“Though we bless the flower of June,
and all its charms remember,
We’ve double blessings for the rose
that blossoms in December.” Charles Mackay, 1812-1889
Hellebores are also known as Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis), and as you would expect, they’ll bloom anytime from December to March, if conditions are right. They are not roses at all, but a very restrained and elegant flower, arriving in the bleakest season.
Hellebores inhabit a color triangle between vertices of midnight plum, spring green, and snow white. Within that space you will find every imaginable shade, streak and freckle of purple, pink, rose, raspberry, mauve, lilac, aubergine, amaranth, celadon, chartreuse, claret, wine, ivory, heliotrope, puce, willow, orchid…. For me, this is more than enough, but now there are even some yellow cultivars arriving on the scene. Probably by next year I’ll be completely in love with those too.
These plants cross easily and rarely stay true. I planted a pure white Helleborus niger in my “white garden” in 2005, and it stayed white for some time. But I liked it so much that eventually I planted some more hellebores in that space, and when the new ones bloomed they had a touch of pink around the centers. I hastily replanted them on the other side of the house but – too late! – the next generation of my white garden hellebores showed streaks of mauve.
Moral of the story is don’t be too controlling with your white garden. (Or with any garden, for that matter.)
Anyway, now I have various hellebores in various places. They are reasonably (not totally) deer resistant, and “evergreen” in that some leathery leaves remain all winter long. Unfortunately, these are mostly covered with snow, and in the spring they look pretty beat up. So you end up snipping them off, and then you have this lovely flower posing awkwardly on its naked stem. I am delighted with the solution I have for this, and I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out: pansies! This year I planted pink pansies as close to the stems as I could, and I absolutely love the effect. The pansy foliage anchors the hellebore stems, and the reddish-pink of the pansy faces works perfectly with the rosy streaks of the hellebores. And eventually the new leaves come out, as sturdy and gorgeous as you could wish.
Be aware that some hellebores hold their flowers facing down. Breeders have developed and are continuing to develop cultivars that face upright, so you can select plants based on this trait. But if you are just picking up a plant in a garden center, it may have a drooping habit. Hellebores with this droop can be sited on a slope or a raised bed so you can get a good look at their faces.
Also be aware (and beware) that these plants are poisonous! Their name comes from the Greek, “elein” (to injure) and “bora” (food). Delphians and their supporters are said to have used hellebores to poison the water supply during the siege of the city of Kirrha in 585 B.C. If hellebores can wage war, it beats me why the deer still occasionally eat them…
There is an old fable about hellebores, sourced variously to England and Italy, that is recounted in The Legend Of The Christmas Rose by Henry Ezekiel Jackson (1914). In this story, a young girl (in England, her name is Madelon; in Italy, she is an unnamed daughter of one of the shepherds) follows the crowd to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus lies. Heartbroken at having no gift, she begins to weep. Her guardian angel makes the snow melt and flowers bloom where her tears fall, and she gives these flowers to the Baby. Jackson’s interest in the flower and fable is connected to a 19th-centure painting by Alfred Hitchens in which hellebores feature prominently. I wish I could show you this charming painting, with the little girl and her hands full of hellebores and the angel benevolently watching – but I can’t extract it from the text, which is graciously reproduced online by several Ivy League libraries. So instead I leave you with a drawing by beloved Scottish artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, from the Victoria and Albert collection in London.
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is one of the most worry-free garden shrubs I know. It is a deciduous shrub with a round habit, 4 to 5 feet tall and similarly wide. With this hydrangea, you don’t have to add aluminum sulfate (for blue) or lime (for pink) – the flowers are reliably pure white. Bloom time is June to July, but the drying flower heads look good all fall.
Hydrangeas can be a bit blowsy and floppy, so make sure your Annabelle has plenty of room. Prune in March to stalks of about 2 feet high. You can snap off old deadwood at this time, or you can leave it to help support the plant somewhat. If you are really concerned about flopping, set a length of ornamental fence in front of the shrub that it can lean on.
