Soil and Sun for Columbine Flowers
Columbines, or aquilegia, are lovely woodland plants with blooms in a variety of colors that are surprisingly easy to grow. Since they grow wild in woodland and mountain areas, they do best in a location with partial sun or dappled shade. They will suffer in full afternoon sun, so observe the spot where you want to plant columbine for a few days to see how much sun it will get.
Try to choose a spot that is sunny in the morning and lightly shaded in the afternoon, perhaps near trees. The best soil for columbines is moist and rich. It shouldn’t dry out too quickly, but shouldn’t show puddles after rain, either. A note for high-altitude gardeners: columbine can be planted up to 9,000 feet, and some varieties thrive even at 10,000 feet.
Starting Columbine Flowers from Seed
You may want to try growing columbine on your own from seed. It is a biennial plant that will not flower until its second year, however. Columbine seeds must have a cold period of three to four weeks before germination will occur. Keep your seed packets in the refrigerator before sowing in the spring, or simply plant seeds in the fall and let nature take its course in the spring.
They should be planted in moist soil, and covered with a shallow sprinkling of soil. Then place them in a warm, sunny location until germination, which should take about 30 days. Columbine seedlings can be transplanted outside after they develop their first pair of true leaves and are a few inches tall.
Growing Columbine Flowers in Containers
Columbines do well in containers, but remember they will attract hummingbirds and bees wherever they are placed. If you want to see hummingbirds outside your window, try a window box. If you don’t want bees on your doorstep, place columbine away from entrances. Columbines don’t like deep soil beds, so a shallow container works fine. Be sure you plant them in a rich flower potting mix that will retain enough water, and follow the above guidelines for sun and shade.
Make sure they have lateral room; plant columbines at least a foot apart, as they will spread out quickly once they are established. In a container, columbines will dry out more than usual, so mulch is a good idea to keep the moisture in the soil. Apply a light layer of mulch around the base of the plants. This also has the benefit of keeping the soil cooler, since columbines don’t do well with heat.
Caring for Columbine Flowers
Don’t let columbines dry out too much. Water when the soil is dry, and fertilize about once a month with liquid fertilizer. Regular fertilizing will help the plants produce their brightly colored blooms and grow thick foliage.
Another option is to add a time-release fertilizer in granulated form into the soil at planting time. Deadhead the flowers as they wilt throughout the summer and fall, if you aren’t planning to reseed more columbines with the seedpods. This also will keep the flowers blooming longer.
If your columbines are vigorous enough to overgrow their container or location by midsummer, you may want to prune them back a little for maintenance. Serious pruning of established columbines, however, should be done in the early spring, when it encourages new growth. Don’t prune when the plant is still growing in the fall, as this will signal it to put on more growth, which will likely be damaged by frosts.
Divide columbines every two or three years to help them stay strong, by digging them up, shaking off the soil, and gently pulling the roots apart to yield a new section of plants. Columbines don’t last forever in one planting; you can expect three to five years of good blooms before starting again with new seeds.
Want to learn more about growing columbines?
The Denver Plant Company provides information and seeds from the state whose national flower is columbine.
Colorado State University’s Plant Talk site discusses care of columbines.
See some common varieties of columbine in a directory of perennials from The University of Illinois’ Urban Extension.