The Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website.  Pine Knot Farms hellebores

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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The Winter Landscape: Evergreens

evergreens in the landscapeThe role played by evergreens in the landscape could hardly be overstated in northern climates. The deciduous plant material in my landscape will finish their annual shedding come the end of October or the beginning of November. It will be another 6 months before I lay eyes on an emerging leaf. That is a long time to do without any green. Many evergreens have needles in lieu of leaves. A green needle presents a very small surface area to the extreme cold and desiccating winds that are common in our winters. Water evaporates from a needle at a much smaller rate than it does from a leaf. That size restraint nature bestowed on the chlorophyll producing needles of evergreens means they are able to survive the winter in spite of the fact that their roots are frozen, and unable to take up water or nutrients. An evergreen hardy in my zone is engineered to endure. This is not to say that evergreen needles cannot burned by extreme cold and wind-they can. But in a reasonable winter, the green will endure.  Leaves, whether they be from perennials, shrubs or trees, are not engineered to survive our winters.  Thus the mechanism that we know as fall causes plants to shed their leaves ahead of the deep freeze. Though an evergreen is dormant in the winter, they are able to sustain their green. That green is much darker, more somber and entirely fitting for a winter season. In looking at the above picture, I notice two things. My eye does not focus on the winter branches of the neighborhood maples. What I see first is the green. Secondly, I realize I may have devoted too much space to an evergreen presence in my landscape. I have my reasons.

summer landscapeThe time I have available to tend to my landscape is limited. I like to come home to a good look, not a a lot of work to be done on top of the workday I have already worked. This need for an orderly and low maintenance landscape is particular to me. What any gardener needs from a landscape and garden is particular to them, and the zone where they garden. My evergreens represent beautifully to my eye no matter the season, and no matter the weather. A landscape featuring trees and shrubs is a landscape that looks well kept, and can be kept well kept with a minimum amount of work, all year round. This picture taken in late summer illustrates how evergreens can provide structure to a landscape. Structure? The composition and form of my landscape is established by the evergreens. My Limelight hydrangeas break bud in April, and by the beginning of August their flowers are the star of the show. But the evergreens provide a foreground element, and a background element that enhances that look. The Hicks and densiformis yews disguise the woody green leaved legs of those hydrangeas. The arborvitae behind them provide a dark green backdrop that makes those greenish white blooms all the more striking.

summer landscapeI am appreciative of all the evergreens have to offer in season. They are obligingly green as can be. Evergreens are densely foliated and lush. They do an excellent job of screening an untoward view, or creating shapes of all kinds planted en mass. This spring I did no pruning whatsoever to them. The boxwood were pruned in late June of 2015, after the spring flush of grown. The spring growth in 2016 was relatively uniform, so I skipped pruning them. A year off the shears never hurt a plant or a gardener. The arborvitae should be pruned. A severe ice storm could prove damaging. Keeping them at a shorter and uniform height takes advantage of the strength inherent in a group. Some individual trees that seem wobbly are already kept in line by strapping their trunks in several places to the trunks of their neighbors with arborist’s tree tie webbing.

evergreens in the landscapeBut the time of year that I am most happy for my evergreens is the winter. That green in the off season is a pleasure and a comfort. They provide a visual sense of warmth and enclosure during a very cold and inhospitable time of year. The mature flower heads of the mass of the deciduous hydrangeas do add color and volume to the winter garden, no doubt. The evergreens not only provide green in the off season, they screen the view of the bare branches of the hydrangeas from the street view.

The snow we had last week was friendly to my landscape, in that the design and form established by the evergreens is still evident. Snow falling on an established structure of a variety of evergreens can be beautiful.

picea mucronataFour picea abies mucronata were in the front of the house when I bought it 20 years ago. They were about 4 feet tall when I transplanted them to the driveway side. That was the last time I did anything to them, except look at them. I do not need to weed, nor do I feed them.  I do water the hellebores in front of them when they need it. The needles go quite black green in winter.

spring landscapeIn the spring, the new growth is chartreuse.  My hellebores stay green most of the winter, although 4 ” of snow will completely cover them.

helleborus hybridusWe rarely have snow cover that comes in early January and persists until March. We have no snow on the ground now.  This is the third winter for this new batch of hellebores. As they were 4″ pots when I planted them, I think it is safe to say they are happy here. I am happy to have this evergreen groundcover patch to look at.

taxus densiformisThis spreading yew was big when I bought the house. I would guess it has been there over 30 years.  It is a great example of how evergreens can be used in an informal setting to great effect.  Buck occasionally complains that it has encroached on the driveway, but I rather like how it has softened the look of the stone and concrete brick drive. The bare patch of snow and dirt to the left? It is ferns and hostas in the summer. That spot will be bare until May.

