The 2020 Hellebores

The hellebores do not have to compete very hard for my attention in the spring. They are just about the only perennial game in town come late March and on into April. I will admit I am out there searching for signs of them when the ground is still frozen solid. I am an enthusiast, yes. They are well worth the wait. Helleborus X hybridus-a group thought to be made up of 14 to 16 other species – is quite hardy in my zone. Other species and their hybrids, notably helleborus niger, are a little touchy for me, but well worth a try. The large leathery leaves populate sturdy compact plants, and are a rich dark glossy green. That foliage not only makes for a fine overscaled ground cover in shadier places throughout the growing season, it persists well into our winter. They prefer compost laden soil, regular moisture, and part shade conditions. That said, I have grown them successfully in full sun, and in deep shade. They are most obliging.

In an especially wet year, I will see some botrytis, but in general, the plants are healthy and hardy. They are slow to put on weight, but once they do, they bloom profusely. They are very long lived. I have more than a few that are better than 20 years old.  I hear they are not so happy to be divided, so I have stayed away from that. Their bloom story is equally as interesting.  The thick juicy flowering stalks emerge first in the spring. Each flower is surrounded by leaflets. The flower shapes and colors, given intense hybridizing efforts all over the world, are incredibly diverse. Black, white, green, red, yellow and pink are all represented in varying shades and combinations of shades. Flowers can be single, anemone flowered, or double. In my opinion, the single flowered varieties are the most persistent and longest lived. The doubles with huge petal counts are fascinating, but the singles are my favorite. A green flowered single is my favorite of all.

Once the bloom period is well underway, the plants send up new foliage. The foliage pictured above is the remains of the previous year’s leaves. In a perfect world, I would cut off the previous season’s leaves just prior to the flower stalks emerging. Should I miss that moment, I try to wait until the flowers are well out of the ground. Few gardening mishaps are as frustrating as cutting off soon to flower stalks by accident. I have done it more times than I care to remember.

What you are seeing above is a trim long past due. The scraggly brown leaves of yesteryear are not adding much to the flowering stalks coming on. David usually cuts the old foliage off, as it would require that I leap over the boxwood hedge to get within snipping distance.  At 6′ 3″ tall, he is able to step over. But he is at home in his own garden, tending to his own hellebores now, as well he should be. So I am stuck with a view, and not a presence. As it doesn’t bother me enough to risk getting there, I am intrigued to see how the plants will handle the chaos.

Several weeks in, it does not appear that any of these flowering stalks are hanging back or hindered by the lack of a cleanup. They actually seem quite indifferent to the mess. This is a rather unattractive moment, but it does illustrate the the process of nature cycling from one growing season to the next. Were I to try to get in there now and try to scoop up all the detritus, I feel every plant would be glaring at me. Years ago a friend with an extraordinary wildflower garden told me she worked very hard to see that her garden was undisturbed by her presence as much as possible. She limited her house keeping to the removal of downed limbs and branches, and all but a reasonable layer of oak leaves in the fall. Her garden was stunning. Large drifts of the same plant took hold in those spots optimal for their success. It had a relaxed and natural appearance as it was minimally and judiciously tended. Plants that have been fussed with too much have that look about them.

This area will surely test that hands off experiment. This first of this group of hellebores were planted decades ago. Should one succumb, I plant another. It is a spot that I can readily reach. But I am interested to see what will come of a hands off approach.

This old clump of Royal Heritage strain will have lots and lots of flowers.  At this stage, it is hard to imagine this plant occupying every bit of four square feet. As they are planted on the north side of a sizeable picea mucrunatum, they are slower to come on in the spring.

All of them seem to be putting forth fresh growth.

This stage is every bit as beautiful as the flowering stalks fully flushed out.

Is this a better look? I will soon have an alternate treatment available to look at.

It could be by the time this hellebore is at this particular stage, I will barely notice what did not get done.

