Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hello Spring, Hello Hellebores

As someone who has worked in garden centers for 49 years, there's precious little of a horticultural bent you could share that would shock me. Been there, heard it. Still, I admire the optimism of people that want it all.

By that, I mean the (re)quest for the elusive plant that does something splashy every season of the year. I call it the "wish-upon-a-star" plant syndrome. If such a plant existed in the upper Midwest it would:

   * bloom April thru October and be available in every color of the rainbow
   * have intoxicating fragrance
   * bear delectable, edible fruit
   * display long-lasting fall color, but
   * have evergreen foliage  
   * grow exactly the height and spread your site requires (sans pruning)
   * be repugnant to marauding deer and bunnies
   * be a way station for pollinating insects and hummingbirds
   * tolerate sun or shade, wet or dry soils

Red Racer
We plant people have all had this fantasy. But until horticultural science is more advanced and we do intergeneric gene splicing I nominate Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) as a wish-upon-a-star perennial for its workhorse range of garden attributes, day in, day out.

Lenten rose is in bloom long before and after Forsythia dreams of showing its golden wares. Literally, H. x hybridus flower stems push up through snow and last year's evergreen foliage. Individual flowers can be 2-3" in diameter, one to four per stem. Because the flowers arrive in late winter Nature has given Hellebores nodding, downward-facing flowers that shed snow.

Cotton Candy
Fortunately hybridizers have been working like mad to bring the blooms to a more upright position so you don't have to lie on the ground to enjoy the wonderful range of new colors. If you're color particular like me you may want to buy named varieties so you know what color you're getting. If they're offered as generic seedlings consider buying them in bloom.

Winter Jewels Cherry Blossom
In the quest for more upright and outward-facing flowers the color range has been expanded to white, cream, butter yellow, pinks, rose, almost black and more. Many have contrasting dotting and spotting on the flowers, and they last at least 6-8 weeks. And, drum roll please, they aren't just 5 petaled (technically they're sepals), now there are numerous double-flowered series.

You want more? The flowers eventually fade and the seed pods develop an almost papery fish-scale appearance that is also long lasting. The foliage has an interesting finger-like texture and is very glossy green. Some new varieties ( H. 'Ivory Prince' and 'Pink Frost', for example) have much darker foliage with beautiful silver veins that make it an attractive foliage plant even when out of bloom. Yes, they're evergreen even in the upper Midwest. Come March "deadleafing" of winter-weary foliage is in order to make way for fresh new leaves.

Ivory Prince with winter foliage, left, then 4 weeks later
Lenten roses are tidy clump-formers, generally 15-18" tall and slightly wider at maturity. The singles may seed about, but that is easily remedied with timely deadheading. As long as they're sited in a moist, highly organic soil (a different gardeners' fantasy) alkaline soils are not a problem. Hallelujah, something that doesn't demand acidic soil! I find they're great performers in sun or shade, although they're most often recommended for partial shade sites.

Winter Jewels Berry Swirl

Hellebores are a bit like peonies in that they're happiest planted and left alone. Slug damage is occasionally reported, but I'm happy to say that's only something that I've read about, unlike many Hosta varieties. Deer and rabbits eschew (not chew, haha) Lenten rose. Is there no end to this plant's virtues? The only drawback I hear from customers is that they're slow to mature, typically taking three years to reach blooming size in a gallon pot. One more asset- winter hardy to Zone 4!

When you wish upon that perfect perennial star put Hellebore hybrids at the top of your fantasy plant wish list!


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No Bird Brain, This Lady Part II

Hello again, friends! A vexing technical issue derailed The Hortiholic for a while but I'm finally picking up where I left off with my earlier post with Mary Francis Forde, Chalet's resident bird product buyer, discussing what you should know if you're new to bird feeding, And maybe you should read it even if you consider yourself a veteran birder.

Cole's has a range of seeds to attract, or not to attract, certain birds and critters.
Tony: Earlier we were discussing the Cole's bird seed line. I personally love it as much as you do. I get a great range of different species with their "Blue Ribbon" mix. It makes me wonder. Would you recommend a different seed blend for an urban feeder and a suburban feeder?
MF:  You might want to. If you were concerned about four-legged livestock (squirrels, mice, skunks, etc.) you don't want a mix high in fillers like millet that will end up on the ground. You might want to use safflower, which I laughingly say is the equivalent of rice cakes. It's not very attractive to squirrels, for example.

Look familiar? 
Tony: Ah yes, squirrels- the nemesis of anyone that feeds birds. Aside from the specifically designed squirrel-proof feeders (like Squirrel Buster) and the use of baffles, can you deter squirrels with smart seed choices?
MF: So, in addition to safflower you can be even more proactive. Cole's has a: "Hot Meats" blend (sunflower meats treated with liquid Habanero chili pepper and safflower oil) and "Blazing Hot" (four different seeds plus the liquid chili pepper and safflower oil). Don't feel bad for the squirrels. They will change where they dine after a bit of conditioning.

Tasteless tufted titmouse
Tony: This is the best part. What about the birds?
MF: Birds don't have a sense of taste as humans do so they're completely unaffected.

Tony: What if your feeder has been up for a while and birds aren't coming to it?
MF: You may have predators (owls, hawks) in the area which makes for nervous dining. Is your feeder out in the middle of an open area? Birds like something close by the feeder where they can land, make sure things are safe in the area, and then fly the short distance to eat. Is the feeder dirty? Is the seed fresh and dry, or is it old and rancid?

Make sure their plate is clean!
Tony: After our conversation I checked my feeder. So, even though they were eating like crazy my feeder was disgusting. Talk about dirty dishes, yuck.
MF (laughter dies down): I have to agree with you that it's not exactly a fun task, but a very necessary one. By the nature of the "residue" on a feeder washing with soap and water really isn't enough. It needs to be disinfected. Empty the feeder completely dislodging any old seed. Then immerse completely in a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts hot water. Let it soak for at least 3-4 minutes, using a long-handled brush if necessary.

Tony: Then rinse very, very thoroughly and let air dry completely before refilling.
MF: Yes. And the air dry part after many rinses is really important. Don't use a cloth where a fiber might snag and be left behind in the feeder. Why? It could absorb bleach and be toxic.
Tony: How often should this disinfecting be done, Mary Francis?
MF: Seed freshness and the possibility of disease transmission among birds are a function of how clean your feeder is. How much flight traffic do you have? How rainy and humid is it? As a general rule you should consider every 3-4 weeks.

Tony: I know people that are afraid birds won't survive if we feed them and then stop, or miss feeding for a while. Is that a valid concern?
MF: Birds are always going to take the safest, easiest food. But no, they don't become solely dependent on us to the point of not searching for food in Nature.

A source of water is so important, especially in winter
Tony: What should I have asked about winter bird feeding that I didn't?
MF: That's an interesting question. I guess people need to understand that in certain weather water is even harder to come by than food. In winter the need for water is about drinking rather than bathing. That can be provided as simply as placing a plain saucer on the ground near cover.

Tony: What about it freezing quickly when it's so bitterly cold?
MF: Birdbath de-icers or heated bird baths are the solution for that.

Tony: Mary Francis, thank you for a quick four credit course in Bird Feeding 101. Or maybe that was grad level. You're awesome.