Thursday, 25 November 2021

Hellebore leaves: time to burn them!

Bonfires - love them, or hate them, they are far and away the best way of disposing of infected plant material.

After all, if you put it in your Green Waste Bin and send it off to the council, what do you think happens to it? Here's the answer: it gets turned into soil conditioner. Which is not quite compost... but nearly. What's the difference? Compost contains nutrients:  soil conditioner may contain less in the way of nutrients, but still does wonders for the physical "construction" of the soil, making it better at retaining water, and opening up the structure of dense, clay soils, making them easier to work.

But I digress! (which will not surprise regular readers at all...)

If you put diseased material into your council green waste bin, it gets processed along with everything else, and ends up being spread on a field somewhere. The chances of disease lingering in the material are low: the council have developed the process specifically to avoid that sort of thing, but still, it's not a risk I'd care to take. 

So I would much rather burn the diseased material, then use the nice sterile ash for various purposes around the garden. More of that later.

In particular, at this time of year, I'm talking about Hellebore leaves... Helleborus orientalis, the low-growing winter-flowering perennial, found in most gardens, very popular, and rightly so. But the leaves don't rot: or, should I say, they don't rot quickly or easily. I know this, because I did a little experiment for myself, in which I established to my satisfaction that no, they don't rot.

So here we are: it's autumn, we're heading into winter,  the Hellebores are all looking terrible, and if  you haven't already done so, it's time to go out and cut off all those horrible brown, dead, diseased-looking leaves.


Well, for a couple of reasons: firstly, and horticulturally speaking,  most Hellebore leaves harbour a nasty disease which causes brown/black areas, they start as spots, and gradually spread over the entire leaf. Unsurprisingly, this is called Hellebore Leaf Spot.  It is caused by the catchily-named fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebore, and like all funguses (fungi?) it spreads by spores - so it's far better to get rid of the infected leaves before the spores are released.

Secondly, they look disgusting (left).

Thirdly, and possibly even more importantly than secondly, they will obscure the flowers! The leaves of most Hellebores are actually taller than the flowers, and that's a real nuisance because, after all, we plant our gardens with flowers, because we want to admire the flowers! We don't want to have to stand over them and rummage around, in order to see a glimpse of a petal - no, we want to see the flowers in all their glory, so this is a case where The Leaves Must Go.

Oh, and fourthly, by removing the bulk of the old leaves, you will find it much easier to rake out the fallen deciduous tree leaves, which otherwise catch in amongst the Hellebore leaves, making the garden look untidy and dilapidated. 

In most of "my" gardens, I am either instructed, or permitted, to cut off all the Hellebore leaves at this time of year. In one or two, I am asked to only remove the leaves which are actually brown and horrible-looking, and to leave any which are still green.

This is a nuisance, because it means that in a few weeks' time, I will have to go round them all again, and cut off those last few leaves, which will have gone brown by then. 

But it's also a good thing, because it shows where the Hellebores are, which prevents people treading on them, not knowing that they are breaking the flowering stems before they can fairly start growing. This is important in a garden where people routinely walk across the beds.... or have dogs.....

And then, in a few short weeks, we'll start to see the flowers pushing through: and without the covering of old, tired, leaves, we will actually be able to see them.

Meanwhile, get those old, diseased, horrible leaves onto your bonfire pile, and do this to them (left).

*Proprietary Warning* when I do bonfires, I never just set fire to the pile: what you can't see in this photo is that the dead material was piled a couple of feet away, behind me: so I move a few armfuls onto the bonfire patch, get it going, then pile forkfuls on top as it burns.

This gives all the woodland critters a chance to run away, having been disturbed by me rootling around in the bonfire heap, and gradually moving it over to the burning pile. 

Which is far better, for them, then being roasted alive, which is what happens if you just set fire to a huge heap of rubbish, without moving it first... hang on, I must have a photo somewhere:

There we go - my bonfire place is a burnt black patch, and I pile all the burnable stuff to one side of it.

Then, when I'm ready to burn, I move over some of the oldest, driest material - note the pitchfork stuck in the ground on the left, there - onto the blackened patch, and get it going.

Once it's good and hot, I can throw on the less-dry material, the more freshly-cut stuff, and it will still burn.

This is another advantage of doing it this way, rather than just shoving a match into the bottom of your heap - the inner, lower layers might be damp.

Oh, and a third perfectly good reason for doing it this way, is that you can keep the actual burning pile down to a reasonable size, so it doesn't get out of control. I arrived at one Client's garden, one winter's day, to find fire engines all over the place: the neighbour had accumulated a large pile of stuff to burn, and had simply set the whole thing on fire, and it had got out of control and set fire to the hillside. 


So, children, when planning to burn off your non-compostable garden rubbish, always stack in one place and burn it in another, for the benefit of wildlife, to make it easy to get going, and to keep it under control.

Then, when the burning is all over, and the pile has cooled down, you are left with a pile of sterile ash: this can be spread over the winter-cleared veggie patch, and dug in - it can also be used on garden steps, the sort in the shade where the grass won't grow:

Here's some I did earlier: they are just hard-packed earth with wooden risers, in a situation where it is far too shady for the grass to grow, but plenty of weeds managed it. *rolls eyes*

An annual application of bonfire ash keeps the weeds down, and because ash is gritty, rather than muddy, it's much easier to pack it down firm with your boots.

This keeps the steps "full", as it were: the earth tended to sink, so that you'd trip over the wooden edges. But once I started packing them with ash, this problem was much reduced.

Well, I seem to have strayed from the subject of Hellebore leaves, but there you go, two for the price of one!

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