 

From Nothing To Something

March is invariably the most desolate month of all in my garden. Everything sits in stony silence. The passing of the snow reveals a landscape sullen from months of cold. The straw colored grass is thin. Muddy dirt pools in those places where the grass succumbed. The stoic evergreens that have been unable to absorb water all winter long via their roots sport foliage that is still that wintry shade of black green. They will hide the damage wrought by desiccating winter winds until the air temperatures warm up. The trees are budded, but tightly budded. It is not time yet for the signs of spring to emerge. It is the time of the revelation of the effects of the winter season.  There are those who think the landscape and garden sleeps beneath a thick blanket of snow. Not so. The winter is actually a pitched battle for survival with winners, losers, and the compromised.

It is dry enough to walk the garden now. Everywhere, the remains of what is dead, shed and scuffed up is on display. The reveal of the landscape post the worst of the winter, come March, is a rude one. Wince-worthy. The rabbits chewed every rose right down to the ground. Of course they did. A fledgling paeonia Ostii was similarly chewed, despite being surrounded with bamboo stakes. Every wispy dried up bit of organic trash has been blown around and deposited somewhere in the yard – both high and low. . The pachysandra is laid over and down, as if it had been trampled by a lawn roller. There is a winter’s worth of street trash to pick up.

Desolation is the landscape word of this March day. It is hard to imagine that anything will ever be different. It is more difficult to imagine the garden thriving. I am a working gardener, in the most literal sense of the word. I respond to what nature provides. I am not in charge, nor am I the least bit unhappy about that roll. But March in my zone is dreary indeed.

I would not be capable of planning, orchestrating or even entirely comprehending that complex mechanism by which the winter season comes to an end. My knowledge of the process is certainly better than it was 50 years ago, but I am routinely taken by surprise. What we call the force of nature is just that. Formidable, inexplicable – magical. I know that in a month’s time, this view will have taken on an entirely different appearance than what I see now. What is skeletal now will have a more juicy and lively look.

I feel confident in saying that every gardener endures the winter as best they can. The read, and order seeds, and plan for the gardening season to come. They clean tools, look out the windows, and wait. I suspect they are as frazzled as I, forced to be an unwilling witness to the last gasp of winter. But as unpleasant as March can be, there is the sure knowledge the winter season will run out of steam, and fizzle. And then there will be signs of spring. Though we have had very moderate temperatures the past few weeks, there is a forecast for night temperatures in the twenties the next few nights. March and April are known for their tantrums. But the bigger picture calls for an end to winter. As it has been my experience that spring always arrives, sooner or later.

The first call in my yard is always adonis amurensis. It is astonishing how early this perennial emerges, grows and blooms-in one fell swoop.

It is painfully slow to multiply for me, but I would not do without it. They demand nothing in the way of care.  Shortly after blooming, they go dormant until the following late winter. I have time to watch and marvel how it emerges weeks ahead of other plants. That yellow flower beats back the late winter blues.

The snowdrops are a late winter favorite. Beloved in all of its forms and hybrids by galanthophiles and informal fans all over the globe, they breach the soil still crusty with frost, and bloom profusely. True to their name, they shrug off a late snow as if that were nothing. They transplant most readily in their green form. Once happy, they multiply and seed with abandon.  Any gardener who reads here knows I am a fan of hellebores. They are, in my opinion, the perfect perennial.  Thick glossy foliage persists in its green state until late in the winter. The flowers emerge on leafless stalks in April, and bloom for a very long time. The green remains of the flowers can persist in the garden well in to June. The current years leaves will emerge after the flowers.  With proper moisture, these 18″ tall plants grow into very large clumps. They live for decades, and do not require dividing to bloom profusely.  I leave the flower heads be, in order to encourage seedlings.

The flowering stalks emerge early from the clusters of last years leaves. They are a welcome sign that spring is on the way.

It will not be that long before the hellebores reach this height and breadth. The time will come when every gardener will be fully engaged in spring, and the memory of the March landscape will fade.

There will be plenty to enjoy indoors-pots of bulbs, and the cut stems of spring flowering perennials and flowering shrub branches while the weather outdoors is still uncomfortably cold.

As delicate as the flowers of Barnhaven primrose are, they are quite robust and hardy in Michigan gardens.

Grape hyacinths blooming in the early patchy grass make the inevitable dandelions look great.

This spring window box from years ago-full of daffodils, parsley, annual phlox, alyssum and violas-is a reminder that as always, spring will have its turn

It’s coming.

