Hellebores are good?

I question if a gardener, and by this I refer to myself, should feel obliged to keep proper records of what he plants. Is it sufficient to state that “hellebores are good”, or is there an obligation to specifically recommend ‘Anna’s Red’ (or any other) if he has found this to be an exceptional hellebore? The problem, of course, is that after several years, when I’ve confirmed that this hellebore is an excellent choice, I’ve forgotten its cultivar name.

Anna’s Red (above), and two related hellebores, Molly’s White and Penny’s Pink, have performed well into their second year. Another few years are required to verify that these should be recommended, though few hellebores fail to please.

I excuse that proper identification of plant cultivars is difficult, with frequent and numerous introductions, and few that are not quickly swept aside by the next “bigger and better”. I’ve attempted to mark varieties by digging in the plastic nursery tags as hellebores are planted, but of course these are lost, broken, or they fade. For a short while I marked notable cultivars with metal stake tags, but gave it up, thinking that this seemed pretentious. Also, I was planting and forgetting cultivar names quicker than I could get the tags set out.

I am fairly certain this is one of the earliest hellebores planted in the garden, though there are numerous seedlings in the vicinity so it’s impossible to tell.

So, now I do the best I can, which is not much, I agree. If I write about one plant or another I can generally remember where it is, if I can find the reference, which is not always so easy.

Seedling or named cultivar? I haven’t a clue, but it’s a nice off white hellebore.

Further complicating the situation is that many hellebores seed readily, and then seedlings are transplanted. Or was that the parent? So, I can’t identify more than a few handfuls of the many dozens of hellebores in the garden as hybrids I purchased, or as seedlings.

Almost certainly a seedling, but a keeper.

And, does it matter? Not so much to me, I must admit. I swing to and fro, from being a stickler for nomenclature to not caring a lick, and in the end I realize that I’m easily pleased. An ordinary seedling with a bunch of blooms is often as worthy as a fancy hybrid, so this seems a proper justification for enjoying and not fretting much if I forget a cultivar name.


No more reading

Not proudly, I admit that I am not much of a reader, at least not of books. Too short an attention span, I suppose. Nevertheless, to fill the winter hours I’ve reread five books long dormant in our small home library, and purchased and read two others. So there.

All were garden related, one on design and the others plants. So, properly inspired, I am primed for spring, with several mail orders in the works for oddities that cannot be obtained through the garden center. Another list has been prepared for garden center purchases, and in a marvel of advanced planning (for me anyway), there are set locations for two modestly sized Japanese maples. I’ve little clue where anything else is to go.

The dense foliage and branching of Twombly’s Red Sentinel is similar to Skeeter’s Broom Japanese maple (above), though I expect the color of Twombly’s will be more purple.

One maple, ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ has, as its name suggests, a narrow, columnar habit, which will fit perfectly into a spot beside a path where a wider grower would not work. Not that the garden needs another Japanese maple (there are 30+), but this is the appropriate plant for this spot where another has failed. Why I haven’t planted ‘Twombly’s’ before, I don’t know, but it is a fine small tree for an area with limited space. After twenty nine years jamming in every plant that will fit, that perfectly describes this garden.

The Korean species of waxy bells (Kirengeshoma koreana) is on order for early spring planting. It grows more upright than the more common Japanese species (K. palmata, above) that has been in the garden for years.

On days with mild (or almost mild) temperatures in recent weeks I’ve tried to get a bit of a jump on spring planting and clean up, and perhaps several hours here and there have combined to save a day of labor that would otherwise be on a pleasant weekend day in March. It’s hardly enough to count towards the weeks that will be required to clean this place up, but it gets me off the couch and outdoors. Enough with the books.


This period of rest is nearly at its end, for better and worse.

While I fret over the multitude of chores that must be accomplished by the start of spring, I greatly appreciate the more relaxed pace of winter. Not that there is nothing to be done, but there is less urgency that tasks must be completed before many more are added to the list.

