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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March 1

Detroit Garden Works retreats into a semi-closed state from January 15 until the first of March.  During that time we do repairs, repaint, clean, and rearrange. An over simplified outtake on of law of nature we call entropy posits that everything tends to fall apart. Anyone who has ever had a garden, a washing machine or a favorite pair of boots understands how true this is. So every winter we take on a building maintenance project of one sort or another. 10,000 square feet and everything we have in it is a lot to keep clean and in working order. Once that is done, we rearrange every room to include all of the new things for spring that have been coming in since last September. That is an incredibly labor intensive and time consuming job, but by March 1, the shop will have that spring fresh look to it. I know we are just about ready for opening day when Rob is out photographing.

The landscape crews forego the lion’s share of  their winter off to participate in re-imagining the shop for the coming season.  This involves lots of patience moving fragile items, lots of sheer manpower for those incredibly heavy and awkward things, and plenty of attention to detail.  I will confess to asking to move some things around multiple times until I feel the design of it reads right to me. In better than 20 years, I have yet to hear a complaint. At that moment when I am too worried that a direction I have chosen will not work out, Marzela has been known to tell me that that we have it all in hand.

Detroit Garden WorksIt is hard to describe the process by which we turn over a past season to a new one. It is a big fluid situation. Every year, I am surprised by how a small group of people manage to transform the atmosphere of a big space from what was past to the present. The entire process from the patching and painting to the finish runs between 3 and 4 weeks. My job as a designer has a yearly winter project that goes on in my own house.

Detroit Garden Works has been in business going on 21 years. We are in the midsection of the country, 30 miles north of Detroit. That geography may define what plants we are able to grow, but it by no means defines or confines our vision of the garden to the midwest. This means that a gardener who plants herbs in a vintage wood crate is just as likely to find something for their garden as the person who values the clean lines of a contemporary  garden pot. Gardeners are a very diverse lot, and what Rob buys for the shop reflects that.

This group of stone troughs, sinks, and staddle stones that Rob purchased in England this past September are all better than 100 years old, and are covered in lichen colonies that speak to their great age. The large stones with iron rings in the center are cheese stones, that were used to squeeze excess water out of the cheese by virtue of their sheer weight. Though their history is agricultural, their effect in a garden is sculptural.

A collection of English made wood birdhouses in a traditional style are as whimsical as they are utilitarian.

A collection of baskets, chimney stones, wood grape crates, galvanized buckets and steel bird and dog cutout sculptures complete one part of the 2017 collection.

Another room is full of classical antique and vintage urns, benches, tables, sundials, and sculpture.  Any of these garden ornaments would compliment a traditional garden.  It is just as likely that any one of them could organize or define the mood of a garden.

Objects for the garden can set a tone, create a mood, or organize a space. It only takes a gardener who is interested to take their garden to that level. A garden ornament may be dear, or not.  What gives it an aura is the selection and placement of a gardener who who has something else to express about a garden that means much to them.

pussy willow

Of course, our shop would be incomplete without plants.  At this very early stage of thje season, we do have fresh cut pussy willow twigs, both straight and branches.  And a collection of fan willow. The stars of our March season are the hellebores.  By far and away, they are the mainstay of the early spring perennial garden. Our collection this year numbers close to 1500 plants, in various sizes.  We carry named varieties, and a large collection of the justly well known Pine Knot Farms hellebore strains.  How pleased we are to be able to offer these hellebores for the first time.

For those of you too far away to see our collection in person, we can take pictures, and we do ship. And by all means enjoy the following pictures that Rob has taken of individual plants. It is just about impossible for me to pick a favorite. That could account for the fact that I have lots of them in my garden. A hellebore purchased now will be perfectly happy in a light and cool spot until it can be planted outdoors the beginning of April.  This early dose of spring is so welcome. It could be that the best part of the winter landscape is the beginning of the end of winter.

