The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.
If you are an entry-level gardener looking to add some charm and beauty to your outdoor space, hellebores are an excellent choice. These enchanting perennial plants, also known as Lenten roses or Christmas roses, offer unique and captivating blooms during late winter and early spring when most other flowers are still dormant. Don't be intimidated by their elegant appearance; hellebores are surprisingly easy to grow and can thrive with minimal effort. In this beginner's guide, we'll walk you through the basics of growing hellebores and how to create a stunning display of these delightful flowers in your garden.
Hellebores (Helleborus) are a genus of evergreen, herbaceous perennial plants that belong to the Ranunculaceae family. They are native to Europe and Asia and come in various species and hybrids, each with its unique characteristics. Hellebores are valued for their exquisite, bowl-shaped flowers that bloom in shades of white, pink, purple, green, and even near-black, depending on the variety. They are particularly appreciated for their ability to bloom in shady areas, making them perfect for adding color to woodland gardens or shaded borders.
Selecting the Right Location
One of the key factors in successfully growing hellebores is choosing the right location. These plants prefer dappled shade or partial shade, although some varieties can tolerate more sun. Avoid planting them in full sun, as it can scorch their delicate blooms and foliage. Ideally, hellebores should be planted in well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Amend heavy clay soils with compost or well-rotted manure to improve drainage.
Hellebores are typically planted in the fall or early spring when the soil is still cool but workable. Follow these simple steps to ensure a successful planting:
1. Prepare the Soil:
Hellebores prefer well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter. To achieve this, you can start by testing your soil's drainage. If you have heavy clay soil that tends to retain water, amend it with organic matter such as compost, well-rotted manure, or peat moss. These additions will improve the soil structure, allowing water to drain more freely and preventing the hellebores' roots from becoming waterlogged.
2. Dig the Hole:
When planting hellebores, dig a hole that is slightly larger than the root ball of the plant. You can also add a bit of garden compost or well-rotted manure to the bottom of the planting hole before placing the hellebore in it. This will provide an extra boost of nutrients for the plant as it establishes itself.
3. Plant the Hellebore:
Before planting, gently remove the hellebore from its nursery pot. Be mindful of the roots and try not to damage them. If the plant is root-bound (with roots encircling the root ball), gently loosen the roots to encourage outward growth. Position the hellebore in the center of the hole, ensuring the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil. Avoid planting the hellebore too deeply, as this can lead to rotting of the crown (the area where the roots meet the stem).
4. Backfill and Water:
Once the hellebore is in place, backfill the hole with the soil you removed. Gently pat down the soil around the plant to eliminate any air pockets. Water the hellebore thoroughly after planting to help the soil settle around the roots and eliminate any remaining air pockets.
Space hellebore plants about 18 to 24 inches apart to allow for their natural spread. This spacing will also provide good air circulation, which can help prevent fungal issues and promote overall plant health.
After planting, apply a layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips or shredded leaves, around the base of the hellebore. Mulching helps to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature, suppress weeds, and improve the overall health of the plant. Make sure to keep the mulch away from the stem to prevent rotting.
7. Establishment Period:
During the first year of growth, hellebores are busy establishing their root system. Be patient with them during this time, and avoid disturbing the plants unnecessarily. Continue to water them regularly, especially during dry spells, to support their development.
Care and Maintenance
Hellebores are generally low-maintenance plants, but a little care can go a long way in ensuring their health and beauty.
While hellebores are relatively drought-tolerant once established, they still require regular watering, especially during dry spells. Keep the soil consistently moist, but not waterlogged.
Hellebores are not heavy feeders, but you can apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in early spring to encourage healthy growth and flowering.
Hellebores do not require extensive pruning. Remove any damaged or yellowed leaves as needed and trim back old flower stems after blooming.
Dealing with Pests and Diseases:
Hellebores are relatively resistant to pests and diseases, but like any plant, they may encounter some issues. Slugs and snails can be a common nuisance, so consider using organic slug pellets or other pet-friendly slug control methods if necessary. Additionally, hellebores can be susceptible to black spot or leaf spot diseases in overly wet conditions, so avoid overhead watering and ensure proper air circulation.
Hellebores are long-lived perennials, and after a few years, they may become crowded or start to outgrow their space. When this happens, you can consider dividing and transplanting them to rejuvenate the plants and create new hellebore additions for your garden or to share with fellow gardening enthusiasts. The best time for dividing hellebores is in early spring or fall.
Growing hellebores can be an immensely rewarding experience for any entry-level gardener. Their stunning blooms, shade tolerance, and easy care make them a perfect addition to any garden, whether you have a large landscape or a small balcony. By selecting the right location, providing adequate care, and understanding their basic needs, you can enjoy the enchanting beauty of hellebores year after year. So, get ready to add a touch of magic and elegance to your garden with these captivating perennial plants!