My First Day of Gardening–in February?

– Posted in: Garden chores, Mud Season
18 comments

I blame it on the sunshine. If the sun hadn’t been shining, I wouldn’t have had the overwhelming urge to get outside and DO something. Because, really? February is too early for garden cleanup. But of course, this hasn’t been a normal February. A normal February looks like this:

snowy front walk

February 19th, two years ago. Nothing to cut back, right?

So, in a normal February, I wouldn’t have seen this–

hellebore buds 1

These hellebore buds are poised to rise up and bloom real soon now.

–or this–
hellebore buds 2

These hellebore buds have taken the first tentative steps into blossomhood.

–the day before, when we reached 61F (16C) degrees. Again I say, not a normal February.

Calculated risk, or reckless gamble?

To my credit, I did not just dash out there and start clipping. No, I’m not that reckless. I checked the weather forecast first. Most days in the upcoming week were predicted to be in the 40sF (7-ish C) and most nights in the 20s (~-4C) or warmer. And this forecast takes us into March. March–especially the first half of March–can have snow, sometimes a lot of snow. But snow won’t faze hellebores. And if we got cold without snow, well, it would have to be freakishly cold–colder than it’s been most of the winter–to damage those hellebore buds.

And if the rest of this winter is as mild as it has been, those hellebores will be up and blooming earlier than usual. It would be a tedious process to cut back the ugly, winter-damaged leaves after the flowering stems had emerged and started blooming. And there would be more plants poking through the earth that would be easy to step on. So I took a calculated risk, based on the information I had at my disposal and my previous experience with hellebores and upstate NY weather.

As I cut back the hellebore foliage, I noticed that the highest leaves were desiccated, reduced to a tan husk of their former selves. The leaves beneath them were much greener and hardly damaged at all. I had second thoughts. Maybe I should just cut off the worst looking leaves, and leave the rest to protect the plants. No, silly, I admonished myself. These are hellebores, for pity’s sake. If I do that, the next layer of leaves will turn ratty and need cutting just as the flowers are looking their best. (See previous paragraph about grooming blooming hellebores.)

Ivory Prince hellebore foliage

I left the foliage of ‘Ivory Prince’ standing because it looked good.

There were other considerations. Most of my hellebores are hybrids that resemble H. orientalis and technically would be labeled H. x hybridus. Those I just cut down. But I do have some H. niger and hybrids of H. niger. Those have a different kind of leaf that is thicker and has some marbling or veining in it. (See above. You can click on any image for a larger version.) Those leaves were a lot less damaged and my gardener’s intuition sensed they still needed them.
Winterbells hellebore

‘Winterbells’ perplexes me.

H. x sahinii ‘Winterbells’ perplexes me. British garden writers praise the fact that it blooms all winter long. In my garden it starts blooming in fall and gets beaten up by winter, and is looking a rather hot mess about now. But unlike my other hellebores, it blooms on the same stem as the leaves–the technical term is caulescent. If I cut the ratty-looking leaves off, I am also cutting off the flowers.

Of course, most of the flowers look like brown mush. However, looking closer at my own photograph, I think I can see a new undamaged stem coming up in the heart of the plant. Perhaps tedium is called for with this one plant. If I go over each stem, cutting down the ones that look thoroughly trashed and trimming the ones that have new buds on them, maybe I can make this plant look presentable. However, I think this year I need to see if I can’t find a better spot for it–or even a new home. What good is a plant that blooms all winter but looks like a ragamuffin the whole time?

Other signs of spring

Cyclamen coum

Cyclamen coum

I have one tiny corm of Cyclamen coum, and because it goes dormant in the summer, I often forget it’s there. Also, it’s “only” hardy to USDA Zone 5 and I still think of myself as a Zone 4 girl–all weather data to the contrary–and I never expect it to live. But I caught a flash of pink as I was trimming the hellebores, and by golly, C. coum lives! All one flower and three leaves of it. And I noticed today a second flower had joined the first. Bravo!
eranthis emerging

Winter aconites are at the starting gate, waiting for the signal to begin their race.

Winter aconites give me my first dose of sunshine yellow to hold me until the daffodils bloom. These are right up close to the house–I planted them there because I noticed the snow melted first there.
hellebores after cutting cropped tighter

Doesn’t your spring-starved heart beat a little faster at the sight of those pink buds so eager to open?

After I cut back the hellebores in the Cabin Fever Bed, I cut back a few other plants in the front yard that I knew to be early emergers: catmint and hardy chrysanthemum. I could see new growth at the base of both plants, so I felt justified. After that, I went inside, because–despite the sun–35F (1.6C) isn’t really all that warm, especially with a breeze blowing.