But it’s easier to use Annabelle in an area where it can expand and flop all it wants. Here, it creates an absolutely maintenance-free buffer zone between woods and lawn.
What l like best about Annabelle is how it will bloom even in shade. In Massachusetts it will tolerate a fair amount of sun if kept watered, but its preference is shade in the afternoon. I have even grown it in deep shade, which turns the blossoms somewhat green. I like it! There is still enough white to light up the darkness.
At the very end of the season, pick some of the best blooms and leave them in the attic to dry. They last for years.
This may be the most famous hydrangea poem in English. I haven’t found that the white hydrangeas go rust – I wonder what cultivar Sandburg was looking at?
“Hydrangeas” by Carl Sandburg
Dragoons, I tell you the white hydrangeas turn rust and go soon.
Already mid September a line of brown runs over them.
One sunset after another tracks the faces, the petals.
Waiting, they look over the fence for what way they go.
May is all about lilacs! Every New England house feels more like a home with at least one lilac somewhere in the yard. I grow “Pocahontas” (Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’) and I absolutely love it. It has a large leaf but does not mildew. It has deep purple flowers and a wonderful classic scent. It is also one of the earliest to bloom.
If I had room for more lilacs, I would add a white, probably the utterly reliable old standby Madame LeMoine (Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’).
When considering which lilac to purchase, I suggest you take a walk through any public garden near you in mid-May. I first fell in love with Pocahontas at the Arnold Arboretum in West Roxbury, MA. You really need to see your lilac in bloom before you decide. You can also tour the lilacs at your largest local garden center, but seeing them at their mature size in the garden is very helpful. I also believe that there can be little improvement on the underplanting at the Arnold Arboretum: bleeding heart, forget-me-nots, buttercups and long dewy grass.
Other standouts at the Arnold Arboretum are:
Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’ – this lilac is very popuar because it doesn’t get too too huge. Orchid pink (pale purple) flowers. Fragrant.
Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ (“dwarf Korean lilac”) – another smaller lilac. Pink. Small leaves.
Syringa vulgaris ‘President Lincoln’ – pale blue, fragrant
Syringa vulgaris ‘Primrose’ – yellow! Well, very pale yellow – more like cream when open – but still, something new.
Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Maiden’s Blush’ – pink, fragrant.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’ – magenta, fragrant
These are classic lilacs and not too hard to find. If you do have trouble locating your perfect lilac, they are easy to find on-line but they’ll be small. I couldn’t find Pocahontas anywhere and ended up ordering three tiny sprigs from Canada. One of them died within a year but two are doing well. The very next year, wouldn’t you know it, I stumbled across big, gorgeous pots of Pocahontas at a nursery in Vermont. I bought one to replace the sprig that didn’t make it and it is towering over the other two. Moral of the story is buy in person if you can.
Moving on to lilac literature…
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
BY WALT WHITMAN
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
There is a lot more to this poem – but by then we are far from lilacs. Maybe it is enough to remember that lilacs bloom in May (or April, if you are living in the Potomac watershed). Whitman ends thusly: “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, / There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
Bob was my sister’s back-door neighbor for years. He’s widowed now, and moved away to live with one of his daughters, but we’ll always remember him out in his garden, prowling and stooping and tending. His garden was a shady, sloping glen with beds of ivy and ginger around the tree trunks, and through the decades he had carefully nurtured swathes of spring ephemerals: bloodroot, dutchman’s breeches, bunchberry, and above all, trillium.
Bob’s trillium was a gift from his mother, who had it in her woods in Vermont. As a rule you never dig up native flowers: it’s sometimes illegal, and usually pointless as many species do not thrive when moved. But a gift of love is a gift freely given, so Bob’s mother gave him some of her trillium, and Bob faithfully divided it and replanted it year after year until it spread its stars all under his trees. And one wonderful afternoon he dug up a bucketful of it and gave it to me.
