppliers, and plant specialists. The plants flower a year after sowing the seeds.

Dividing an existing plant to make new ones is also an option, but this method isn’t recommended. Columbines have deep and fragile roots that don’t respond well to movements or disturbances.

The plant will find it hard to establish itself if the root systems are damaged.

Where to Plant Columbines

You can plant columbines in partial shade or full sun. Choose a spot with partial shade where the plant gets the pleasant morning sun and a break from the harsh afternoon sun for the healthiest and best flowering plants.

If you’re in a cooler region, the plant can handle full sun, but it shouldn’t be greater than six hours daily. Since they don’t handle too much heat very well, columbines can struggle in the full sun if planted in warmer regions. 

You can plant columbines in almost any soil, provided it’s well-draining. Sandier, loamier soil is preferred, but it will grow well in just about everywhere.

It’s a suitable choice for problematic areas in your garden with soil that’s in poor quality where fussier plants won’t be able to grow. You can also amend dense clay soils by adding sand and compost to improve drainage before planting.

When to Plant Columbines

You can sow columbines directly in the ground in the fall or after the frost has passed and the weather gets warm.

Columbines are cold hardy, so you can also plant them in the summer and allow them to establish themselves before the frost sets in. They can tolerate cold well, handle small touches of frost and chilled soil over winter down to zone 3, and emerge in the next spring. 

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Warm weather can also be handled by columbines and grow up to zone 9 but prefer a milder climate over too much heat.

To avoid stress, keep your plant well-watered in hot summer weather and it must be protected from harsh sunlight.

How to Plant Columbines

  • You can plant the seeds in the ground directly in spring or summer. Find a spot with full or partial sun and well-draining soil.
  • Clear any weeds to prepare the site and loosen the soil a few inches to improve aeration and make it easier for tender roots to establish in a downward direction without resistance. You can mix compost and sand to improve nutrient availability and drainage in poor-quality soil before planting. 
  • Once the soil is ready, sprinkle the seeds evenly over the soil in rows. 
  • Press the seeds gently downwards to ensure contact with soil but don’t cover them because they require light to germinate. 
  • Water the area slowly to ensure the seeds don’t get displaced. Keep the soil moist but not soggy.
  • Seedlings should sprout in around 3 to 4 weeks. Thin out the sprouts once the first few leaves appear, removing the worst-performing plants and keeping those with the strongest growth and healthy-looking leaves. You can also thin them out according to spacing instructions to prevent overcrowding.
  • In the early stages of growth, make sure the soil is moist until the plant is well established. You can limit watering when the development of several sets of leaves has begun. 
  • Care for the plant through the first year but don’t expect flowers. Seed-grown columbines need the first season to grow a healthy root system, and blooms only appear in the second year. 

Caring For Columbines

Columbines are low to medium-maintenance perennials, and caring for them is relatively simple.

A few essential factors to keep in mind to ensure the plants thrive and remain healthy include:

Watering

Consistent moisture is necessary during the early growth stages, like germination and seedling.

Avoid waterlogging and oversaturation, as this can suffocate the roots and result in rotting. You can reduce watering to once a week once the plant is established and has a lot of new growth.

In areas with high levels of rainfall, you don’t need to water as often. The plants may need extra summer watering once the weather becomes hot, especially if you plant them in the full sun but avoid overwatering.

Leave the soil to dry slightly before watering, and look out for drooping stems and wilting foliage which may show that there’s not enough water.

Fertilizing

Columbines don’t usually require heavy fertilization, and a top dressing of well-rotted manure or compost can be enough to keep the plant blooming well.

It can protect the soil from high temperatures, keep weeds down, and provide enough nutrients over the season. 

You can also apply a slow-releasing fertilizer to encourage bright flowers and thick foliage if your plant isn’t performing well. Water-soluble fertilizers once a month can also help, and you can determine the amount to use by following the seed packet instructions.

Remember, columbines are generally short-lived and only last a few seasons, so plants not growing or flowering may have reached the end of their life cycle and may not have a nutrient problem.

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Weeding and Pruning

Weeding regularly is necessary to avoid competing for resources and discourage insect infestation.

Pruning and deadheading the flowers can help established plants conserve energy and encourage growth. It’s also an excellent way to prevent self-seeding, promote more blooming, and maintain a tidy appearance. 

You can cut back columbines to about half their height to keep the plant green after flowering and promote stem growth within a few weeks for a new wave of blooms later in the season.

You can snip the flower stems at the base after blooming to encourage a long flowering season.

Cut flowers last well in the vase when half open, with a vase life of 5 to 7 days.

Pest Control

A number of pests can affect your columbine plants, and leaf miners are the most common.

