Early signs of life

Hellebore

Hellebore

First published in Gardening

GINA PARKINSON finds it is far too cold to stay outside for long, but her spirits are lifted by the sight of a hellebore showing signs of new life

THE cold snap we had this week put paid to the work in the garden and optimism felt in the mildness at the beginning of the month has soon evaporated.

Monday saw a smattering of snow on the lawn and hungry birds waiting for food and I huddled indoors for a while until the need to get outside became too strong to resist. It truly was too chilly to get much done outside and it wasn’t long before fingers and feet were aching.

However, a gardener can always spot something to feel optimistic about and sure enough there was a hellebore sporting a clump of deeply divided leaves topped with pale bunches of buds. Some of these are plump to burst any day when the clusters of light green flowers will be revealed.

These early hellebores are such a joy in a January garden where everything feels abandoned. The one I spotted is probably Helleborus foetidus, which forms a neat clump of evergreen holly green leaves that mingle in a quiet sort of way with other plants in summer and autumn.

It is in winter and early spring when this plant will come into its own. Firstly providing foliage colour and interest when herbaceous specimens die back, then adding long-lasting and attractive flowers just as the garden begins to awaken in January and February.

First signs of these blooms begin early, sometimes in December as the top of the plant begins to lighten to pale green. As the weeks pass this growth thickens until the first buds can be spotted.

Flower stems lengthen and rise above the plant finally opening into numerous light-coloured bells, sometimes edged with maroon. They are supposed to have a strange scent, hence the name foetidus, but it doesn’t appear to be particularly unpleasant.

Helleborus foetidus is a quick-growing plant which may flower in its second year and certainly by the time it has reached its third winter. The flowers are full of pollen and will attract early bees and other pollinators venturing out on a sunny winters day.

A consequence of this is the number of seedlings that will appear about the garden. These can be left to grow where they have fallen if suitable, it seems to be happy in most situations although a sunny place will attract more insects and well drained soils will prolong the life of this perennial.

Or the seedlings can be dug up and grown on in individual pots as insurance against any losses.

Weekend catch-up

JANUARY is a good month to get a seed order sent off. Some popular plant varieties may have sold out, but there will still be plenty of things to choose from. Make it a priority to order seed potatoes so they arrive on time for planting in spring plus any flower seeds that need a long germination time.

Gardening talk

ASKHAM Bryan College (ABC) Gardening Club will hold its January meeting at Askham Bryan College on Tuesday. The guest speaker will be Tony Cleaver, whose illustrated talk More Hidden Squares and Gardens of London follows one he gave to the club a couple of years ago. Tony will take the audience on a journey around the capital discovering garden and squares less well known to the public.

The talk will be held in the Conference Hall and begins at 7.30pm. Admission if free to ABC Gardening Club members and £5 on the door. For further information, please phone David Whiteman, publicity officer, on 01904 707208.

Gardening TV and radio

Tomorrow

8am, BBC Radio Humberside, The Great Outdoors. With Blair Jacobs and Doug Stewart.

9am, BBC Radio Leeds, Tim Crowther and Joe Maiden.

9am, BBC Radio York, Mark Forrest. With gardening advice from Nigel Harrison, Martin Fish and Lizzie Tulip.

2pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. Panellists Chris Beardshaw, Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood advise gardeners from Surrey. Peter Gibbs is in the chair.

Friday

3pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. A postbag edition with Matt Biggs, Pippa Greenwood and Anne Swithinbank.

8.30pm, BBC2, Life In A Cottage Garden with Carol Klein. It is winter and frost is wreaking havoc on pots and paths. A mild day sees Carol pruning and by February it is time to start planting a new hedge.

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