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.

Hellebores

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.

Helleborus experimentalis

I recently read Gayla Trail’s post about her fear of growing hellebores. I was surprised to learn that many people seem to feel trepidation about growing these plants. They are pricey, certainly, but for me they have been so easy as to be almost ridiculous. I have given mine absolutely no coddling and while my soil isn’t the worst in the world, I think, it isn’t going to win any “Best Tilth” awards, either.

I am conducting a little experiment, then, to see just how tough a hellebore can be. My only expectation is that at least one of these clumps should thrive in spite of me.

I dug up a few clumps of seedlings with my beloved garden knife. Note the exemplary growing conditions.

Experiment methodology:

  1. Dig a hole the same size as the transplant (no larger).
  2. Plop it into the hole (do not amend soil).
  3. Mash with foot.
  4. Do not water.
  5. Do not feed.
  6. Do not tend.
  7. Return periodically to assess progress or demise.

playhouse site

Test Plot A: The kids’ playhouse.  Just above the concrete block on the left of the photo is a window from which the children pretend to sell ice cream. It gets plenty of foot traffic. This is also the landing site for the bucket on a pulley, which hoists things to the fort’s lookout level. The soil here has never been amended, unless you count the occasional covering with a wood chip mulch to cut down on the mud. This site is in deep shade and grass can’t grow here. Assuming similar conditions to neighboring undeveloped garden spaces, the pH here is 4.8.

water meter, west facing

Test Plot B: West-facing gravel scree atop the water meter. This site receives neither foot traffic nor love. The most human attention it gets is a scowl from me as I leave the driveway, thinking “I have got to do something about that space.” May occasionally receive attention from dogs being walked. There are lots of neighborhood dogs.

barren south facing site

Test Plot C: South-facing, against the concrete foundation. The soil here is completely untended, rock-solid clay. I expect it to receive some foot traffic as it is in the access path for any people and equipment who will be working on the addition to our house this summer.

living above ground

Test plot D: No-man’s land behind the shed. Test Subject D, slightly more mature than its counterparts, will live above ground, simply in the clod in which it was dug up. This is in a shady site behind my shed, where large pots and leftover bricks are stored.

These test plantings were established and photos taken on March 28, 2013. We’ll check in periodically and see how they fare.

Cultivating patience

Of all the produce yielded by the habit and practice of gardening, perhaps the most important product is patience. I often believe I have this in short supply; perhaps the mice in my shed eat it. But despite what may be observed at, say, the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which I used to attend regularly when I lived in the Windy City, nature will not be rushed.  So patience is forced upon me.

purple hellebore

Most of my hellebores I acquired from my neighbor Martha, and are the standard white and rose-colored ones. But a few years ago on my annual pilgrimage to Big Bloomers Flower Farm, I decided to spring for a hellebore in a different color and spice up the mix a bit. I thought I was getting a blackish-blue one, and of course by now I’ve lost the tag and can’t find the scrap of paper on which I scribbled down the name. I’ve waited two years for it to bloom.

Finally, it is blooming. As you can see, it’s not blackish blue, but a deep violet-burgundy. It has been in this bud stage for three weeks but has refused to open up.

Today is the day.

purple hellebore profile

It grows much closer to the ground than my other hellebores; it’s only about 4 inches tall. I must kneel with my ear to the ground, literally, to look into its blossom. This is not a becoming posture for me so, wishing not to be an unpleasant neighbor, I decided perhaps I’d better just turn its face up to me instead.

purple hellebore in bloom

I had a lovely lunch with my friend Ginger today. We are a generation apart in age but we have similar professional backgrounds and interests. Our conversation turned to hellebores and we decided we may try to explore the hellebore specialist Pine Knot Farms together one of these days. Perhaps they can identify this one for me. I think they originally grew it, actually.

It was a long wait for this little guy, but worth it, not least for its perpetual reminder that everything happens in its own time. If I am lucky, patience may prove for me to be one of those volunteers that pops up in the garden out of nowhere; one that I know for certain I did not plant but am thrilled to see. If I am honest with myself I will want it to grow six inches a day and flower abundantly for six months. I am determined, though, to nurture it so that though it may grow very slowly, it will be sturdy and resilient.

 

Helleborus orientalis

Image

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose):

white hellebore flowering

Passed along to me by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (late December or early January, on until April or early May), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in the way of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage.

Consider this plant as an alternative to English ivy for a groundcover beneath large trees. (English ivy is invasive in many areas of the United States.) Hellebores grow in dry shade, even at the bases of oak and maple trunks. But they’ll perform equally well in slightly more hospitable areas. I grow mine under azaleas and rhododendrons, at the bases of trees, in the dry no-man’s land by my front steps, and in clusters in beds throughout the garden.

purple hellebore in bloom

They are expensive at the nursery or garden center, but if you have a neighbor who grows them, he or she probably has plenty to share. If you can get a mature clump or two in flower, in time to drop seed in your garden, you’ll be set. Hellebores reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings, like the ones below, by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in, unless it’s exceptionally dry. hellebore seedlings

By the way, seedlings are generally much more congested than this. Simply pluck them up and put them where you want them. The plants do take about three years to flower from seed, but they leaf out quickly and provide a fresh evergreen groundcover as they grow. Wouldn’t you rather look at this than at mulch?

Helleborus orientalis

The only real maintenance I do is to cut off any tatty looking foliage when I see it. Not a burdensome task.

Pine Knot Farms is an excellent grower of these magnificent plants. Give them a try.

January check-up

We had a “wintry mix” on Thursday night and on Saturday I took a stroll around the garden to check on my seeds post-precip. There is so much going on in the garden, even though from the house it looks merely like a field of mud.

Hundreds of hellebore seedlings are coming up (and apparently, my plant choices make me terribly fashionable). My acanthus is looking fine, although I need to move it to a place where it can show off properly. (One problem with acanthus is that moving it is essentially dividing it; it’s hard to get all pieces of the roots and they do come back from root fragments). (c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchellMy yellow crocus along the front walk are flowering, and crocus foliage is up elsewhere in the garden. It goes without saying that the daffodils are poking through everywhere.

The blueberries are all showing buds, as are the stems on my shrub roses. This reminds me that I need to spray the roses to force them into dormancy, at least for a short time. The new bronze foliage emerging on a few of the roses will not do for January. The roses must have at least a short period of dormancy if they’re to do well in the summer. And the Rosa banksiae lutea, which I moved late last summer and was uncertain whether it would survive, seems to be doing well enough. This means I had better get cracking on building the new screen upon which I expect it to luxuriate.

And my seeds! Holy cow, so much germination. The pans of dill, beets, kale, feverfew, poppies (Danebrog, paeoniflora, and California), coreopsis, urtica (nettles), the red hollyhocks, geum, pink nicotiana, English lavender, rue, blue flax, bachelor’s button, chamomile, Thymus vulgaris, tithonia, alyssum, gaillardia, and Anemone hupehensis ‘Pamina’ have all sprouted. I am not worried about the dill, beets, and kale. Beyond that, who knows? Time to put in a query to my winter sowing compatriots to ask whether it’s time to panic.

Finally, rethinking my part-shade trellis seems more and more advisable. I may prefer an evergreen screen, but this is not something to be rushed into.

There are always ideas simmering away.