Monday, 6 June 2022

Hellebores - time to deadhead them!

The Hellebores have been lovely this year, but now - late May, early June - it's time to start clearing them away for the year. And if you're now thinking “haven't I heard all this before?” then no, usually I am talking about the winter clearing of Hellebore leaves, where we chop off all the nasty dead brown leaves, ready to see the flowers.

 But now the flowers are nearly over, so it's time to think about the spring cleaning. 

Here's a good example: you can see the nice fresh new leaves coming up, those are the "clean" looking, darker green ones: but above them we have an untidy mess of yellowing, blotchy old leaves, along with the fading flowers. 

There are two halves to this job: leaves (again), and dead-heading.  

Firstly, the leaves: cut off any remaining old leaves - these are the ones that are brown, partially brown, or have big brown spots on them. 

You can leave the fresh new leaves, they're fine, but all the old ones need to be cut out, as low down as you can. 

Even if you followed my suggestion, earlier in the year or late last year, to remove all the leaves before flowering, it's worth looking again, partly for any that you missed back then, and partly to find any new ones which have already gone brown.

This is partly for the visual effect: who wants to look at dead brown stuff? But also for garden hygiene: dead leaves harbour pests and diseases and should be cleared away, and this is particularly important for Hellebores, which are prone to Hellebore Leaf Spot (proper but unpronounceable name Microsphaeropsis hellebori), a nasty and common fungal disease which – as the name suggests - causes brown spots on the leaves.

For this reason, Hellebore leaves should never be put on the compost heap: if you can, burn them, which is a sure-fire way (ha! ha! Little pun, there!!) of destroying the fungus: if you don't have a bonfire heap, make sure you put them in the green-waste wheelie bin, or take them to the tip. Commercial composting occurs at a much, much higher temperature than our domestic composting, so it's ok to pass infected material on to the council. 

If you are interested in what happens to the content of your green-waste wheelie bin, by the way, read all about it in my series of three articles dealing with household waste. This is the one about green waste, and what happens to it... it's quite interesting!

Getting back to our Hellebores - once you get brown spot in them, the only way to get rid of it is to ruthlessly cut out and destroy any leaf which shows any sign of going brown. Harsh, but worth it.

Secondly, the dead-heading: now, we all love free plants, and seedlings are generally a joy to find: but Hellebores are particularly generous with their seeds, and if you leave them, you will find your original plants will be swamped by a mass of seedlings. 

Most of them won't, alas, be as lovely as the originals, particularly if you have a range of colours in the bed, or if you bought really “special” ones.

Even if you don't mind what colour they come up, the seedlings won't flower for usually three to five years ("Five years!!!"), and in the meantime they make the bigger plants congested, so it gets hard to weed around them, and hard to cut out the dead leaves.

For these reasons,  it's better all round to carefully weed out all of the seedlings, especially the ones which are growing right in amongst your original plants.

If you want to thicken up your display, leave a few of the biggest ones, well spaced out: or take them out and pot them up, then you can grow them on until you see what colour they are, before deciding to plant them back in the bed.


So, where does dead-heading come into it? 

To avoid the rather tiresome job of having to meticulously winkle out every tiny seedling, just dead-head them now, before the seeds are released. The seed pods take several weeks to fatten, then they start to dry, and then they split open: and generally, the flowers are well past their best before this happens, so it's no loss to the garden to remove them. 

If you are not quite sure how to tell if your Hellebores have gone to seed yet, tilt up the flowers, and if you can see fat segments like this - left - then yes, they have gone to seed.

Sometimes, the colourful part - technically, bracts, but many people think of them as "petals" - still looks good, and you might want to keep them for as long as possible: in my photo, these Hellebores are a pure clear white, and they still look good, so I'm leaving them for as long as I can. 

If you aren't ready to cut yours back yet, that's fine: just keep checking them every few days, and when those chunky seed pods start to go brown, or to feel "dry" and crispy, then you know it's time to get the secateurs out. Luckily, usually, the bracts start to go brown, and look rather lifeless and ugly, as the seed pods enlarge, so it becomes an easy decision.

As with the leaves, cut them right down, as low down their stalk as you can, taking care not to snip off any fresh new leaves.

And again, as with the leaves, don't put them on the compost unless you want Hellebores absolutely everywhere in your garden... and don't forget, they take 3-5 years to flower....

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