week 5: hellebores, salamander eggs, and other timely teachers

JUST WHEN I WANT to give up, the hellebores convinced me otherwise—reminding me not to rush things, and that the right moment for everything would arrive in its own time.

I was fighting the cues: wanting to get on with cutting miles of clean edges between turf and beds despite sodden soil (answer: don’t!) or rake some grassy areas that are still plastered with leafy, twiggy winter detritus but likewise still soft. Again: no can do, without pulling up the lawn.

As much as I want to make it all “just so” in time for Open Day next weekend—maybe I can’t.

The orientalis hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x orientalis) know about timing, often refusing to bloom for a couple or few years from transplant time until they settle in—when the gardener is all the while wondering what they did wrong (probably nothing).

Even once established, they wait and wait in a year like this recalcitrant one to arise and open, weeks after my “usual” hellebore moment. They finally got on with it last week (one photo of a little section of them, top of page).

They remind me to be not just patient but also adaptable, and those hybrid Lenten roses are that, too—blooming here mightily in my Northern garden in sunny spots, not just shady ones. The slate-colored clump below is one such example, with 50-something blooms (some not open yet when the photo was taken).

More on how hellebores work is in this interview with the late Judith Knott Tyler, hellebore breeder and author—who taught me to think of them like peonies: a bit slow to get acclimated (keep an eye on watering in the first year or two), then long-lived, and asking not much more once they do than an annual tidying of old foliage and maybe some compost.

I have been cheered on in recent days by the first Narcissus, another stoic that will outlive you, provided it is not asked to grow in shade or wet soil, or tortured by having its foliage cut back until it ripens and withers on its own, usually around July 4 here. (More on flower-bulb success at this link.)

The twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) that had barely arisen all pink and baby-bird-like last week is in its next magical incarnation now (above). Across the yard, the annual battle over bird boxes–tree swallow versus bluebirds–was playing out noisily. And the winner is: tree swallows (as every year).

Another hopeful sighting: clumps of spotted salamander eggs in one of the garden pools, and a very fat (presumably egg-filled) female bullfrog spending some days now at poolside.

Spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatumThere was not quite so much cheering when a local bear visited the other afternoon, refusing to be dissuaded even at the sight of me. Where is that damn air horn I am supposed to be carrying with me when outside? All my fault, really: I had been putting out a bird feeder by day and carrying it in at night, but even that is not caution enough. That breaks my birdfeeder rules, which say no food after April 1 at the latest. But it has felt like winter (and I so enjoy the minions).

I got to watch while he mauled the feeder pole, and eventually trotted off to an open spot to lie down with it as if it were a pet toy and he the family dog, licking and gnawing until every last morsel was extracted.

What’s going on this week in your corner of the universe? Do tell.

  1. Mark says:

    Here everything is likewise slow. I’ve only seen one mason bee and usually the Scilla sea (grrrrr) which is at peak bloom is abuzz with a dozen or more pollinators. I’m a little concerned.

  2. Doreen Tignanelli says:

    No bears, but we have a family of foxes living under our shed, a mother and four cubs. That is not good for the local squirrels. Over the course of an hour, I saw the mother bring back three squirrels, including one that was scavenging under our bird feeder.

  3. Jean says:

    Such a timely post on hellebores! I have been falling in love with so many beautiful examples in the arboretums I’ve been visiting here in Northern NJ.

  4. Robin says:

    Helebores – about to become my newest obsession.

    When the air horn isn’t handy, try the fob. Press the panic button on your key fob and set off the car’s horn. That might work for the bears. They don’t see well so when they’re in the field they don’t see me, but if they hear the horn they make a fast escape.

      1. Lauren ???? says:

        My brother and sister in law keep the car doors unlocked too, because they have dived inside as a bear came sauntering by. Sometimes you are so unerved that you can’t push the unlock button.

