Bearsfoot hellebore

Getting the jump on spring.

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Early-flowering bearsfoot hellebore supplies two curious advantages in the garden. —Susan Safford

While humans await spring, there is a striking perennial that does not dawdle. In bloom now, Helleborus foetidus, the bearsfoot hellebore, belongs in shade or informal woodland gardens, and is welcome because, numero uno, it is deer-resistant.

The tall, chartreuse flowering stems, often fragrant, have been developing slowly since autumn. Now the nodding flower shapes are quite distinct and visible, contrasting with the darker green of the deeply cut foliage, which has a strong odor when bruised.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this hellebore. One is that the flowers’ nectar supports the growth of yeasts that give off heat — what a brilliant advantage to early flowering and pollinators visiting the flowers! Another is that ants, in a helpful process called myrmecochory, spread its seeds.

The hellebore grows lipid packets, elaiosomes, into the seeds, which appeal to ants. In harvesting the seeds and carrying them back to the colony, the ants assist parent plants in offering a promising, fertile new location to offspring. H. foetidus is not invasive: You get more plants, but at a stately rate. They sprout where they will succeed, or you can transplant seedlings while small.

Plant and seeds are poisonous. Set this hellebore among neighbors such as epimediums, camellias, mahonias, or other dappled-shade lovers. It is said to favor limestone soils (unlikely on Martha’s Vineyard); mine are fine among corylopsis, azalea, oakleaf hydrangea, hardy cyclamen, and other hellebore hybrids, in oak woodland. The sprawling plants may eventually increase to about 3 feet by 3 feet.

Hummingbird nests

A friend once found a hummingbird nest blown onto the ground. It was a tiny, miraculously exquisite object, made of lichen and lined with down and spiderweb. I have always wanted to spot an active hummingbird nest. Many ruby-throated hummingbirds visit my garden annually; they must raise young nearby.

I may now have located one. A “blob” is clinging to a branching spot near the end of a limb where hummingbirds often perch as they await a turn at my feeder. It will be interesting to keep a pair of binoculars trained on it as the season progresses, and see what develops. Ruby-throated hummingbirds usually arrive here in late April.

Indoors

It seems like only a short while ago, before March, that I had houseplants vacationing outside for days in a row, soaking up sunshine and receiving a gentle washing from the unseasonably mild fog and drizzle, with balmy temperatures. Geraniums that I managed to overwinter are putting out new growth. It is time to pinch them back. By sacrificing currently forming flowerbuds, the plants grow bushy and flower more heavily later.

More light means new, soft growth, attracting whitefly, which can be held in check by regular spraying of insecticidal soap. Pay attention to ventilation, though; these infestations signal insufficient airflow around plants.

Fungus gnats are also beginning to make their appearance. These small black gnats flit about lazily near the soil surface of houseplants and seedling trays. They lay eggs in the potting mix that then hatch out to become minute maggots, feeding on the plants’ fine roots.

Soggy, damp soils promote fungus gnats’ proliferation; avoid overwatering, and let soil mix dry out between waterings. Yellow sticky cards and soil drenches can be used against them, or, alternatively, place a mulch of fine peastone or perlite that forms a barrier in the container’s headspace.

Spring cleanup

No matter how compulsively gardens may have been tidied and put to bed in fall, there will usually be an air of disarray about them come March and April. Winds whip shrubbery back and forth, and pick up and deposit neighbors’ leaves. Snow or ice has stripped branchlets from evergreens, leaving litter below. Driveway plowing dumps lumps of material in unlikely places.

On a recent drive up-Island, we saw many upended pitch pines and other tree casualties of the recent winter’s worth of wind and weighty snow, which gnaw at them cumulatively. Minor flaws in their branches or roots are worried into major fracture; then gravity takes over, leading to large cleanup surprises below.

All but the largest, coarsest litter can be composted, chipped or whole. In fact, the small twiggy branches are the source of ramial wood, one of the best soil-building substances known because it supports the proliferation of soil fungi and other microorganisms. Ramial wood was traditionally regarded as a waste material. Research into forest soils and ecosystems at Laval University in Quebec led to the recognition of the value of this material, and to research into its uses.

Pruning

Oil and sharpen up pruners and loppers (hold whetstone on cutting blade at flat, 23° angle), and take a turn around the garden. Keep the adage in mind: If it blooms before the summer solstice, prune immediately after flowering; e.g., forsythia. If it blooms after the solstice, prune now; e.g., rose-of-sharon, but clean up storm damage whenever you spot it.

Look for crossing branches, or trees and shrubs making growth that looks one-sided or unbalanced. Pruning part of a plant hard and the rest timidly may bring it into balance. “Growth follows the knife.”

To thicken a woody plant or to contain its size, make “heading” cuts. These are made across the stem, and promote bushiness; i.e., think hedging. To direct growth or to open a plant for light and better airflow, make “thinning” cuts. These may mean removing branches at the branch collar; or finding a strong bud that faces in the desired direction, and making a slanting cut just above it, thereby directing the plant’s growth that way. Avoid creating long stubs.

Ian Jochems will leading a pruning workshop on April 8 at Polly Hill Arboretum. Please call 508-693-9426 to register.