Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: Blossoms bring cheer to the garden in winter
In some of the darkest days of the year, these blossoms bring cheer to the garden
It's the start of a somewhat tumultuous new gardening year, with storms and flooding giving way to more typical frosts and occasional snows. As gardeners, our world has been somewhat topsy turvy with bulbs shooting up when they shouldn't be and flooding or puddles reluctant to drain away.
When I venture out I gaze around eagerly to see what is emerging from the ground. I've already seen daffodil stems starting to poke through and I'm willing them to delay their show for a while longer.
I like a sense of order and for me it should be snowdrops first. They usually start to flower by the beginning of February and my heart usually misses a beat when I spot my first one. It means that the worst of winter may be over.
Now is also when hellebores have their moment in our wintry sun. These are wonderful plants, adored by dedicated gardeners as beautiful, interesting and so very useful.
They are hardy, mostly evergreen - often with handsome or dramatic foliage - they do well in the shade and bring much wanted blossoms in some of the darkest days of the year.
The one which most people know is Helleborus Niger, also known as the Christmas rose (below). It's usually the first of the family to burst into bloom. The common name is confusing as it isn't a member of the rose family, and indeed, in our gardens it's very rarely in bloom on December 25, though you can get forced varieties (well, if not forced let's say gently persuaded!) to perform early.
Hellebores are members of the buttercup family, and did you know that they are poisonous? Their sap can be a skin irritant so when working with them it may be a good idea to wear gloves. Having said that, I've planted many hundreds and have never had issues.
Its flowers do have a similarity to those of a wild rose - white, or sometimes with a pink blush, bowl-styled flowers with yellow stamens. Unlike most hellebores which have shy nodding flowers that can hide their beauty, Helleborus Niger tends to hold the flowers upright(ish).
A useful tip is to plant them near the house where you will be able to view and admire from indoors without having to venture out in our damp cold seasonal weather.
As its name suggests the Lenten rose, Helleborus Orientalis (below), starts to flower later. Many hybrid varieties have been bred from this beauty, resulting in quite a wide selection of petal colours and shapes.
In the garden centre you will find colours ranging from cream, green, red and apricot through to some extremely beautiful dark purples which can make a very striking garden addition. Keep an eye out for speckled varieties also.
I find that Hellebores are best sought and bought when they are in flower so you know exactly what you're getting. They are great value as they tend to hold on to their flowers for a remarkably long period at a time when the garden isn't exactly teeming with flowers.
They love a rich soil that retains moisture, so if you can condition the planting area with the addition of plenty of organic matter before planting, you will be rewarded with happy plants. And while they're a lovely option for shady parts of the garden, they will also thrive in sunnier open positions as long as the soil doesn't dry out. In fact, they'll flower more freely in sunnier spots.
Shelter them from cold drying winds and try and plant in combination with other late winter/early spring flowers such as Bergenias, Primulas and Pulmonarias and with drifts and clumps of Snowdrops, Chionodoxa and Crocus forming a colourful carpet at their base.
You need to give them a good feed in autumn and spring and they do require a little maintenance to look their best - this consists of removing dead foliage to enhance their appearance and give a better display of the flowers.
If you notice some black or brown spots on the leaves, this can be hellebore leaf spot and this foliage should be removed and destroyed. You can also use organic or chemical fungicides to help control.
However, occasionally the news is worse and your plant has a virus called hellebore black death! Complete removal of the entire plant and disposal is the only course of action in this event.
They're not too difficult to germinate from seed - collect and sow it when fresh which will be when it ripens in early summer.
If you have a few varieties in your garden, you can let nature take its course and as the plants intermix, you may get your very own unique hybrid hellebore!