May is the perfect time to visit Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA to see their trillium and other native wildflowers in bloom. You might be able to purchase nursery-grown trillium there or at their Nasami Farm establishment in Whately (call first to check). It likes a humus-rich, open-shade location: edge of woodlands is ideal. It does go dormant in summer, so remember where you planted it or put a rock near it.
The new children in Bob’s house are running riot through his careful beds and picking the flowers, which makes me wince. Then again, let them pick. Gardens, like trillium, are ephemeral. Bob loved that garden while he was there, and they are loving it in their own way – by using it and playing in it and growing up in it. Bob would be happy to see that his yard is noisy and alive again.
But I’m glad I saved some of the trillium.
“Forsythia is pure joy. There is not an ounce, not a glimmer of sadness or even knowledge in forsythia. Pure, undiluted, untouched joy.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I love driving up North Street right now. The forsythia makes a gold trail through the twiggy grey woods, a sprig here, a clump there… a chain of beacons springing to life, from mountain to mountain. (Deleted reference to Pippin and Minis Tirith here…)
What’s not to love about forsythia? Well, a lot, apparently. Plant snobs shudder when they say “forsythia” the way art snobs shudder when they say “Monet.” Too accessible, too easy. Too common.
And it’s true that forsythia can be a pruning problem. You don’t want it to take over the best display space in your yard…
but you also must, MUST resist the urge to prune it half to death.
If you have a lot of space, it’s fine to give forsythia room to explode. On a grey and chilly spring morning in Vermont, what would you say to this?
However, for most of us, forsythia doesn’t rate as a “specimen” plant, because it doesn’t have a lot of interest beyond its bloom period. Here is one of the best situations for forsythia that I have seen: the plant is informally supported by the stone wall, extremely visible from the road, but will blend easily into the woodland in a couple of weeks.
What about forsythia as a hedge? I’m not a huge fan; to me “hedge” means “evergreen.” But forsythias certainly cost less and grow faster than evergreens, and are more resistant to road salts and chemicals. This forsythia hedge is doing a very good job on a tough corner:
This hedge is not as successful; looks like the buds got pruned off.
You need to prune forsythia right after flowering. Reach deep into the bush to prune off the older stems close to the ground. Take out the dead wood and thin the crowded interior branches. Remove extra shoots around the base of the plant that are encroaching where they shouldn’t. You can shorten the longest stems somewhat, if they are too long (you’ll know they are too long because they’ll touch the ground and start to grow roots!).
But whatever you do, don’t do this:
Just…no. No. Step aWAY from the pruners.
I think part of growing forsythia is knowing when to let go. You cannot control everything in your life – nor can you control everything in your garden (in fact, there’s very little you can control in either!) – so let forsythia be a moment to let go. Let it do what it wants, which is to arch and spray and sprawl. If you really can’t stand its flowing habit, dig it up and plant an azalea there instead – but don’t throw the forsythia away. (Don’t bother trying; it will grow quite happily on top of your compost heap.) Find a corner for it somewhere, and let the kids cut it down completely every year for bouquets. It’ll come right back!
Hey, it’s March. The world is grey. Go out and put a little forsythia in your yard. You don’t have to give it premium space; just plant a sprig on the edge of the woods. Light your beacon!
Brunnera needs a better name, that’s for sure. On the Fine Gardening website’s very handy pronunciation guide (http://www.finegardening.com/pguide/pronunciation-guide-to-botanical-latin.aspx), they pronounce it two different ways! The common name is Siberian Bugloss, which is even worse. I think brunnera belongs in every spring garden, and if you don’t have it, I’ll give you one.
Brunnera’s close relative is forget-me-not (talk about an adorable name), and its flower is that same little bluet. But unlike forget-me-not, brunnera has a substantial, heart-shaped leaf, which emerges in early spring and offers a good counterweight to all the frilly bleeding heart and anemone foliage.
