Alicia's Horticulture Notes
Many thanks to Alicia Jenks for offering the following inspirational gardening advice.
SPECIAL ISSUE: Hellebores.
The warmer temperatures have brought on an early spring; while the sounds of Canada geese overhead and the chattering birds in search of nesting sights, let us know we have finally turned the corner. Signs of spring are everywhere as well as in our the gardens. Drifts of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are some of the first bulbs to bloom in my hillside garden. These bulbs poke their tiny heads up through the snow and ice with the first strong rays of March sun. As I search the shade gardens for my favorite spring bloomers I am looking for the evergreen relative of clematis and buttercup that pushes its blossoms up through matted leaves. What is this remarkable plant? Helleborus, of course. The common name "hellebore" is assigned to several species of plants in the Helleborus genus of the Ranunculaceae family. The three species I planted are H. niger, H. foetidus and H. orientalis.
Helleborus niger, (Christmas Rose) has a lovely white flower with golden sepals. Right now, I have several clusters of gorgeous blooms nestled in last year’s leaf litter. The flowers have no fragrance but I would imagine early pollinators pay them a visit regardless. One of the more unusual Hellebores is H. foetidus. Its green blossoms are unusual and less attractive than its counterparts, but the foliage is more cut and delicate making it a beautiful addition to the shade garden. Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose) may not be in bloom during Lent in many parts of the country. These flowers are white or plum colored and the plants also require shade.
Over the last several years there has been flood of gorgeous colored Hellebores to reach the market for purchase. In 2015 a hybridizer named Hans Hansen released through Walter’s Gardens, a group of wonderful Hellebores called the "Wedding Party Series" with names of individual plants like: First Dance, Wedding Crasher, Flower Girl, Mother of the Bride and True Love, to name a few. The flower colors range from yellow and shell pinks to the deepest purple. Some are single and some multi-petaled. They all are absolutely stunning.
Hellebores are bee-friendly, deer and rabbit resistant and thrive in woodland shade. I have had very good luck growing the three types I mentioned early on. I will be trying some of the hybrids in the future to see if they are hardy for our northern climate. I would highly recommend these indomitable spring bloomers, you won't be disappointed.
Happy Spring to all.
March 2021: "Plants of Olde. Two spots of gold to look for in Spring."
"Driving along the backroads in April you are sure to spot one of the first harbingers of spring, Tussilago farfara, more commonly known as Coltsfoot. If you slow down a bit, you will notice this diminutive "dandelion-looking" yellow star, on a four- to five-inch stem, poking up at the edge of the roadway. It can grow in dry or damp, in the worst of soils. Coltsfoot hitched a ride to North America with our ancestors who most likely brought it for medicinal purposes. It was believed that the leaves and other parts of this plant acted as a demulcent, expectorant, and tonic for the lungs, and aided in soothing coughs and healing ailing lungs.
You won't see any green foliage on the stems, one of the more unique features of this dainty beauty. The leaves don’t appear until after the flower has bloomed and gone to seed. Coltsfoot derives its name from its hoof-shaped leaves, and on closer inspection you can see a felty white covering on the underside of the leaves. After the flowers have dried and gone to seed, goldfinches use the fluffy seed carriers to line their nests in the spring. Further down the road as you pass a wetland area, look for a bright gold flash amongst the green. Growing in gently flowing rather than still water you will spot Caltha palustris, more commonly known as marsh marigold.
This nonnative plant was very likely brought here by our ancestors as an edible green and it comes originally from Europe or West Central Asia. Sometimes known as "cowslip", Coltsfoot Marsh Marigold was eaten in England like spinach or a "pot-herb". Even the young flower buds are palatable. In England, another plant is also identified as cowslip and this can cause some confusion. The word 'marsh' may have come from the Anglo-Saxon word 'mere' which may be the reason [for the name of] this little yellow beauty. You can find both of these lovely plants along the roadsides here in east central Vermont."
February 2021: Seed Catalogues
Long about January and February our mailboxes begin to fill with those brightly colored seed catalogs. The last time I counted there were twelve… so far. I even have duplicates so I can read one while at my desk and put the duplicate in the porcelain library. I can't even imagine what the companies pay to print and mail these little beauties but I think they know we love pouring over them so they keep on cranking them out. Yes, you can go on-line and purchase your seeds, plants and supplies in the blink of an eye; but somehow, looking at those glorious, super-colored flower and fruit photos and picturing them in our gardens, is "just the right therapy" for this time of year. What would YOU do for some of those strawberries?
My friend Henry suggests that if you are thinking about buying new seeds this year, you do so promptly. Apparently, due to COVID-19 there was a huge increase in the number of folks gardening and harvesting their own veggies last year. Seed companies, garden centers, and most plant related businesses were sold out of supplies. Many could not get what they wanted. Bulb sellers were sold out for the first time in years. My guess is this season will be similar in scope. Folks will still be at home and wanting to grow their own produce again. As you well know, spending time in the garden, whether it's weeding, planting, transplanting, watering or harvesting, each action has its own short and long term reward built in. That does not even take into account the sheer beauty and thrill of seeing plants growing and thriving right before your eyes. If children are involved, multiply that by ten.