Leaf miners can wind through the leaves and lay eggs on the leaves’ underside, which starts up their spread. The larvae eat through the leaf tissue once the eggs hatch, hence their name: “leaf miner”. 

The damage is cosmetic and not deadly, however, the marks can be unsightly on the foliage. You can pick off the eggs when you spot them. You can also apply neem oil to control and suffocate the pests so that the eggs won’t hatch.

If most of the affected leaves are already gone, you can remove them and throw them away. 

Small, soft-bodied insects called aphids can also affect your columbine plants. They can chew on the plant and cause the leaves to turn yellow, curl, or become distorted. They can also encourage sooty mold growth by excreting a sticky substance called honeydew.

Using pesticides is discouraged as it can affect beneficial insects. Instead, you can use neem oil, insecticidal soap, or release ladybugs into the garden.

Disease Control

Powdery mildew is the only disease you’ll likely encounter with columbines. It’s a fungal disease that appears as white, powdery growth on the stems and leaves of the columbine plant.

It can start as small circular spots that rapidly expand and become irregularly shaped, eventually falling out or tearing and leaving holes in the leaves, causing them to yellow, wither, and fall off.

It can spread from one plant to another, so it’s vital to prune all affected leaves and destroy them to stop the spread of this disease.

Proper air circulation and adequate sunlight can help prevent and control powdery mildew. You can also prune all affected leaves and destroy them or use organic fungicides.

Ensure you spray the plants in the evenings to reduce the impact on pollinating insects.

How To Grow Columbines In Pots

Columbines make good potted plants and grow well in containers provided you provide enough light, the right soil type, and proper balanced fertilizer.

You can grow columbines in pots by direct sowing or by starting with a small grow pot indoors and transplanting the seedlings into a container or pot.

Direct Sowing

  • Choose a pot with excellent drainage that can accommodate the plant’s mature size. One columbine plant will need a pot at least 12 inches in diameter for the first few years. 
  • Fill the pot with an all-purpose potting mix and add a layer of mulch if you like. 
  • Moisten the soil mix before sowing, and sprinkle the seeds over the soil. Press them down gently to ensure contact. You don’t need to cover the seeds. 
  • Place the pot in a cool spot until the seeds sprout, then move it to a warmer area with indirect sunlight for further growth. Avoid placing it directly in sunlight, as it can scorch the tender leaves. 
  • Add liquid fertilizer twice during the growing season and water regularly. Columbine grown in containers will need more frequent watering in warmer months.
Also read  How To Grow And Care For Creeping Phlox

Starting Seeds Indoors

You can sow seeds indoors in the late winter or around 1-2 months before the last frost date in your area.

  • Start with a suitable tray, jiffy pellet, or peat pot that allows you to plant the seeds separately and minimizes handling and root disturbance during transplantation. 
  • Fill them with a seed starting mix. You can purchase the mix or make your own using one part perlite, two-part peat moss or coconut coir, and one part vermiculite to ensure well-draining, airy, and has enough moisture for germination.
  • Add some water to the soil mix, sprinkle the seeds, then press them gently to ensure contact. Avoid covering the seeds as they require light to germinate.
  • Place them in a warm and sunny indoor location. The seeds will germinate in around 30 days. 
  • Seedlings require 16 hours of light, so grow them under a growing light until they’re ready for transplantation. 
  • Once they develop a pair of true leaves and reach around 3 to 4 inches tall, harden them off for 7 to 10 days to allow the young plants to get stronger and acclimatize to changes in wind, temperature, sunlight, and rain before transplanting. This can involve moving the tray or peat pot outdoors for a few hours daily. 
  • Transplant the seedlings into larger containers or your garden and space according to the variety. Ensure you work carefully to keep the roots intact and replant immediately. 
  • Water sufficiently and maintain consistent soil moisture until the plants are established. 

Conclusion

Columbines grow well in different environments and climate conditions and make an attractive addition to various planting or gardening designs.

Their charming appearance suits cottage gardens, mountain gardens, wildflower gardens, containers, and pots in your yard or patio.

They’re easy to care for and only require adequate watering, mulching, and occasional deadheading to stay healthy and beautiful.

Best of all, the seeds can spread independently once established, so that these delightful blooms remain abundant!

Lucy Young

Meet Lucy, a seasoned gardener with a green thumb and a wealth of experience cultivated over 10 years in her own backyard oasis. Now, she channels her passion into writing, sharing invaluable gardening knowledge on her website. From nurturing plants to expert pruning techniques, Lucy's articles are a treasure trove for both seasoned enthusiasts and budding gardeners. Join her on this leafy journey as she sprinkles insights, tips, and tricks to help you create your own flourishing paradise. Get ready to dig into her gardening wisdom and unlock the secrets of a thriving garden!

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