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The Winter Landscape: Plant Hardiness

Plants are very specific about what soil, light and water conditions they need to thrive. Any gardener who has moved a sulking plant around 3 or 4 times before striking pay dirt understands this. It is simple to spot a plant that is unhappy.  Figuring out the cause of the trouble can be tough, as there are so many factors that come in to play. There are those plants, in defiance of every good intention and effort to find them a suitable home, that fail to prosper. I have killed outright plenty of plants. Given that every plant has a strong will to live and reproduce, those failures are frustrating and embarrassing. Figuring out what a plant needs to thrive is 2 parts science, 2 parts luck, and 6 parts good instincts. The hellebores in the above picture look unhappy, as they always do in February. They like the filtered sun, protection from wind, the friable soil and regular moisture that is available to them here in the growing season. They have what they need to thrive. What they do not like in February is the cold. Before any plant in a Michigan garden can thrive, it has to be able to survive our winters.

Plant hardiness zones indicate a worst case low temperature for different parts of the country. The USDA, in compiling data from weather stations, and factoring in mitigating circumstances which can influence low temperatures, has produced a plant hardiness map. Interested in that map making process?  mapping plant hardiness    It gives gardeners an idea of what the lowest average winter temperature can be in a given area. The hardiness map is a guide that can help gardeners select plants which are appropriate for their area. My area is at best a zone 6, and at worst, a zone 5b.  This means that plants that are able to withstand low temperatures in the -15 to -10 degrees should be able to survive in my garden. That includes these ratty looking  hellebores. Last year’s foliage may be burned from cold and wind, but they are very much alive, and waiting for some signs of spring.

The key to survival in very cold regions is dependent on that plant slowly going dormant over the metabolic slow down that we call fall, and a constant deep dormancy throughout the period of very cold weather. What the hardiness zone map does not provide for are weather events out of the norm. We have had temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s for a week. On February 18, the record high for that day of 62 degrees set in 1976 was eclipsed by a 65 degree day. One or two days of weather that warm might not affect any plants that are still dormant.  The frost is deep in the ground. But the days are staying warm. We have a low of 56 forecast for overnight tonight. Now I am starting to fret. It is too warm, way too early. Under that winter foliage, I see signs that the hellebore flower stalks have begun to emerge.

hellebore A plant breaks dormancy for a constellation of reasons.  Longer day length and warming temperatures are key. No plant reacts instantly to a brief change in conditions. But a change that persists is an invitation to wake up. Hellebores are greatly prized by gardeners everywhere. I do favor helleborus orientalis hybrids for my zone.  This group of hellebores, now known as helleborus hybridus, are bred from hellebores commonly known as Lenten roses. This group generally begins blooming in April in my zone 6 garden. Hellebore hybrids featuring the genes of Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose, naturally bloom at a time which is winter in my garden. Do I have inter generic hellebores in my garden that would prosper better in zones further south?  Of course I do. I am always pushing my luck. I have had great success growing plants marginal to my zone. But nature is unpredictable. Nor does she care a whit for me and my love for my garden.

snowdropsOur bitter 2014 winter turned my zone 6 into a battle zone 4. None of my magnolias bloomed. My parrotias sustained extensive die back to their upper branches. My roses were killed back to within a foot of the ground plane. My clematis sputtered. My 20 year old boxwood had unbearable damage. It was a sobering experience, to say the least. Any plant marginal to my plant hardiness zone suffered damage of one sort or another. The winter of 2015 might have been worse. On February 20, 2015, the temperature in Roscommon Michigan was -39 degrees. The statewide average for that day was 18.5 degrees below zero. The damage done to evergreens these two back to back vicious winters was extensive. But those plants that were safely dormant managed to survive. The snow drops showing their faces yesterday worry me.  65 degrees in February is an anomaly.  The cold weather will return. How much cold can their flowers endure?

magnolia stellataOf course I am anxiously checking all of my early spring blooming plants.  This magnolia stellata was a 2 foot tall tree the day I bought my house twenty some years ago. It has prospered where it was planted.  It did not bloom in either 2014 or 2015. Its hardiness was sorely tested by a pair of bad winters.  The flowering in 2016 was a happening.  I am trying to decide if our warm weather is encouraging the buds to swell.  Not that I could intervene. Mother nature bats last. I am reading we have some night temperatures in early March in the teens.  Though I am ready to wash my hands of winter at the end of February, March is a winter month for us. Any early spring plant which is breaking dormancy right now may not fare so well in March. This is more a worry than a certainty.