boxwood green velvetBoxwood are broad leaved evergreens. They can be more susceptible to winter burn than needled evergreens, as those leaves have a big surface area through which water inside the leaf is constantly transpiring, or evaporating to the atmosphere. The most effective way I know to limit damage from winter burn is to spray them with a commercial grade antidessicant.  I use Vapor Gard. This water based wax is made from pine resin. The wax coats the leaves, and helps prevent moisture loss. I find it to be much more effective and much less unsightly than burlap. That said, in our truly terrible winter 3 years ago, I did have patches where the boxwood died back, leaves and stems.  The plants have begun to grow out of this. I do nothing to protect my boxwood, as they are all growing in fairly sheltered places. In January, they have a much stronger visual presence than my deciduous trees.

summer landscapeNo doubt the green of the boxwood in summer is vibrant. Live green, I call it.

winter landscapeThe dormant green is not as showy, but it is green nonetheless. The texture and shape stay the same throughout the seasons.  What the weather of each season does to the evergreens is my greatest source of pleasure in my own landscape.

winter containersThis is surely why most all of our winter containers feature cut evergreens. Even the trimmings will stay green all winter. Amazing, that.

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Saving The Best For Last

Persian ironwoodMy designing life may have been consumed with finishing up as many of our landscape projects as possible, and dealing with the demands of our holiday and winter container work, but the garden has never been far from my mind. Every day, as I am loading up the corgis in the morning, or preparing for them to disembark in the evening, I see what is pictured above. This antique French pot from Biot sits on an Italian terracotta socle, which in turn sits on top of the substantial stump of a maple that succumbed years ago to girdling roots. It was made in the early part of the 20th century by a French pottery that is no longer. I love the shape, the color, and the history. The pale yellow glazed rim finishes the hand thrown raw clay body. There is ample evidence of its age.  Moss spores have infiltrated the surface, and taken up residence. I have never felt the need to plant this pot, as I doubt a planting would make it look any better than it already does.  It pleases me to see this pot every day, in every season, year after year. In the summer, the ground is covered by Sum and Substance hostas, and ferns. In mid-November, the pot is embraced by a pair of Parrotias, just coming into fall color.

persian ironwoodThis essay is not really about my old garden pot. It is about a not so well known and underused small growing tree that saves the best of its beauty for the last of the year. Parrotia persica is the only species in the genus Parrotia. The tree matures at about 25′ tall, and as wide. My group of four trees has been in the ground for close to 20 years, and might be 18 feet tall.  Suffice it to say they grow very slowly. It is irregular growing, and branches out quite close to the ground.  Parrotia persica is one of only two only species in the genus Parrotia. The loosely oblong leaves are quite reminiscent of hamamelis, or witch hazel.  This is not surprising, as they are in the same family. Those leaves have a purple/copper colored  tinge when they emerge in the spring, which matures to a deep  rich green in summer.

persian ironwoodPersian ironwood is reputed to have some of the best fall color of any deciduous tree. A single tree may have red, yellow, orange and maroon colored leaves at the same time. Only once in a while do I get fall color like this.  In most years, the leaves turn yellow and peach, long after many other trees have already dropped their leaves. By the time they begin turning color, all of the hostas and ferns that grow in proximity to them have gone dormant.

persian ironwoodThe branch structure and exfoliating bark endows this tree with considerable winter interest.  The old bark sheds in a patchy way, revealing the new bark underneath. It is not uncommon for the bark on my trees to have green, yellow, peach, gray and brown coloration all at the same time. The bark does not shed in huge sheets like the London Plane.  I rarely notice the flaking bark on the ground. The literature says that parrotias bloom in very early spring, much like witch hazel.  Clusters of red stamens are surrounded by brownish bracts; the flowers do not have much in the way of petals.  The bloom is subtle.  That said, I have never seen my parrotias bloom.

parrotia persicaAt the end of December, the trees still had most of their leaves.  The yellow fall color had matured to a rich coppery color. Though the landscape and garden has gone dormant, this spot is still beautiful in color and texture. These leaves will hold most of the winter, no matter how tough that winter might be.  Some leaves will last long enough to be pushed off by the new leaves emerge in the spring. Should you have a winter season, a parrotia is at its most beautiful at that time of year. The picea abies “mucronata”, or dwarf Norway spruces, and the parrotias completely screen this part of my garden from the street.

The old pot has a sheltered place to be.

persian ironwoodAs a result of the horrifically cold winter we had three years ago, I did have twig die back in the midsection of this tree. That damage is easy to see in the picture above. I would have thought the damage from the cold and wind would have been most prominent at the top of the tree. I cannot explain what happened, but the trees have begun to recover. I have never seen any damage from insects or disease, and I do nothing to look after it besides watering the hostas around them during dry spells. Parrotias are remarkably healthy and just about maintenance free.

 

persian ironwoodI may have snow and cold for the next few months, but I will also have this parrotia, and three others, all decked out for winter.