Strangely (and fortunately), the quantity of winter weeds seems diminished from previous years, and it is enjoyable to stroll the garden without an overwhelming sense that chores will never be caught up on. But, the time for relaxation, reflection, and planning is passing.

Close inspection of plants vulnerable to winter injury reveals little of concern, so the earliest tasks need not be pruning and disposing of dead wood. The variegated Winter daphne (above) has taken the worst of it, but it appears the damage is no more than browned foliage, and I am hopeful that flowers have not been lost. Color shows through on buds of a more protected shrub, with the other losing more leaves, but nothing more severe, I think. At worst, minor pruning will be necessary.

There was immediate concern for paperbushes (above) following nights that dropped to zero, but there is no apparent injury. Buds show only the slightest swelling in late February, so flowering will be later than average, though warm days in the forecast could hurry this along. Hollies and other evergreens in the garden show only minor evidence of damage from the cold, though I notice more recently planted broadleaf evergreens in the area have not fared so well, and many will not survive. 

Hellebores (above) are also behind schedule, but milder temperatures have accelerated swelling of buds. Instead of flowers scattered through late January and February, which were few in the extended period of cold, the next several weeks will be quite splendid.

Seventy in February

In the last weeks of a very average winter that seems so much worse by comparison to recent mild winters, a seventy degree day in February encourages that the worst has passed. Besides an improvement in the gardener’s disposition, there are also tangible signs of the change of season.

For weeks, a scattered few snowdrops (Galanthus, above) have heartened the winter weary gardener, but today early flowering types are at peak bloom, with later varieties swelling to flower when these begin to fade.

Happily, the quantity of early flowering snowdrops has clearly increased. Too few were planted at the start, but patience (cheapness) has finally been rewarded. When purchasing in autumn I am tempted by too many splendid choices, so often a few of many are selected rather than a quantity of one that will make a more immediate show. Today, I’m delighted by this choice.

Again, I regret passing over Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis, above) when purchasing bulbs. There are a very scattered few beginning their brief period in flower, and it’s likely this lacking inspires regret that there are not dozens more. But, time and again it’s apparent my memory is short, and aconites are long forgotten by bulb ordering time.

In the vicinity of snowdrops and aconites, it appears I have disturbed cyclamen (above), and likely have ruined flowers for this late winter, possibly for every late winter. Since foliage of cyclamen fades in spring, I forgot about them and planted divisions of Carex ‘Evergold’ to fill the void. The evergreen, grassy carex captures finely textured leaves that drop from the ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maple that shades the area. For the cyclamen to be visible the leaves must be carefully removed, but it seems I was not careful enough. I’ve considered removing the carex, but I suspect cyclamen and carex are inextricably entwined.

There will be much more coming soon when hellebores (above) reach peak bloom, but with a single warm afternoon ones with buds that were swelling too slowly to soothe my anxiousness have made the move that was expected two weeks earlier. A single hellebore began flowering in mid January, but cold temperatures delayed others until this week. The next several weeks will bring one flower after the other.

Winter jasmine

Better judgment, too rarely exercised in this garden, recommends that I not photograph yellow blooms of Winter jasmine that arch over the edge of the koi pond.

A wide growing paperbush along side of the pond makes viewing of the Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) ever more treacherous, with the route over slick boulders at the pond’s edge narrowing each year. In fact, there is little reason to view the jasmine’s blooms close up since they are unremarkable and scentless, but every flower in winter is treasured, so I’m compelled to get as near as possible.

Inarguably, the unruly Winter jasmine is an excellent choice to stabilize hillsides, and it can be charming as it tumbles over stone walls. But, at pond’s edge I question its value, never mind that it harbors a Northern Brown water snake that has become a considerable nuisance. The jasmine is here to stay, I suspect, since it can be removed only with great difficulty, and with a constant threat of tumbling into the pond.

Which witch hazel?

