how to plant, grow & care for aquilegias
complete growing guide
Aquilegias are invaluable for flowering in May and early June when there is surprisingly little colour in the garden. Aquilegias come in a wide range of colours and some varieties have dark stems that contrast wonderfully with the flowers. It is no surprise that they have been used as cut flowers since medieval times. The foliage is very attractive too and will give a fresh flush if cut back after flowering. We sell aquilegia seed for spring sowing as well as plants that can be ordered for planting in the spring.
- Common name: Columbine or Granny's Bonnet
- Latin name: Aquilegia
- Type: Hardy Perennial
- Height: 60cm (2ft)
- TLC rating: Easy
- Aspect: Full Sun, Part Shade
- Planting position: Middle of the border
- Suitable for pots: Yes, pots need to be at least 30cm deep
- Good for pollinators: Yes
- Good for cut flowers: Yes
how to grow aquilegias
where to grow aquilegias
Soil type: Aquilegias are fairly unfussy about soil type. A neutral, moist but well drained soil will do well.
Aspect & position: Aquilegia is happy in full sun or partial shade. As a medium height plant, it is best in the middle of the border, although will seed itself about given half a chance.
when to plant aquilegias
Pot grown aquilegia plants can be planted from February to November, although they may establish better in spring. If you want to grow your aquilegia from seed, sow indoors between January and May and direct sow outdoors from April – June.
how to plant aquilegias
growing aquilegia from seed
Sow thinly on to moist compost in a seed tray between January and May. If seeds are slow to germinate, they may need stratification, in other words a cold - warm cycle to trick them into thinking they have been through a cold winter. Cover the seed tray with polythene and put in a fridge at 0-5°C for two to three weeks. Remove the tray and place in a greenhouse/windowsill at approx. 18-21°C. Remove the polythene when the seeds start to germinate (this may take 30-90 days). Transplant the seedlings into 7cm pots and grow on into sturdy plants. Plant out in the border about 45cm apart in groups of three for a more naturalistic look. The seed can also be sown direct outdoors in the border from April-June.
planting containerised aquilegia plants
When your plants arrive remove the packaging and stand pots upright in a bucket or wheelbarrow of water for 20 minutes, to give the roots a good drink. Plant in well prepared ground in groups of 3 or more. Sprinkle mycorrhizal fungi (Rootgrow) onto the roots and water well after planting.
how to care for aquilegias
Once your aquilegia plants have established, they shouldn’t need any additional watering. If you cut back the leaves after flowering, give the plant a drink to encourage the next flush of foliage.
Aquilegias do not need to be pruned, but you may wish to cut back the foliage after flowering if the leaves are beginning to look scruffy. Give the plant a drink and a compost mulch and you will be rewarded with a lovely fresh flush of foliage in a few weeks.
Aquilegias are an easy plant to grow and need little after care once they are established. In fact, they are so happy they will self-seed given the right conditions, although offspring are unlikely to look exactly like their parents. This might be just what you want if you are filling a new border. But if you are keen to maintain distinct varieties (aquilegias are notoriously promiscuous), and if you like a semblance of order in the garden, you can prevent this by cutting down the seed heads after flowering.
You can also collect the seeds from your aquilegia plants. Wait for the flower to die back to an attractive papery seed head. Use a paper bag to hold over the stem and tap until all the seeds land in the bag. Alternatively cut the stems and hang upside down inside a large paper bag to dry and catch all the seed in the bag. Store in a paper envelope once they are completely dry and label carefully as the seeds are poisonous if eaten.
- Sow seeds indoors in early spring, and direct outside from April
- Plant seedlings out in the border
- Deadhead seed heads
- Cut back foliage
- Mulch around the base of the plants with compost.
pests, diseases & common issues
Aquilegia are relatively pest and disease free but recently a few problems have appeared that you need to watch out for.
aquilegia downy mildew
A particularly virulent fungal infection that started to attack aquilegias a few years ago and can still be a problem in some gardens. It begins as a yellow blotch on the leaves and soon spreads as a dark blotch on the stems and flowers. The white powdery spores eventually spread over the whole plant. Remove and destroy affected plants as soon as it appears. Do not replant the area with aquilegia for at least a year. As it is air borne it is exacerbated by damp weather and poor air circulation, so do not plant aquilegias too closely.
Aquilegia sawfly is a small green larva that starts to eat the edges of the leaves in the spring. The adult beetles lay eggs on the underside of the leaves, and if enough larvae hatch out they can defoliate whole plants. Check for leaf damage and squash the pale green caterpillars as you spot them. Plants will usually recover with a second flush of foliage later in the summer.
why are my aquilegia leaves turning yellow?
This can be a sign of the downy mildew, see above, or if it is throughout the plant it could be a symptom of drought or stress. If the problem persists after watering, cut back the foliage, mulch and see if it returns. If it does, it could well be disease, so remove the plant and destroy.
what is eating my aquilegia?
Thankfully neither deer nor rabbits will eat aquilegia, so it is likely to be an insect pest of some sort. If something is nibbling the edges of the leaves it is likely to be sawfly, see above. Aphids will occasionally suck the sap and leaf miners can tunnel through the leaves, which need to be removed and destroyed.
frequently asked questions
do aquilegia prefer sun or shade?
They are happy in either. Sometimes the white forms can work particularly well to brighten up a dark corner.
how to collect aquilegia seeds?
Wait for the flower to die back to a seed head. Put a paper bag over the stem or cut the stem and hang upside down in a paper bag to catch all the seed. Store in a paper envelope once they are completely dry and label carefully as the seeds are poisonous if eaten.
what conditions do aquilegia like?
As one of our native plants, aquilegia vulgaris are well adapted to most of our garden soils and conditions. They prefer a moist, well-drained soil and are happy in sun or dappled shade. They do not need much fertiliser, if the leaves are too lush they can be susceptible to fungal disease, so make sure there is plenty of air circulation around the plants. Some of the cultivars bred from North American forms prefer to be in a more open sunny position.
do aquilegia self-seed?
Yes, they do, so if you want to make sure your varieties aren’t diluted out by various coloured offspring then remove the seed heads before they drop their seed.
are aquilegia hardy?
Yes, they are very hardy, the leaves will die back in the winter and start to emerge in early spring.
are aquilegia seeds poisonous?
Yes, all parts of the plants are toxic, so wear gloves or wash your hands after handling.
how tall does aquilegia grow?
Most of our native varieties grow to about 50cm. Some of the North American hybrids have much bigger heads and grow up to a metre tall.
what to grow with aquilegias
As a cottage garden plant aquilegia combine well with a wide range of spring bulbs and later perennials. Their attractive foliage is useful to hide the dying leaves of daffodils and alliums.
how to cut & arrange aquilegias
Aquilegias only last 3-4 days in water, but are so elegant they are worth it. Sear the stem ends in boiling water and stand them in deep water for several hours before arranging.
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