For our Golden Spades event this month, Homestead's education coordinator Gene Sumi recommended his favorite plants for those difficult times of the year in the garden - just before winter and then late winter, just before spring. These plants don't just tolerate cold - they thrive in cold weather, which makes them star performers for the tricky, less colorful times of the year.
Starting with a perennial, Gene raved about a great one - the Hellebore. They're native to so many different climates - Spain, the British Isles, the Balkans, the Middle East and Western Russia - that it's no surprise that there are species of hellebore to excel almost anywhere, and that definitely includes Maryland.
Hellebores, now enjoying wide appreciation among breeders and gardeners alike, are long-lived, often out-living the gardener. They're exceptionally drought-tolerant, thanks to their deep roots, so they require very little help from the gardener once they're established. Best grown in the shade, they actually do well under shade trees - a rare trait. And even rarer? They're practically deer-proof!
Hellebores bloom sometime between November and early April, depending on the variety - so how DO they do that? Because what look like flowers to us are actually much tougher petals (or more technically correct, sepals), which can handle the cold just fine. The flower parts are tiny, packed into the center of the sepals.
Gene cautioned us that hellebores seed heavily around the fully developed plants, which is great if you want to share with others, but it can take up to 10 years for those seedlings to flower. And sure, you can move the new plants to someplace inconspicuous until they finally start flowering, but if you then move them back - well, they hate being moved and will respond by refusing to flower for another two or three years, until they're settled in their new site and feel like performing again. (Sounds like teenagers!)
The complaint that's heard most often about hellebores is that their flowers (okay, sepals) hang down, so aren't as easy to enjoy (photographers are forced to get prone to capture them). But breeders are showing signs of success in reducing that nod, developing varieties with more up-facing sepals - and an ever-widening array of color choices, too. Doncha love those breeders?
Gene recommended two Helleborus species for our climate:
Helleborus orientalis blooms in late winter and has lobed green leaves that stay green all winter most years here in Maryland. Growing to a mere 18-24 inches high, they're often used as ground cover plants - an increasingly top choice because they're evergreen and good-looking and, unlike English ivy, they don't climb up trees. They "bloom" in a wide assortment of colors in March through April - around Easter-time, so their common name is Lenten Rose. These hellebores are available in shades of white or green, reds, pinks, purples, yellow and orange.
Helleborus niger has white blooms that resemble roses and because the blooms begin in late November, they're commonly called Advent Roses or Christmas Roses. They're a popular holiday plant through Europe, though especially in Great Britain.
Gene mentioned two other common species of Hellebore that he does NOT recommend. The tall H. foetidus (commonly disparaged with the name "Stinking Hellebore") doesn't grow well in our region. And H. argtifolius isn't nearly as attractive as the other species. Homestead doesn't sell either of these.
Moving next to a shrub, Gene thinks Camellias produce "the most beautiful flowers in the world" - wow. They're traditionally regarded as not terribly hardy, only hardy to Zone 7, which means that our occasional sub-zero temperatures would damage Camellia branches, leaves and flowers. But there's great news on this front - new cultivars tolerate temperatures as low as -10 degrees F! Yes, that's MINUS 10 degrees - Zone 5 temperatures!
Camellias are evergreen shrubs that grow to 6-8 feet tall, though very old specimens (we're talking 40+ years) have been known to reach 15 feet or more. They do best in mostly shaded spots receiving dappled sunlight beneath deciduous trees, and on the south side of the house where they're protected from extreme winter cold. Give them rich organic soil and they'll be reliable performers in your garden. Both types described below can be trained into beautiful flowering bonsai plants.
Sasanqua Camellias bloom in the fall, producing masses of small 2-inch blooms from late October through November. Their flowers will be damaged in temperatures below 20, so Camellia-lovers often spray them with Wilt-Proof (an anti-dessicant) to protect those gorgeous flowers. (The plants themselves won't be harmed; just the flower). But thanks to the breeders at the National Arboretum, super-cold-hardy varieties like 'Winter Joy,' (to minus 10 degrees), and 'Snow Flurry' (to -15 degrees!) are available. Sasanqua Camellias are often seen espaliered on a trellis.
Japonica Camellias bloom in late winter and sport have larger leaves and larger blooms - 4 inches or wider. (They're the type often used in corsages.) Here in Maryland the Japonicas bloom starting as early as late February. These spring bloomers not as hardy as the fall-blooming Sasanquas.
Pansies and Violas
Finally, Gene recommended pansies and violas, which he calls "a blessing to the fall gardener". These cold-hardy annuals produce wave after wave of blooms in deep or bright colors, and they're fragrant, too. Plant them in the fall, either in containers or in garden soil, when the soil is still warm, and the roots will become established.
Give pansies them plenty of sunshine and feed them - as often as weekly while they're blooming - with a balanced organic or slow-release fertilizer. (For example, Osmocote isn't organic, but it's formulated to be released slowly.) Otherwise, fast-acting fertilizers like the common Miracle-Gro will cause excessive stem growth like the example on the left above, at the expense of blooms. (Miracle-Gro's organic formulation is fine.) Deadheading by pinching off the dead or dying blooms at the base of the stalk helps keep pansies vigorous and blooming to the max.
When temperatures go below freezing, pansies will stop growing and blooming until a warm spell during winter, when blooms will reappear for an encouraging sign of spring on the way. They'll typically go dormant again and then come back in full force in early spring and bloom their hearts out until hot weather kills them off in the early summer.
One cautionary note is that pansies are edible, so site them away from wildlife. And a great money-saving tip is to avoid pansies that are labeled "cold-hardy" - those are bred for places like Minnesota. In our region the regular pansies do just fine, so there's no need to pay more for those Northern pansies.