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Nothing near as dramatic as a scavenging bear here. A fox comes trotting through scouting for rabbits but I haven’t seen a decline in rabbits or squirrels. There aren’t any loose cats in our neighborhood right now. They are probably easier to catch.
    My hellebores are about finished blooming. They are making seeds like crazy. I will have to dead head them where I don’t want any more.
    Tulips have about come to an end too. Just a group of late yellow ones blooming. The first Columbine, Golden Alexander, Camassia and purple iris are beginning to bloom. As are the Dogwoods and Redbuds. Such a fun time of year.

  6. Betsy says:

    Here in northern New Jersey I’m enjoying the stalwarts of spring…bleeding heart, hellebores, tulips and daffodils. Every day I’m out counting the fat tree peony buds and patiently awaiting their blossoms. I’ve been moving old herbaceous peonies around the garden the last few years, so it’s always fun to see which ones will start blooming. I think this might be the year! The lilac buds are getting big as well as the dogwood. You are right about being patient…all in its own time.
    Our town gave away tiny bare rooted trees on Arbor Day and I took home 2 little persimmons. I looked online to get some planting ideas and it said 10 years to begin bearing fruit! It might be even longer for trees starting out the size of a pencil!

    1. margaret says:

      Well, Betsy, I guess those persimmons are an extreme example of gardening being a practice more about patience than anything else. :)

  7. essell says:

    Hellebores yes, narcissi, yes, but most excitedlyfor me here in ulster co, ny, the epimediums have broken ground to regreet me, old friends reunited sfter a breakup.

  8. Bill Plummer says:

    Just back from a leisurely stroll from the front woods to the back woods. Hellebores are in full bloom.
    It seems the Chiondoxa are everywhere from the front lot line to the back, from south to northl and into the rock garden and into the lawn rueing that Never planted them some 50 years ago. Competing with them are our native bloodroot with upwards of a thousand plants, albeit tightly closed up in this cold penultimate day of April. Not to be outdone the wood anemones have spread mightally and in warm, sunny days will flowers in white, blue and yellow hues. My twin leafs are still in their red garb, half their ultimate height, tiny blobs of white. But in a sunny spot at the base of my wall, one brave plant is unfolding its leaves and blooming. Many trilliums are up ready to bloom, but only the snow trillium is in flower. No sign yet of grandiflora. Blue cohosh’s emerging foliage is a dark purple. What a superb bushy plant that is with insignifacnt yellow flowers followed by those large blue berries. Flower are’nt everything. Clumps of Dutchman’s britches and squirel corn get bigger every year only to disappear in a month. Alleghenny spurge, our native pachysandra, is abloom, its dark, blotted foliage soon to be followed by bright new leaves. Let me end with hepatica, one large clump with more than a dozen buds waiting to open on a warmer day.

  9. Marilyn says:

    Greetings from N. Carolina: We are in the throws of late Spring with azalea in bloom and the irises having just started to open this past week. I don’t have any bears, thank goodness, but also this year I see no sign of voles. That is always a welcome relief. My excitement is the budding of my Royal Purple Smoke Tree (Cotinus Coggygria) for the first time. Four years I have patiently waited to see it bud and my patience has been rewarded. Also, on the bird front, I saw three Rose Breasted Grosbeak, one Blue Grosbeak (1st time) and two Indigo Buntings at my feeders this Spring. Mother Nature at the moment is in perfect sync.

  10. Jay Wen says:

    In my Brooklyn garden I planted a bunch of bulbs last fall and I am so glad they’ve come up to greet me this spring. Tulips, daffodils, muscari, and hyacinths. I bought a hellebores plant from Home Depot and planted it in the ground, well to be more specific, on top of an old kiddie pool that we upcycled.

    It’s our third year in the garden and all is looking good!

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like lots of progress, Jay. Bulbs I planted 30 years ago are still blooming here each spring! A great investment.