The foliage is not as elegant and glossy as hosta, but it is deer proof and slug proof. And there are some very popular variegated brunnera, including ‘Jack Frost,’ ‘Emerald Mist,’ ‘Hadspen Cream’ and ‘Variegata.’
It’s snazzy, all right! But in my garden, I grow the straight species, Brunnera macrophylla. The plain, solid green shows off the flowers best and gives my eye a rest from all the spring madness. And it self-sows! It’s not at all a dangerous invasive but it does spring up happily here and there. If you want a baby brunnera, call me soon because eventually I’ll have to weed out the volunteers in my garden path.
I don’t mean to panic you, but RIGHT NOW (early spring) is the perfect time to prune your boxwoods. The weather’s fine, it’s too early to plant or even to weed – sharpen your Felcos and get out there!
Now there is pruning, and there is shearing. Shearing is removing an even length of growth all over the shrub, to give it a particular shape (like a round ball, or a flat-topped hedge). This is a formal look that is rarely suitable for suburban yards, and it’s a lot of work to maintain. Think thrice before you decide to shear.
When pruning, first clip out the branches that are dead or on their way out. There’s no point leaving them on because they won’t get any better and they’ll provide an avenue for pests and disease to enter the plant. Don’t mistake a coppery branch for a dead branch. Some boxwood, particularly when newly planted, can turn nearly orange in winter. Once the plants are established the color should be consistent.
After the deadwood is out, step back and figure out why you’re pruning. Mostly I prune to keep the bushes a reasonable size. Try as we might to fit the right plant to the right place, they do insist on overgrowing their spot…
Note that I am only talking about boxwood here. There are tons of other plants that could use pruning right now, and some of them should be approached differently because you may be pruning for better flower or fruit production, or to achieve a certain growth habit. But right now you’re pruning your boxwood, and you’re pruning for size because you have a big shaggy mess of boxwood squatting in the middle of your foundation bed.
So taking off the bad branches is the obvious and easiest thing to do. Next-most-obvious thing is to take off the branches that are brushing against your house, blocking a window or spilling over your walkway. Reach deep into the shrub and cut these out at an interior crotch (where another branch is spiking off). Deep cuts like this help air and light to find its way to the interior of your shrub.
The dead and diseased wood is gone. The out-of-control wood is gone. Next step, if you are pruning for size: find the longest sprigs, the ones that define the widest and tallest points. Reach in deep and cut these branches at an interior crotch. Go all around the shrub and keep checking it from various angles.
Now, clean up your debris and take a water break.
Come back and look at your shrub with fresh eyes. Find the little straggly sprigs and cut them back at a twig juncture. You should be making cuts of about 6 inches. Keep moving steadily over the shrub, reducing a bit and then reducing a bit more. You may find that you’re cutting the same twig twice – that’s okay – better to take it slow than to regret later. Keep in mind the overall form that you are trying to achieve. Depending on your cultivar, you may have a rounded shape, a vertical column, or even a pyramid. In all cases, please take care not to create a dramatically top-heavy shape that will create too much shade on the lower branches.
If you do accidentally cut more than you intended to, don’t worry! Next year’s new growth will fill in the gaps.
Are you looking for something boxwood-esque but more natural? You want inkberry or small leaf holly (Ilex glabra), which I will blog about later.
I used to grow pink tulips under my flowering crabapple. Some years I’d plant tall, elegant “single lates,” in cherry pink and cotton-candy pink. Other years I’d grow blowsy, romantic peony-flowering ‘Angelique,’ who swooned and drooped all over the place. But eventually the deer caught on that all they had to do was walk up my driveway and down my front walk for a tulip breakfast. They didn’t even have to get their hooves muddy! It used to kill me, because the tulips would be coming on well, about to bloom, and then one morning I’d go out there and bam, nothing but chewed-off stems.
So I miss my tulips, but I just don’t fight that battle anymore. Here are the bulbs I use to save myself grief. Some of these (snowdrops, daffodils) contain a poison called lycorine that no animal will eat. Others are bulbs that deer and rodents don’t care for but might take a bite if they are starving.