As I leaf through seed catalogs I am often on the lookout for new varieties. They tend to be emblazoned with a huge NEW written across their photo as well as a catchy description. I try two or three newbies a year. They often can be more expensive than the familiar favorites. One tricky part about buying seed packets is that you get many more than you need each year. I have found that a good solution to this problem is to share seeds with my friends and neighbors. We have a seed sharing library In Weathersfield right within our own library. I will tell you more about that in a future newsletter; at this point I am not just sure how sharing will work in regard to the virus.
Being apart from each other for so long sure has been a challenge in many ways. It gives new meaning to the concept of sharing; or maybe I should say sharing in spirit. There has been plenty of that to go around. I long for the time when we can come together once again. Spring isn't that far away.
November 2020: November in the Garden.
As I sit at my desk looking out the window, I can see that the colors on Mount Ascutney are becoming more muted. The green of the pine covered summit is in sharp contrast to the white mist surrounding it. Halfway up, the coppery oaks and a golden maple here and there still hang on to a few of their leaves.
This year has been different; a year so unlike any in recent memory. Our own garden and gardening in general, has played a special and important role in our lives and the lives of millions this year. The simple act of gardening has brought peace and a sense of well-being to so many who are struggling. Luckily for many of us, gardening is second nature and easily accessible. For folks newly discovering the pleasures of gardening, it was a godsend. Working in our gardens is something we can do so easily. For others, it may have been an unveiling of a world of wonder and sensual delight, a calm within a pandemic storm. The act of gardening may be something we take for granted. For folks learning to garden with children for the first time it may have been a source of indescribable joy.
November is the month we associate with the giving of thanks. We could all give thanks for being gardeners here in the very green State of Vermont. This is a place where the prominent figure standing on top of the golden capitol dome in Montpelier is Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture (Right). Vermont is where the land and its inhabitants are highly valued and protected. Farmers and farms are appreciated and supported. As gardeners, we know how lucky we are to have such a wonderful nurturing place for our gardens to thrive. That is part of what we are about! Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.
October 2020: October in the Garden
Many gardeners think spring is the busiest time of year in the garden. I think October wins by a mile. The recent freezing temperatures put us all into high gear and we started to cut back our gardens much earlier than usual. One day we were admiring the last delicate blooms of late summer and the next day those same blooms were the droopy darkened victims of Jack Frost. As we clear away the spent foliage and plant the handful of new bulbs we ordered, we can ponder our garden year.
October is a time of garden reflection but consider this...it is also time of "golden opportunity." Now is the time of year to assess your garden while your visual memory is still fresh and consider what improvements you can make. Once you do that... remember the location of the plants you have, decide which plants have made a striking showing and can be readily divided and set in another location. Make a plan to divide two or three of your "best in show" and put them in a spot in your garden that needs some improvement.
My suggestion for plants that benefit from frequent division when they are in large clumps are:
Siberian iris, Hemerocallis (day lilies), all colors of Phlox, and Peonies, (if you know how to move them). The reason I suggest two or three transplants is that sometimes older plants can be difficult to dig up and divide. Don't be discouraged! You will reap the benefits of division tenfold if you manage to wrestle that Siberian iris out of the ground and split it into four parts.
Most coordinated garden plans include repetitions of the same plant in the overall design. Divide that day lily or iris and locate it in several places in the same bed. You will be surprised at how well it pulls together bed design in terms of color, height or texture. Transplanting does require some serious digging but if you do two or three plants a year, you end up with a very satisfying outcome. October is the time to do it. You won't regret it when you see the results next summer.
A word about the dry conditions. Currently our gardens are not ideal for transplanting. You can dig and divide and set your divisions on a tarp in a protected area where you can water them on a regular basis. Once we have some fall rain you can place them back in the garden in their new location and water them in. I am being optimistic about the fall rains. If this sounds too risky, try one transplant.
September 2020: In the Garden: What's Blooming in the Garden You Ask?
This is the time for annuals to shine. If you have planned well, your annuals and container plants are bright and loaded with color. You must have been trimming them just right over the summer and cutting back those spent blossoms on your hanging plants to keep them blooming.
As many perennials are reaching the end of their bloom time, annuals are the secret to making your garden last well into fall. There are a few fall blooming perennials I would like to mention that you may not be familiar with. All of them are a delight and if you have not tried them, I would encourage you to do so. They range in height and color but all are well worth a try. Fall blooming anemones, often referred to as Japanese anemones are some of my favorites. They thrive in sun or partial shade with a mix of rich, evenly moist, well-drained soil. Here are the names of some species: A. hupehensis. A. tomentosa, and A. vitifolia. These three are lovely and well behaved and you will look forward to seeing them in the garden each fall. Who does not love asters? They range in color from the deepest to lightest shades of purple to the brightest magenta. Some tower at four feet and some are under a foot. The largest asters I have are at the back of one of my gardens. Every spring I vow to stake them up...maybe next year.
The last flower worth mentioning is the strange but wonderful Colchicum autumnale or autumn saffron. This plant is really a bulb that shows its lance-like leaves over the summer and then the leaves disappear. As fall comes on, up pops the lovely large crocus blooms. They are a wonder and very fun to see late in the garden year. We gardeners like to have our gardens last as long as we can and this time of year can be one of the very best times in the garden.