Late this past summer, I replanted my rose garden. Though I know there is a limit to their hardiness in my zone, it is better for me to start over, than to do without. That was a personal decision, not a decision driven by a plant hardiness map. As for the dogwoods, I hope they will be able to endure a freakish warm spell in the middle of winter. No small part of the winter landscape are plants that endure.

 

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Ornament In The Winter Landscape

Though a landscape that is striking in all of the seasons largely depends on the confluence of a great design, interesting hard scape and thoughtful choices of plant material, I would venture to say that ornament in the landscape plays an especially vital role in our winter. The plants are welcome to be the star of the show every season of the year, as they should be. The walkways, driveways, and terraces facilitate flow, and provide places for people to be a part of it all. The 4th season in northern landscapes have a regional set of challenges. All the deciduous plants sulk in the advancing cold, shed their leaves, and go dormant for the winter. The trees stand firm and skeletal in the winter; the trunks and branches are indeed very sculptural. The branchy remains of shrubs and perennials rattle in the wind. This seasonal plant sculpture is not by choice. A gardener might say there is no meat in this scene. The evergreens are indeed green, but they can have a stiff and stoic look in their glazed over and embattled winter state, quite unlike their lively spring to fall life. The walks, terraces and driveways meant to welcome people into the landscape disappear under scarcely an inch of snow. The ground plane is at best obscured, and at worst, buried in our winters. Winter in Michigan is not so easy a season for gardeners. Long suffering is a phrase that applies. But there are ways to help mitigate that grief. Garden ornament?  By this I mean any object with a distinct profile that has a year round home in a landscape. Any object placed in the landscape that is marked by shape, mass, personality, memory, and persistence endows the winter landscape.  I am talking about those garden ornaments that have both a physical and emotional presence that cannot be snowed in, or grayed out. They are all the better for a coating of ice, or a hat of snow.   Pots, fencing, arbors, statuary, furniture, sculptures, fountains, architectural fragments, fire pits, bird baths, armillary spheres – all of these garden ornaments have a surprisingly lively and welcome life in the winter.

Those of you who put your garden furniture in the basement for the winter might consider this. The heat and relentless sun common in the summer season is much harder on garden furniture than anything the winter season might dish out. I leave my garden furniture out all winter. Though it is unlikely I will sit out in the winter, garden furniture is ornamental in the winter. That furniture can organize a view, even though the terrace upon which it sits is snowed under. The memory of the summer season warms the winter landscape. It may be that how I visually react to my summer furniture out in the winter landscape is stronger than my summer view.  In the summer, my terrace furniture is about its use.  In the winter, that furniture is a sculpture that speaks to the future.

This pergola with a wood roof and stone pillars was built to shrug off off anything the Michigan winter has to deliver. It is successful in that regard. The winter pots dusted with snow are landscape ornaments set at eye level that warm both that pergola, and this landscape. They counter the winter with the evidence of the gardening hand. An ornament selected for a garden or landscape is first and foremost a personal choice. Though I dressed these pots for winter for a client, it is her aura that enlivens this winter landscape.

To follow are a group of pictures of what I call ornament in the winter landscape. They that tell a story far better than I ever could. I rarely have cause to visit a client’s landscape in the winter. But when I go, I am struck by how garden ornament can improve, organize and energize the look of a landscape gone dormant.

A container, and an arrangement to go with for winter, can provide a focal point for the landscape that might be more welcome and more striking than that same container planted for summer. The winter season can be a good gardening season. It just asks for more. I would not want to be gardening in any other place than where I am gardening. Even in the winter.

Window boxes mounted outside a sun room, and dressed for winter.

a  terrace in winter

a Branch fountain in winter

a bench and pots in the winter season

birdbath in winter

sculpture in the winter landscape

urn dressed for winter

bench with snow pillow

winter containers loaded with snow

pots dressed for winter with a dusting of snow

Ornament in the winter landscape can be supremely satisfying. I was right behind Milo this winter day. We both liked what was there to see.

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