  11. Beth Roninson says:

    Here in southeastern PA Spring is everywhere you look. Red bud trees are just beginning, the cherry trees are gorgeous and the Bradford pear are just past peak. The lilac and vibernum are not quite ready. The ferns are pushing through, the peony are up and the bleeding hearts are lovely. Saw the most beautiful display of bluebells and daffodils all mixed together the other day. While not coveted in a garden, there are fields of mustard in full sunny display. Makes me grateful to see yet another Spring arrive in all its glory.

  12. Ann Johnston says:

    Our back garden is full of wonderful bright daffodils, finally, but the purple pasque flowers beat them into bloom by a couple of weeks

  13. Leslie McHgh says:

    Hellebores, daffodils, epimediums, Virginia bluebells, pulmonaria, magnolia, grape hyacinths, bleeding heart, and Korean Spice viburnum are all full of beautiful blooms. Spotted hummingbirds today which is always a delight.

  14. Ellen Johnson says:

    from the oregon coast…my hellebores have been blooming since january 1st…the daphnes are just finishing their blooms, the daffs are done, but some tulips are still blooming. the crabapple has been gorgeous and the iris buds are about to open. the rhodies and wisteria are also just opening. i love spring!

  15. Geri Scott says:

    Greetings from Central Massachusetts where it seems as if Spring will never take hold. Last night went down to the 30’s so all my tender seedlings that had been hardening off on the back porch had to come back inside. Today is in the low 40’s but it is supposed to hit 80 by mid week. Amazing! My daffodils are just opening into bloom, and the leaf buds are coming on the roses. Red peony sprouts are about 4 inches high, the hosta stems just turned into leaves today, and the purple blossoms of the PJM azalea are just peeping through their shells. I’m pulling off the leaf mulch everywhere so the remaining bulbs don’t suffocate! What a season of contrasts Spring is!

  16. devra says:

    up here in the catskills i walked along on our dreary, rainy friday afternoon and saw only the things that looked torn up and sad as i did my first walkabout in the yard. but saturday the sun came, chasing away the feelings of despair and failure, and i got on with the chores – just like every year – and enjoyed the amazing show my daffodils and tiny primula denticulata are giving along my shady stream bed. overnight, the buds on the dogwood began to swell, a few hepatica sent up inquiring blossoms, and i could see the tepals on my magnolia x soulangiana ‘Kiki’s Broom’ begin to loosen.

    but T.S. Eliot said it best: april is the cruelest month.

  17. Andrea says:

    I love my hellebores! But wait! You said don’t edge yet (just after I edged a few of my beds — rats!). But why?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Andrea. I want to edge now — and usually do. It’s very soggy here so the risk is sort of pulling up the turf with the tool when I pull up on the edger, you know (after inserting/stepping on it to make the cuts…then I life…and if it’s soggy and the grass isn’t really rooted in well/growing…what a mess!)?

  18. judy says:

    So I have a question? My Helleborus foetidus was doing so well end of March and early April and now it is droopy and looks like it won’t make it. All my hellebore hybrids are doing fantastic, even some I didn’t think would make it through the winter when I planted them last fall. Any trick to Helleborus foetidus?

  19. be sims says:

    I live in Atlanta and have problems with squirrels taking my bulbs. They interrogate any loose soil in urns, pots and flower beds. Netting over the bulbs helped but looks tacky – any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Here, too. Some people swear that hot pepper flakes around said plantings are a deterrent, but I have never tried it (I’d need a LOT of pepper flakes!). Really all there is that works is some kind of barrier like your netting (or chicken wire) and as you point out, that’s not very attractive. many people hire a licensed nuisance wildlife handler to trap and relocate them (or destroy them, according to whatever local ordinances are in effect), but here’s the thing: there will be more coming along shortly to take their places in most situations. I wish I had an answer (as do most gardeners). Persistent animals.

  20. Carolyn Roof says:

    In western Kentucky, the daffodils are all but gone, while iris, spirea, Exbury azalea are in full bloom, with hellebore starting to go to seed, and kousa blooms the size of a quarter. Late winter blast delayed everything three weeks.