The first harbinger of spring is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). It’s a little yellow buttercup that comes out even earlier than crocuses! Chipmunks won’t dig it out and it spreads readily.
While the aconite are blooming their cheerful little heads off, you will also get snowdrops (Galanthus). I like the aconite a little better because it shows up well even if there are still patches of snow around. But snowdrops obviously have their charm. Giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii) and Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ are fragrant. Breaking news: I found a snapped-off snowdrop this morning. Was it a rabbit or… a kindergartener? Either way, I’m peeved.
If you want more color variety, try Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa). This little starry flower blooms in April and comes in blue, pink, lavender and white.
Another good naturalizer is Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica). This little (about 6″) bluebell comes mostly in bright blue, but also in white and in a pale pink that looks almost white. It’s similar to Glory of the Snow but holds its flowers facing down.
Your garden will look lovely in early spring with these little deer-proof gems, especially if you add in some pansies (but do spray the pansies with Deer-Off!). And when the weather finally warms up, it’s time for – daffodils!
Daffodils (Narcissus) are SUCH a blessing. They are completely resistant to every critter and disease. They grow easily and multiply well. They can be selected for early, midseason or late bloom, and a great variety of sizes and cup forms. And they even can be nearly-white or somewhat-pink, though I’ll admit that when growing daffs, it’s best to enjoy yellow.
One of the earliest daffodils is ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation.’ It is a large “trumpet” daffodil, meaning it has the classic daffodil shape with the big cup.
Another early daffodil is the one you see in grocery stores all the time: miniature ‘Tête à Tête.’ It’s cute, cute, cute! – plant it where you can see it up close and appreciate its size. In this picture you can see that it’s barely bigger than the chionodoxa next to it.
For an early white daffodil, try ‘Green Pearl,’ a “pheasant eye” type with a short, ringed trumpet.
A trumpet-style “white” is the well-known Mount Hood – it starts out with some pale yellow on the trumpet but fades to white.
Looking for pink? It’s not easy – the “pink” daffodils are generally pink only in the trumpet, and even then it tends to be more salmon or even orange. Some of the best-known are ‘Accent’ and ‘Pink Charm.’ ‘Replete’ is an appealing double-petaled variety.
I grow daffodils against my woods, along the side of my driveway. They don’t especially like the location (it’s really terrible soil, and tends to be a bit shady) but they tolerate it okay, and I throw in a few more bulbs every few years. What I like about growing them over there is I’m not too bothered by the yellowing foliage, which you have to let cure if you want them to thrive at all. I disguise the foliage by growing daylilies there too (and they don’t much like it either – the side yard by the driveway is my garden’s skid row, I guess).
ANYway, when growing daffodils at some distance from your usual paths, grow as many different types of daffodils as you can find. Forget about trying to be restrained and keeping to a few choice varieties. What’s restrained about daffodils, anyway? If you grow a bunch of solid yellow ‘King Alfreds’, you’ll just glance over at it and read it as a streak of yellow. But if you put a variety in there, people will cross the lawn to examine it – and the bouquets will be dazzling! Try one of the mixes from John Scheepers or their sister company Van Engelen (sells the same bulbs in greater quantities, cheaper).
This photo shows naturalized daffodils by Ullswater Lake, which is in the Lake District of northern England, and where William Wordsworth was inspired to write his famous poem “I wandered lonely as a Cloud .” I’ll post about that poem later – you can skip it if you’re not a poetry fan.
Soil testing… nobody does it. I honestly don’t do it either. But I SHOULD do it – we all should do it! Soil testing enables us to see exactly what our soil needs, so we don’t have to pour on expensive, unnecessary fertilizer. So go to the UMass extension service and get your soil tested. Just do the Standard Soil Test with Organic Matter for $15. I will, too. Here’s the link: http://www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/