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:
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.)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. 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 springI 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! 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. 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.