 

The 2019 Tulips

A few days ago I drove to Metamora to see a client. For those of you not in my area, it took over an hour and a half to make the trip out and back. I only saw tulips blooming in one place that entire trip.  A group of 30 or so bright peach tulips outside a business were easy to spot, even though I was driving 55mph. They looked glorious.  Nearer to my client’s property, miles on a country gravel roads, I saw nary a one. How disappointing, given that we are coming up on peak tulip season. There are so many species and groups from which to choose. A smattering of every class of tulip could keep a gardener in tulips for 6 weeks or better. But planting tulips has been in decline in our area for quite some time.

I am sympathetic to gardeners who are having to deal with exploding populations of deer. They are incredibly destructive to landscapes and gardens alike. They can mow down an emerging collection of tulips in no time at all. Once the flower bud has been eaten off, that is it. No secondary bloom stalk and bud will replace the first. To see them destroyed is frustrating. It will be a year before there is an opportunity for a second chance.  I would guess that declining tulip planting is in direct proportion to increasing deer populations. We have them at the shop, even though we are in an urban area. The vacant field next door is hardly what I would call a friendly habitat for deer.

We do drench the young tulips from the time they break ground with Deer Scram or Liquid Fence.  We have a number of deer repellent sprays, and we alternate them. We also fortify the perimeter of the bed with Plant Skydd. I find that deer repellents work, as long as we are possessed with applying it often and consistently. Of course this is a nuisance and an expense – but less so than the prospect of no tulips. Every tulip that came up is either in bloom, or about to bloom.

The first year following a fall planting of tulips is always the best. We plant number one grade bulbs that have been patiently grown on to that size by growers in Holland. A number one grade bulb results in a number one grade flower. A tulip bulb will divide itself after the first year. A smaller grade bulb produces smaller flowers, and in many cases, no flowers at all. So yes, a planting of tulips is not a forever planting, unless you limit your choice to the early flowering species tulips that are known for their persistence. If you should decide to defy nature, and provide optimum conditions for a repeat bloom the following spring, the foliage must be left intact until it completely matures. This can take a month or more. The process of photosynthesis enables the bulb to store food for next year’s flowers.

The length of flowering has everything to do with the weather. A warm spring means a brief flowering period. A long cool spring means the flowers will last longer. This is true for every spring flowering bulb or ephemeral. Unlike the crocus, or the double bloodroot, who have been known to bloom and drop their petals over the course of one day, there will be that moment when the tulip flowers are perfectly glorious. That moment of great beauty is not much different in duration than the lilacs, peonies, redbuds, dogwoods and magnolias-brief, but so sweet.

Tulips come in a wide range of colors.  Just about every color, with the exception of blue. Gardeners in my zone who value blue is the spring have to content themselves with forget me nots, brunnera, lobelia, nigella and delphinium, among others. Choosing a collection of colors and succession of bloom can be a lengthy process, as there are so many possibilities. The flowers are large and striking, to say the least. This means they may not play well with other plants whose flowers are not so large or spectacularly showy. They can be tiresome in their demand for attention. In much the same way as peonies, delphiniums, lilies, hibiscus-you get the drift.

I have tried to dispassionately cover all of the reasons why not to plant tulips, but I would not dream of not having them myself. From the time they emerge from the newly thawed soil to the bloom a month later, their rapid growth is an enchanting process to watch. The leaves are beautiful in volume and form. Newly opened tulip flowers grow larger with every passing day. They brave the wind, cold temperatures and the occasional spring snow with aplomb. Even the tallest varieties stand upright without assistance. They make terrific and long lasting cut flowers, given a cool spot indoors. The variations in flower and leaf form, height, color and bloom time make them one of the most versatile of all spring flowering plants.

I plant a collection of tulips at the shop every year. This moment has been many months in coming, and is so welcome after a long drab winter.  A lot of pictures get taken. Parents photograph their children with them in the background, and friends who come to shop do the same. I never see anyone walk by them without taking a good look.

The bloom is just about at it peak moment, should you be inclined to take a look. As for the trouble it takes to get to this moment, none of that interferes with the experience. Did I mention that fresh spring fragrance?

stunning, this.

