Be on the lookout…there may be treasure in your garden.
During your spring cleanup, you will no doubt uncover all kinds of delightful signs of life: the healthy shoots of perennials, dozens of tiny seedlings or wiggly earthworms under fallen leaves. One treasure you should be on the lookout for, and not mistake as something bad is the over wintering egg case of Praying Mantes (or Mantids). These pale tan Styrofoam looking sacs are attached in the crotches and on the undersides of bare branches. In late spring they will begin to split, upon which a hundred or more tiny translucent Praying Mantes will unfurl and march away to devour a wide variety of your most irritating garden pests. We were absolutely delighted to learn that they voraciously eat grasshoppers, which are a nuisance we’ve had difficulty with in the past.
The Praying Mantis is a most fascinating insect to observe in the garden. They sit motionless in the garden waiting for their prey to pass by. And yes, it is true that the females practice sexual cannibalism, (but not always, we’re told). Often the male is just not thinking straight when he has copulation on his mind and surprises the female as she sits motionless. Her first reaction is to grab hold and bite off his head (she needs the extra protein for pregnancy!). The male is able to fulfill his mission nonetheless and we hear he dies happily ever after.
So many of the earliest spring bloomers are diminutive in size, and invite you to kneel or even lie on your belly for the best viewing. Blooming with the early Crocus, the lovely and demure Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ first appears as a pale yellow-green shoot, and then begins to unfurl to display falls and standards in the most ethereal shade of pale aqua etched with baby blue. Pastel orange-yellow markings accent the falls, and as her flower ages, ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ fades to delicious shades of blue-gray.
Although it is often sold as I. reticulata, Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ is in fact a cross between 2 species, I. histroides, native to Turkey and I. winogradowii native to the Caucasus. She is a hardy soul, surviving in zones 4-9, and grows 4-8″ tall, preferring a well drained sunny situation that gets adequate moisture in late winter and dryness in summer. Planting and dividing is best done in the fall, but mark then spot, because she goes dormant in early summer.
Tending to Hellebores in March
One of the first things we tackle in the garden is raking up windblown leaves that have accumulated around the crowns of the early blooming Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis hybrids) and removing last year’s tarnished foliage, which may harbor pesky Botrytis spores.
As you cleanup the decaying growth, you may be fortunate to discover dozens of tiny seedlings at the plant’s base (of course that’s if the Hellebore bloomed well for you last year). These seedlings may be variable in color, especially if you’re growing a hybrid selection or more than one variety. You can always leave them undisturbed, and a few will eventually establish in situ or you can very gently lift the delicate seedlings and transplant them into small pots using a well drained potting soil. After a few months they will have put on enough growth for transplanting to other spots in your garden.
There are rare colors in the plant world, and black is certainly one of them. This new selection of Lenten Rose, from the hybridizing efforts of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne, is one of the darkest shades we’ve seen. New growth emerges in early March here in New England, gradually sending forth flowering shoots as kinder weather warms the earth. The nodding single rose shaped flowers begin to fade in early May, after which the swollen ovules will burst, dispersing the ripened seed. Seed most likely will not germinate until the following spring, and the seedlings will likely differ in color from the parent plant, as this is a hybrid. New foliage will continue to develop as the flowers fade and the handsome leathery leaves persist through the winter.
Hellebores appreciate being grown in a partially shaded, well drained, fertile, slightly alkaline soil (pH of 7-6). Individual plants usually grow 18-20″ tall, forming sizable clumps over the years, and will withstand temperatures to -20 degrees F.
Perhaps you first noticed this primrose depicted in one of those classic 17th c. still life paintings, one of many plants in an opulent ensemble that one would never find blooming all at once in nature. Primula auricula in its purest form is native to the alpine regions of central Europe, growing in sharply drained soil on craggy slopes, enhanced by moist mountain air. The species often display cheerful yellow flowers that extend on 4-6″ stems and are hardy through zone 4.
British gardeners have made collecting and growing Primula auricula a springtime passion and, over the years, have hybridized and selected forms with larger flowers, sturdier stems, and unusual colors ranging from mustard, tan, yellow and green through red, purple and almost black, sometimes accented with white picotee edges. Often a powdering coating called “meal” dusts the flowers, leaves and stems. These “show hybrids” are best grown in pots rather than open ground, where their need for well drained soil that still remains adequately hydrated can more easily be met.
There is something especially striking about flowers which adorn bare branches before any signs of leaf growth appear. Hamamelis x ‘Feuerzauber’, a German hybrid selection of Withchazel (translation Fire Dragon), is hardy in zones 5-8 and boasts showy orange to red fragrant flowers in late February and March, which are as lovely cut for indoor arrangements as they are gracing the late winter landscape.
We recommend situating ‘Feuerzauber’ where you can enjoy its display from an indoor window. In fact, why not plant early blooming Crocus or yellow Narcissus ‘February Gold’ near its base for one of the first colorful ensembles of spring. ‘Feuerzauber’ will form a large shrub (15-18) with a pleasing upward spreading habit. It may not sing loudly in summer but it will celebrate Autumn with an amazing symphony of orange, yellow and red foliage.
Large Specimens available for nursery pickup.