It’s no secret that the Grump loves Lenten rose, one of the two best perennials for shade (I’ll let you argue about the other one). It combines handsome, evergreen foliage with beautiful winter blossoms of pink, burgundy, red, purple, white, and green that last for weeks. But until he came to work for Southern Living more than two decades ago, Grumpy never knew the secret to growing them.
Fortunately, our former editor, John Floyd, did. And he shared it generously and often. Every time somebody proposed a story about Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), he would say, “You know what the secret to growing hellebores is?” After a moment of confused silence, he would answer with great satisfaction, “Lime.” This happened over and over again, until the last time we were looking at photos of Lenten rose in a room filled with SL staffers.
“You know what the secret to growing hellebores is?” he asked.
The whole room responded, “LIME?”
Having grown Lenten rose over the years, I’ve come to doubt that lime’s so vital. Mine grow at the edge of the woods in soil made from decades of decomposed oak leaves. I’ve never limed them and I’ll bet the pH there is about 5.5. At Elizabeth Lawrence’s famous garden in Charlotte, Lenten roses she planted many decades ago have seeded themselves all over the place to the point of being almost weedy. No one limes them. At Sunshine Farm and Gardens in West Virginia, Barry Yinger grows thousands of hellebores in all different colors on hills blanketed by fallen leaves from tall hardwoods. Something tells me Barry doesn’t lime them thar hills.
People often make the mistake of thinking the conditions where a plant is native are the only ones under which it will grow. A good example is the shrubby herb, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), native to arid and limy soils around the Mediterranean. If you looked at it growing in Italy or Corsica, you might conclude that it requires dry, rocky, alkaline soil and full sun. However, in my garden, in grows like gangbusters in moist, acid soil with morning shade and afternoon sun. And we had 70 inches of rain last year. So what is the secret to rosemary? I’d say good drainage, temps that don’t drop below 15 degrees, and at least a half-day of good sun.
Gonzo plantsman Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC likes to turn conventional wisdom on its head too. Known for his incredible selection of hard-to-find plants, Tony puts each to the test. For example, if he hears a plants needs sun and dry soil, he plants it in shade and wet soil. Sure, he kills lots of plants, but he also finds lots that will grow where they’re not supposed to.
So here’s what the Grump thinks is the secret to growing Lenten rose.
1. Light shade
2. Fertile, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter
3. Lime (not!)
In addition to mail-order nurseries like Sunshine Farm, many local garden centers now carry Lenten roses. Buying now while they’re blooming is the best way to assure you get the color you want. A single plant in a quart pot from the nursery may cost you 5-6 bucks, but don’t be put off. If you let the plant go to seed after it blooms, it will reward you with dozens of seedlings the next spring. After the seedlings develop several sets of leaves, they’re ready to transplant and your price per plant just fell through the roof.
Come See Grumpy!
Grumpy will be making a rare public appearance on Friday, March 19, at to address the Alabama Master Gardenersat their annual conference at the palatial Renaissance Hotel and Spa in Montgomery. He will be speaking at the Friday awards banquet about “Public Spaces & Beautiful Places,” and promises to enlighten and amuse. The conference is open to all interested gardeners. It runs from Thursday, March 18 through Saturday, March 20 and features many interesting speakers.For more info, goto www.alabamamg.org.
See you in the spa! I’m getting a seaweed body wrap.