Garden log, 2.1.15

Winter blues seem to be hitting me harder this year than they usually do. I haven’t had the urge to get out and tinker on those intermittent warmish days. I started to wonder if my gardening verve had disappeared.

It’s amazing what a little springtime can do.


On a walk around the garden yesterday, I spotted my first hellebores of the year. How they fired me up! I promptly ran to the shed to extract a rake and hand pruners. I raked away the last of the fallen leaves and cut away all of last year’s hellebore foliage to better show off the emerging blooms. To my delight, I found hundreds of hellebore seedlings carpeting the ground around the mother plants. Once they’ve got their true leaves, I’ll transplant them to other spots in the garden that need some cheer.

If you’ve never grown hellebores, perhaps because you’ve been intimidated by the price at the garden center, it’s time to shake off that anxiety. It’s hard to think of a tougher plant that isn’t made of synthetic materials. As long as you have some bit of shade, however slight, you can grow hellebores. They grow brilliantly at the base of deciduous trees, even ones with intrusive roots like maples. And if you buy one or two plants in flower, they’ll reseed generously every year. It takes them about three years to grow from seedling to flowering size, but the seedlings are charming in the meantime and can be spread out to cover what grim, bare earth you’ve got.

hellebore seedlings

Hellebore seedlings can take what nature throws at them.

Did I mention that they flower for ages? Last year mine were in bloom for a full four months, finishing up when the rest of the garden had found its footing.

Honestly, there’s no reason not to treat yourself to a few plants. Go on.


Lenten roses in bloom mean spring is nearly here

At long last, the Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) are blooming. It seemed they would stay in bud forever.

helleborus orientalis

helleborus orientalis

helleborus orientalis

It’s hard not to adore these flowers. They bloom for me from February through late May, have evergreen foliage, and are as tough as my old biology teacher. They grow everywhere except in the baking sun and are quite happy in the dry clay at the feet of my post oaks and thirsty Japanese maples. They represent a much better ground cover choice than English ivy, which is invasive here. I give my hellebores a quick drink when I plant them and then leave them to it, revisiting them only to trim back dead foliage once a year and occasionally move their seedlings about.

They’re pricey at the garden center, so see if you can’t find a fellow gardener to share a flowering clump. Hellebores flower three years after starting from seed, but the ground cover effects begin immediately.

Sasanqua season

It’s Camellia sasanqua season. Mine have just started to bloom.

Camellia sasanqua 'Chansonette'

These evergreen shrubs, which are hardy in USDA Zones 7-9, are less well known than their spring-blooming counterparts, Camellia japonica. Typically, sasanqua leaves are slightly smaller. They are less prone to many diseases than their japonica brothers and sisters. I’ve only ever seen camellia leaf gall on mine, and that disease is easily controlled by plucking off the swollen leaves. Never compost leaves infected with leaf gall, or the spores may overwinter and spread.

camellia sasanqua 'Chansonette' bud

In the way of care, Camellia sasanquas appreciate light pruning for shape, as they get leggy on their way to 6-10′ high and 5′ wide. Feed with an organic, slow-release fertilizer like cottonseed meal or a fertilizer indicated for azaleas, and mulch with compost a few times a year. They do require acid soil (a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is recommended), and prefer light shade to direct sun exposure.

These lovely shrubs bloom throughout the fall and winter and into very early spring. To my mind, this makes them indispensable. If your winters are relatively mild (lows to 5 F or -15 C), Camellia sasanqua is well worth its space in the garden.

Camellia sasanqua 'Two Marthas'

I love this plant: Northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium

I found this plant, Chasmanthium latifolium, growing under our magnolia tree, of all places. Magnolia grandiflora. Nothing grows under these trees.

And yet, here it was, quietly going about its business, seed heads waving and bobbing in the breeze. So I dug it up and moved it to where I could properly appreciate it: next to the spot where I park my car.

Northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium

As you might expect, given that it grows where no plant dares grow, it’s not fussy about location. In my garden, it grows well in sun or shade, with water (like this year) or without (like under the magnolia). Mine grows about two to three feet tall, depending on the light and water available (staying short when conditions are harsh). It reseeds a bit, but not aggressively. Just enough to make sure I have plenty of this graceful evergreen grass around.

Most of the year, it’s a bright, clear apple green. In the fall, the seed heads become tinged with rose.

Northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium seed head

Eventually, I plan to give it a more dignified spot, but it’s happy where it is for now, and I’m happy to see it every time I come home.