 

 

A Spring Mix

We plant loads of containers in April in celebration of the spring season. The length, depth, and breadth of that planting is informed and driven by those materials available that can tolerate the chill. Farmed twigs are shipped to us in early spring and late fall. They provide mass, volume and height to our container arrangements at a time when the spring season is just beginning.   I cannot express how intrigued I was, given a recent and unexpected gift of 50 stems of a new variety of pussy willow. P sent them unannounced, and I was pleased to get them. How gorgeous are these twigs? The white, gray and black catkins are quite unlike any pussy willow I know of. This variation was observed in their field, and the decision was made to propagate the plant. They sent me all of the rest of the stems they had available – 200 – with a promise there would be more available next year.

In asking for a potential name for this new cultivar, they adopted Rob’s suggestion. Spring Velvet it is. Aptly named, I think. My suggestion of Spring Sensation was the first thing that came to mind when I saw them. It is so rare that a new plant or cultivar becomes available for early spring containers. That small group of plants (I do include the cut stems of willow and dogwood in that group) that can handle the very early spring weather becomes larger as the weather moderates. April 1, my planting options were limited to twigs and cold grown pansies-provided the night temperatures did not dip below 24 degrees or so. Now, given that is April 15th, we will be able to expand our palette of plants.

Those first plantings rely on the mix, meaning the mix of colors. I would not have thought that merlot colored pansies would work well with pink wing violas and lavender pansies, but this mix turned out to be surprisingly lively. Does the variegated Algerian ivy get its leaves singed when night temperatures go too low-yes. But the risk is low enough to warrant planting them, and hoping for the best. This planter is on a covered porch, with walls on three sides. The Janet Craig dracaenas we plant here for the summer stay beautiful long into the fall.  As for the faux picks, I like what they add to the mix. Green fuzz ball picks and white deco ball stems are graphic and sculptural. They are also whimsical.

This series of boxes feature the straight and vertical stems of copper willow, and the horizontal layer of pansies. The faux grass picks add a transitional layer that softens that intersection between the copper willow and those pansies. Though the faux grass is faux, they have a relaxed look that is not only believable-it is welcome. Faux grasses have progressed from a stiff and painfully obvious imitation to a graceful and charming representation of what is to come. The signs of spring are still subtle here. Hardy ornamental grasses in my zone will just be waking up the beginning of June. These boxes speak to spring in a brash and sassy way.

This container features a tree hydrangea which we overwintered inside our unheated landscape building. It will be a while before there are leaves. The process of watching this shrub leaf out is an experience of spring not to be missed.  Three cultivars of pansies with closely related color make for a mix that is visually interesting.

Mixing colors is a way of making familiar materials seem fresh.  Once this planting grows in, it will be easier to see that the color in the pots is related to, but different from the pansies in the ground.

This contemporary spring planting features a color palette notable for its strong contrast.

This pot is entirely planted with lavender shades pansy.  The color variation is built into the cultivar. The night temperatures had improved sufficiently to permit adding white annual phlox and alyssum to the pansies. All around the contemporary centerpiece-lettuce. The faux grass is very short stemmed and droopy. The paddles are sections of palm leaves that are dried.

This box is in a very protected location. The birds nest ferns will readily handle the chill. The rest of the box is planted with white pansies and alyssum. The texture of the alyssum will soon provide a frothy foil to the broad leaves of the ferns.

The pansies we carry are sown in October, and overwintered in unheated tunnel houses. It makes sense that our grower has selected varieties that are well adapted to, and thrive under these conditions.  Though there are a finite number of pansy and viola cultivars, there are lots of ways in which those cultivars can be combined to achieve a distinctive look.  This client likes bold color, and strong contrast.

The plants in this box are pastel and pale in color. Once the phlox gets growing, the box will have a volume better proportioned to the size of the box. Looking over pictures of some of the pots we planted last week, they are indeed remarkably different from one another. It is a pleasure to have something to plant in early spring.

This basket is Rob’s planting.

 

Not only do spring containers represent a preview of what is to come in the landscape and garden, they will just be hitting their glorious best at the end of May and on into June.