I’ve told the story before (and will again), always with profound disappointment, that a mature ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, below) faded and finally succumbed in an area of the rear garden that gradually became too damp. The loss of dear and long established plants is always tragic, but this witch hazel particularly so as it brightened many dreary winter days.

Arnold Promise witch hazel flowering in mid February. Arnold is the heaviest bloomer of the three hybrid witch hazels in the garden, though some of that results from a sunnier location.

A much smaller replacement has been planted (only four feet tall, the other was triple that), still a few years from making much of a show, but with flowers that make the long winter slightly more bearable. A drier location promises a longer life for this witch hazel, and for ‘Diane’ (below) and ‘Jelena’ witch hazels that were planted following Arnold’s demise.

Diane witch hazel flowering in early February. Diane is the earliest of the trio along with Jelena and Arnold Promise as much as two weeks later.

In recent years, a Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) has grown to maturity (twelve feet, maybe taller), along with two others (much smaller) planted in shade that delays, but seemingly does not detract from flowering in January. The three witch hazels, purchased separately over several years, were all mistakenly labeled as the eastern native Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The appearance of common and vernal witch hazels is not significantly different, though common flowers in November and vernal in January, so there is little trouble telling one from the other.

Vernal witch hazel flowering mid January into February. With a relatively cold January vernal witch hazel is likely to flower into late February as long as temperatures don’t warm up too much.

In fact, I do not regret the error. Vernal witch hazel is an exceptional shrubby tree for the winter garden, and one of the few fragrances that my handicapped sense of smell can detect on a still and sunny winter afternoon. I would happily give it another try to plant a common witch hazel, and several more of the hybrids, if only there was space. I wonder how any gardener can survive the winter without one or the other.

Digging through the freeze

Frozen ground prevents much progress in tidying up the garden before spring. Brief spells of mild temperatures teased that the worst of winter had passed, and while recent cold has not been extreme, there have been few days to encourage the urge to get outdoors.

Today, a small fothergilla (Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’, below) was moved from the too shaded front corner to a new area for planting in the rear garden. Several inches of frozen soil discouraged the initial thrusts of the digging spade, but a more determined effort broke through and the roots were lifted for transplant.

Fothergilla flowering in early April in a more open area along the northern border of the garden, where it is visible only to the neighbors. The densely shaded fothergilla that was transplanted flowered sparsely and barely grew over several years.

In fact, in this ill suited location, root growth had been minimal over several years, so digging and carrying the fothergilla from one end of the garden to the other was not difficult.

As plans were considered for spring planting, I debated leaving the fothergilla, and planting another, but it was decided that the shrub had made no progress in this location, and probably never would. So, dig and move this one, and save the thirty bucks for something else. There is no sense in being wasteful, and far better to have plants in ideal situations rather than sulking.

Usually, I would hold off planting until early March or later, but recent transplants of winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata ‘Ogon’, above), parrotia (Parrotia persica), and now the fothergilla are dormant deciduous shrubs, which are ideally moved in winter. An evergreen Star anise (Illicium anisatum ‘Murasaki-no-sato’) was in such poor condition that it was transplanted despite my typical caution to take advantage of a surge in motivation.

Yesterday, the last of the weathered foliage of hellebores (below) was removed. By mid January flowering of hellebores seemed imminent, with several blooms on one plant, but colder temperatures put a hold on further flowering. With no reason to hurry, removing browned leaves was put off for a few weeks, but with a forecast of milder temperatures ahead, the urgency increased.

With the wide spreading leaves removed, it is evident that leaves of maples and tulip poplars that accumulated around hellebores must be cleaned up once more if flowers are to be seen. This shouldn’t take long, but it must be done before rain that is expected in the next few days.

I am pleased with what has been accomplished in recent weeks. New areas in the rear garden show promise, even with bare shrubs, and I’m anxious to complete planting. But, this will wait until the ground has thawed and digging is a bit easier.