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The Hydrangeas

Little Lime hydrangeasSometime between mid July and mid August, the Limelight hydrangeas come in to bloom. It is a moment worth waiting for. The fast growing large leaved plants bloom profusely on the current year’s growth. They are easy to cultivate, asking for not much more that some decent light and some regular water. The spectacularly large flowers are a gorgeous mixture of lime green and white. Limelight hydrangeas are known for their sturdy stems, which keep those flowers aloft in all but the stormiest weather. They do need a lot of room. A single well grown shrub can grow 8′ tall by 8′ wide. Hydrangea “Little Lime”, pictured above, is a hybrid of Limelight that only grows 4-5 feet tall, and as wide. They make themselves right at home in an informal or cottage style garden. But its relaxed habit of growth can look just as interesting in an alternative universe –  a more formal planting.

Little Lime hydrangeasThis mature size is not only friendly to smaller gardens, it looks great in a mass planting. This landscape is situated on a very steep slope, so these Little Limes are responding to the force of gravity. Some gardeners may find their sprawling habit unruly and irritating. Others will find them charming, even beautiful. They certainly endow the late summer garden with their willingness to bloom. All of the pictures in this post but one were taken on days with temperatures above 90 degrees.

hydrangea LimelightMy Limelights are 12 years old, or more.  Some years I prune them down to between 24″ and 30″ inches.  Some years I only remove the old flower heads and 6″ of stem. I always prune them in the spring, when the leaf buds begin to swell. The final result in terms of the flowering and height is fairly uniform, year to year, no matter how I prune. This illustrates the important of choosing shrubs whose mature size will fit the space that is available. I have been watering them twice a week for the past several months, as we have had very little rain.  The group to the far right in this picture get the least water, as they are difficult to reach.  They are shorter than usual, but they have plenty of flowers. How reliable they are to grow and bloom is a very good reason to plant them.

after the rainYesterday morning, after an exceptionally heavy and blustery rain, the water soaked flowers had fallen over in to the path. We’ll see what happens once they dry out. There is no staking hydrangeas at this stage.  If you are bound and determined to keep them upright, very stout and tall tomato cages need to be put in place in the spring. If the flower heads do not spring back up, I will cut some, put them in water, and let them dry indoors.

limelight hydrangeaLimelight hydrangeas can provide an easy going and breezy sense of enclosure. My hydrangeas are planted in a block, not in a single row.  Though the shrubs are very open growing, multiple staggered rows provide a dense green screen which makes my front yard garden quite private.

hedge of limelight hydrangeasGiven enough room, a generous sweep of Limelight hydrangeas can be quite architectural in feeling. Once these hydrangeas are pruned in the spring, they are not pruned again until the following spring.  Few deciduous shrubs can tolerate or perform well having been sheared. Hydrangeas are no exception. Prune to the best of your ability in the spring, and then turn loose of them. Looking for a rule?  The plants will tell you a very detailed story. Very few things bother hydrangeas.  They will bloom in part shade, but not as profusely. The flowers will be smaller, and the leaves will singe on the edges if they get too dry. I mulch them with bark fines in the spring after I prune. I water infrequently, but regularly. Outside of that, I just enjoy them.

limelight hydrangea Limelight is a hybrid of hydrangea paniculata.  Paniculata refers to the fact that the flower heads of these hydrangeas are comprised of hundreds of individual flowers arranged in a cluster around the flower stalk-this flower form is called a panicle. The individual florets will acquire a pink tinge as they age. When the temperatures cool down in the fall, the flowers will age to rose pink. I water the plants more in the early fall than I do in late summer. Truly?  The sure sign of a plant that has gone too dry are flowers that brown before their time. I do everything I can to extend the hydrangea season. I do leave the flower heads on all winter – why not?  Most of them stick tight throughout the winter for me.

August 10,2016 (64)I do not grow hydrangea Little Lime at home, but I have planted plenty of them elsewhere. Their shorter stature means there are flowers at eye level, on top of this retaining wall.  Had I planted the much bigger Limelight in this location, I would be looking in to the stems from the lower level. I recently planted a row of Little Limes in front of an old hedge of Limelights.  This will insure flowers from top to bottom.

August 10,2016 (71)The Little Limes smaller size makes them quite companionable to a host of other perennial and annual plants.

hydrangea BoboHydrangea Bobo is not related to either Limelight or Little Lime, but it is a panicle hydrangea.  Hybridized by Johan Van Huylenbroeck, the same breeder that developed the Pinky Winky hydrangea,  was patented and introduced by Proven Winners. Topping out at 3′ tall by up to 4′ wide, it is beautiful in a mass. Though this group has only been in the ground for 2 inhospitably hot and dry months, they are blooming.  By next year, the chances are good they will completely cover this large sunny area. I can cross this group of Bobo’s off my list of plantings to worry about. They’ll be back.

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