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Hellebores

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

Hellebores increase slowly into clumps so have patience, counsels Chris Darbo, wholesale manager of The Natural Garden, St. Charles, and an enthusiastic hellebore grower. “I have Helleborus foetidus, which has finely cut leaves and blooms in January, and H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Both have increased in twelve years to four times the size of the original plants, but they haven"t self sown. They are planted in a bed of sweet woodruff in a partly shady location.”

“I also have a clump of H. orientalis that was transplanted into my back yard five years ago, and it seeds all over the place. It is planted in shade with no ground cover. My theory is if the seeds can"t reach the ground, they can"t grow!” It takes three years before seedlings bloom.

According to Darbo, hellebores do not need fertilizer. She never rakes leaves from garden beds but instead lets fallen leaves act as a winter mulch. Leaf decomposition over the years has helped her soil to become more loamy.

H. niger, the Christmas rose, does not self seed as readily as H. orientalis and H. foetidus.

Note: A new strain of H.orientalis has recently reached the market. Known as the Royal Heritage strain, it includes colors and patterns never seen before in the species. Fifteen years in the making, Royal Heritage hellebores were developed by John Elsley, Director of Horticulture at Song Sparrow Farm in Avalon, Wisconsin.


Overwintering Marginal Plants

I keep seeing photos of interesting plants I’d like to grow, but they’re labeled zone 6 and I’m in zone 5. What can I do to successfully overwinter these marginal plants? I’d like to try them, but I don’t want to waste my money.

“Pushing a plant past the limits of its hardiness is not for the average gardener,” says Marie Dvorak of The Planter’s Palette in Winfield, “but plants can sometimes be successfully overwintered by siting them in a special microclimate such as a sheltered southern exposure.” Another tip comes from horticulturist Ann Hancock at Michigan State University, where they are trialing perennials that the English firm Blooms of Bressingham is introducing in the U.S. Hancock explains that the best way to keep perennials that are tender in Zone 5 or that are rated for Zone 6 is to grow them in raised beds with good drainage because poorly drained wet soils will cause the roots to rot. In addition, it is important to check perennial beds for plants that have heaved out of the soil through repeated freezing and thawing. Replace them in the soil and protect with mulch.

One example of a marginally hardy plant that will be getting attention this year is ‘Flamenco’, a new cultivar of Tritoma (Kniphofia, red-hot poker) that has just been named an All-America Selections Winner for 1999. Tritomas should have their foliage tied upright so water does not remain in the crown, said Hancock.


Hydrangeas

When is the best time to cut back hydrangeas? How far do I cut them back?

Pruning hydrangeas depends on the species. Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and Peegee hydrangea (H. paniculata), with its well-known cultivars ‘Limelight’ ‘Little Lamb’ and ‘Tardiva’, are woody shrubs that bloom on old wood. Trim them within two to three weeks after flowering. The following year’s primary flower buds form near the top of the stems in late summer. If you wait too long to prune, you will be cutting off flowers on the old stems.

The new bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla) ‘Endless Summer’ is an herbaceous plant that dies to the ground over winter and starts into new growth in spring. It can be cut at any time since it flowers on both old and new wood.

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens) can be trimmed at any time. “It dies back totally to the ground each year so you can keep it trimmed to the size you want,” says Jean Bragdon, garden center manager at Lurvey’s Garden Center, Des Plaines.


Birch Trees

I’d like to plant a white bark birch in front of my home in my sunny front yard. What can you tell me about Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii?

The birch, Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii is a tall, narrow tree (to 100 feet) with very white bark that’s native to India. It is subject to borers. The popular weeping white bark birch, B. pendula is also subject to borers in our climate and is not a suitable choice.

“There are better birch choices, so choose what grows well in our area,” advises Ken Morris, vice president of Spring Bluff Nursery in Sugar Grove. Two trees resistant to borers are the paper or canoe birch and the river birch.

Canoe or paper birch (B. papyrifera) has a stout trunk with creamy white bark that peels off in papery layers. It is native to North America. It is the first paper birch bred to resist the bronze birch borer, but it still needs to be monitored and sprayed yearly for the borers. A good cultivar is ‘Renaissance Reflection.’

River birch (B. nigra), native to the eastern United States, is fast growing when young. It can reach more than 50 feet in height. Its bark is a smooth, shiny apricot and, when mature, flakes and curls in cinnamon strips. It tolerates slow drainage and is also resistant to borers. “It’s pretty tough, good and sturdy,” says Morris.

The cultivar ‘Heritage’ was introduced to much acclaim around 15 years ago.

Birch trees need moisture. Do not allow your tree to dry out in your sunny site.


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