And I had satisfied the longing in my heart.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern March 1, 2016, 10:12 am

Oh, I so want to rush home right now and look at my Z4 garden!! My hellebores are just starting to “take.” It’s been a few years. I wonder if they will bloom for me this year? I wonder if the snowdrops are up, if the aconites are up, if the bee balm is starting, the crocus … but I am here until the end of March. And here it is warming up really good 70sF! Spring is definitely in the air. You have encouraged me to try a cyclamen! Happy spring to you Kathy.

Bill @ PaulsLandscapers March 1, 2016, 10:04 am

Here, in Melbourne, such garden pictures are no wonder in February! But it’s still the summer in Australia and we’re all used to it. Pretty funny for visitors of the country though.

Jean February 28, 2016, 10:06 pm

My garden isn’t as far along as yours. We still have patches of snow on the ground, but it looks more like early April than the end of February. I was out in the garden today and tempted to begin doing some late winter pruning.

Hilda Morrill February 25, 2016, 2:59 pm

Thank you, Kathy! As always, great info and great photos. In our garden, we noticed some crocuses in bloom today. No real “cleaning up” per se, beyond hubby cutting and removing huge pine branches that fell during recent wind storms.

Jane Rutkowski February 25, 2016, 1:31 pm

I agree with many; this has been a strange winter. Being patient, is difficult to say the least. The only thing I have been doing is wintersowing, and I did direct sow some annual poppies recently.

commonweeder February 25, 2016, 11:32 am

I am really glad to see this post. I am interested in hellebores which I have never grown. I think they would be hardy temperature-wise, but everyday I seem to find out how very wet my harden is – and how slowly it drains after a heavy rain. But the hellebore idea will not go away.

Kathy Purdy February 25, 2016, 5:09 pm

The Lenten roses are a little more tolerant of moisture than the Christmas roses. Maybe you need raised beds? Or three years of adding leaf mold to the soil before you try hellebores?

Dusti February 25, 2016, 12:38 am

I’ve spent all week telling myself it would be far too risky to go out and start cleaning up in the garden even if my chives are already waking up beautifully, and then of course the day I finally decided I had to go out and do something, the temperature dropped 20° . Glad I’m not the only one who waits anxiously for garden weather.

Joanne Toft February 24, 2016, 9:11 pm

You are ahead of us in Minnesota. Rain the last few days but still snow in the front and back years. I did see a bit of sedum with little buds perking up just at the edge of the garden and the sidewalk. I think it is picking up warm from the cement when we do get sun. Thinking about when to really start seeds – with this crazy warm weather.

Donna@Gardens Eye View February 24, 2016, 3:55 pm

Lucky you! Here we still have snow and now 3 inches of rain on top of it making a flood…cold too. I wish I could get out but it looks like weeks here still.

Kathy Purdy February 24, 2016, 5:05 pm

Yes, we seem to have missed a lot of the snow that others got. Didn’t mean to make you jealous! It is raining here today, too.

Dee/reddirtramblings February 24, 2016, 12:37 pm

I think satisfying the longing in your heart is the most important thing. Always where gardening is concerned. Glad you got out there. ~~Dee

Beth February 24, 2016, 11:37 am

Kathy, I think many of us were out despite the crazy seeming early date. It was nearly 60°, sunny and calm here on Saturday, and I cut back a few beds and planted my sweet pea seeds, as the forecast here too is pretty nice ten days out. It was lovely to be out in the sunshine, although I don’t have anything blooming yet. I think we’re going to have an early spring — Enjoy your spring! -Beth

Pat Webster www.siteandinsight.com February 24, 2016, 10:01 am

This has been the strangest winter. I hope it won’t be like this next year — I like snow and know what a good insulator it is. Who knows what plants won’t survive the cold flashes without it.

Lisa - Ontario February 24, 2016, 9:33 am

I did some pruning on my trees and shrubs. I looked at the Hellebores, but then thought about the snow that will surely fall, and the fact that the ragged leaves might offer some protection. We could get a few feet of snow in March, but you are correct about the temperatures. Wait and see.

Becky Hillick February 24, 2016, 9:19 am

I always feel the excitement those first buds in the spring. This year has been a bit weird.

Mark February 24, 2016, 7:43 am

I was literally just looking out the window and noticing that the snow is now completely gone from the garden and wondering how the hellebore buds are doing. I’d love to give them a cleanup but most are in spots where I’d have to walk across wet turf or ephemerals waiting just below the mud. Think I’ll wait until everyone is up and accounted for. The Cyclamen coum is beautiful. I only managed to keep one for a few years. It may be time to try again in a different spot.

Leslie February 24, 2016, 12:24 am

Your climate is so very different than mine; I could understand a bit better what it is like there from this post. Hope those blooms all survive!