  21. Marla Rohwer says:

    We had our first bear sighting in 30 something years here in Highland, NY. No more bird feeding except for last fall’s red sumac branches that we gathered in a large Terra cottage chimney pipe. The robins and bluebirds are still drawn in to feed on them.
    We have the same issue with swallows and bluebirds fighting over the bluebird boxe we placed in the pond. We added a second box but it didn’t seem to help.
    The hellebores, epimedium, mountain pinks, azaleas, and brunneras are all in bloom, seemingly overnight…but my favorite flowers so far this year are the fragrant white multi stem daffodils…Bridal Crown, Abba and Erlicheer.

  22. Lauren ???? says:

    I won some hellebores at the annual members garden party at Stonecrop and they are in full bloom at my Mom’s house in Putnam Valley, NY. I am in a new house and all I did was make two little beds on the west side. The crocus are done, daffodils are blooming, buds on Persian Allium. I took variegated Lemon Blam, variegated Phlox paniculata, variegated Japanese Forest Grass (Haneckloa or whatever it is), do we detect a trend here…from the old house and they are all up. Yay! Also a few peonies, Egyptian Walking Onion, Abeliaphyllum distichum, a few Hydrangeas, they are up too. Sorry I didn’t take more as I passed my old house and saw that everything was ripped out and gone. Big mess. Sorry I saw it but a package was sent there. BY accident so I had to go.

    Right now I am working on fixing the drainage in the yard which is somewhat awry. I planted grass last fall just to fight wind and rain erosion and it is filling in decently. Yesterday I dug up enough dandelions to fill my composter. Good thing my county was selling them at a reduced rate when we moved in so we bought 2. I know some folks are saying to leave them because bees need the forage but I will have shrubs, trees, etc that will supply more because they will grow vertically and offer more per square foot. And I leave the clover for the bees. And I do it manually.

  23. Lauren ???? says:

    Ah this too: I saw a clump of Quaker Ladies in my neighbor’s yard! I haven’t seen those since around 1968 when I went to a camp in Great Barrington, Alice Rich Northrop Memorial Camp. It was a great nature camp. I learned so much while there. They had an amazing library that I heard later was destroyed in a fire. Quaker Ladies or Bluets were all over the place in the grassy meadows.

  24. Cindy Donahey says:

    Roses are budded. I do not cut back unless necessary in the spring. Did so with one rose. Have one old runnered One called the wedding cake rose. One petal flawed. It had been overwhelmed by Trumpet vine, waiting to see if it will bloom. It was one of the roses brought early on. Interplantd with wildflowers. It is one of the last to bloom m.

    Some yellow wildflower, have not been able to identify, is mixed with purple Virginia spiderwort and blooming first. Remember vaguely I got it years ago.

    Early perennial poppies in full bloom. Chinese red. Two buds per plant. I have a few single red still in bud. Purple allium in full bloom. Huge silver purple ones in bud.

    Transplanted queen of the prairie to a moister place. Will probably bloom this year. Doing extremely well.

    Strange shape yellow heritage tomato reseeded.

  25. Meris Ruzow (btwn Alb & Saratoga) says:

    I just love this page and your podcasts – especially the ones with Ken Druse. He just makes me laugh! And the two of you together, well… let’s just pour some wine and forget the garden! Just the garden talk!
    Anyway, I found a link that is VERY old, while searching for a damned bamboo rake. So my question is, HAVE YOU FOUND ONE YET? I’m not talking about the 16″ ones that are held together by a stupid metal clip, but I like the 10 inch ones that I keep in my cart and use after planting, after doing everything! Help! Are there any out there anymore? And of course, thanks for being such a terrific (and fun) resource!

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, what a very nice comment, Meris. Thank you. Now the bad news: I think all the bamboo rakes are crapola. The big landscaping supplier catalogs like AM Leonard don’t even seem to carry them any longer! (Well, they have one version, a large one, that is said to be better constructed, but …) Mostly everything is plastic, or some metal. Sigh.

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