Time to smarten up those Hellebores!
I know it's getting on for Christmas, and most of us are not thinking about our gardens too much, but there are a couple of jobs that won't take long, and which will make a huge difference to what we see in the garden over the next few weeks and into spring.
This week – mid December – I've been cutting back Hellebores in all my gardens – specifically, Helleborus orientalis, also known as Helleborus x hybridus, the winter-flowering one with the huge, sharp-toothed, palmate leaves, and Helleborus niger, or Christmas Rose.
At this time of year, in most of our gardens, the Hellebores can be seen as a big ruff of summer leaves, often getting quite brown and tatty by now, and usually surrounded by a mass of dead tree leaves and all-purpose debris. As a general principle, I tend to snip off any really brown leaves as I see them, from late summer onwards, as I think they look ugly, but now is the time for a wholesale clear out.
All it takes is a pair of sharp secateurs, and all you have to do is take each leaf one at a time, trace the stalk back to ground level, and cut it off as low as you can. Why so low? Well, there's not much point leaving a couple of inches of stem to go brown and horrible, you will only have to go round and do them again when you get tired of looking at them: and this job can be quite unpleasant on the knuckles if you leave a lot of sharp, sticky-up points to stab at you, as you try to work there. So cut them really low.
While you are doing this, look out for anything that looks young and tender: some of these shoots will be the new leaves, but most of them will be the flower buds, so be careful not to snip them off by accident: this is the main reason for doing the leaves one at a time.
Rake around each plant to remove any weeds and general rubbish, step back, and say “Oh! It's so bare!” Yes, it will look heartlessly bare, but not for long, as those new buds will soon be opening into flower, and now you will be able to see them clearly from quite a distance, instead of them being swamped by the tatty old leaves. Sometimes people ask me if they shouldn't leave the leaves in place as frost protection, but no, they really don't need it, and there is nothing nicer than seeing a fistful of flowers rising directly out of the ground – or out of the snow, for that matter!
The weeds and debris can go on the compost heap, but not the Hellebore leaves: put them on the bonfire, or in your garden waste bin, as they harbour Hellebore Leaf Spot (proper but unpronounceable name Microsphaeropsis hellebori), a nasty and common fungal disease which – as the name suggests - causes brown spots, and the best way to get rid of the disease (or to keep your garden free of it) is to clear away and burn all the dead Hellebore leaves.
The carousel photos above show a small bed of Hellebores, looking lush and leafy: then the same bed after I have cut off the unwanted leaves: and then, after clearing off the debris, a closer look at one of the individual plants, where you can now see that it's going to be a pink one!
This is an excellent point at which to mulch the bed – once you have weeded, you can gently tip on a thick layer of your home-made compost, taking care not to squash any of the tender new buds, and the bed will look fabulous right into next spring, with no extra effort at all!