Garden lore – the autumn trim of the hellebores

???????????????????????????????I am cutting all the old foliage off the Helleborus orientalis and I am pleased I have my timing right. Few plants are putting out their new foliage yet. We never used to do this. Indeed, for decades, the main hellebore border (about 30 metres long) was just left to its own devices. Then I read about NZ hellebore expert, Terry Hatch, cutting off all the foliage – even putting a lawnmower through them, though you would have to get your timing absolutely right to carry out this approach.

I tried it and the hellebore display was hugely more charming in winter because the flowers were visible and the fresh foliage was light and bright. It also gave more light to bulbs beneath the plants and cleared out the aphid infestations we can get in the foliage. While about it, I weed out the multitudes of seedlings we get beneath. We do not need yet more hellebores in this area which is already quite congested.

Last year, Mark demurred. He wondered if cutting off all the foliage from evergreen plants would weaken them over time. Fortunately, when we headed over to England on our summer garden trip, we stayed with a new friend. Diana is one of those wonderful English gardeners – an amateur enthusiast but with a specific technical knowledge allied to practical experience which exceeds that of many professionals. We were happy to accept her opinion and indeed she does clean off all the old foliage.

I get dirty knees and do it all with grape snips. One year we tried putting the strimmer or weedeater over the bed. While it was speedy, I didn’t like the chewed stems it left and it didn’t do the weeding either. The trick is all in the timing. Leave it much later and it takes much longer because it involves trimming carefully around fresh new growth. The rewards will come in a few weeks because I can see fresh growth and flower stems starting to push through. We used to follow up with a compost mulch but the soil is now so rich in humus that this is no longer necessary.

I only carry out this extreme trimming on H. orientalis. The other species we grow just need an occasional trim of spent stems.

6 thoughts on “Garden lore – the autumn trim of the hellebores

  1. Anne Wareham

    I’m not sure I like the look when they’ve been shorn. We get long bare stalks and new foliage comes later. I’ve tried both – can’t see any cultivation differences for us so it rests on aesthetics. So I’m pondering…

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Cutting back the aphid infestation is a pretty compelling argument here. And that old foliage hangs on for years getting tatty and hiding the flowers. I will time how long it is bare here and report back!

  2. Andre´Johnke

    Dear Abbie,

    I do with this with all my helleborus plants, but only in spring, I learned this from my grandfather, who spent nearly half of his life to create an orientalis hybrid with flowers that looked directly into his face, not to the ground. He raised the incredible number of 250 000 seedlings, of which he only thought 12 being good enough. I was taught by him that helleborus are all winter growers and there growth cycle is very similar to that of spring flowering bulbs. This means that they are in active growth from early autumn to late spring and more or less dormant during the rest of the year. The growth cycle is finished with the new leaves in late spring. The most acticve period is in the winter months. This is the time when roots grow and flower buds are formed and it is this time of the year when the plant depends on having the leaves intact. My grandfather cut all leaves in spring when the new flowers were visible at the base of the plant. Cutting them in autumn will stress and weaken the plant and it will slowly decline. Well – this is how I learned it from him with his experience of 40 years. However plants might behave differently in the favourable climate of your country.

    Kind regards

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Dear Andre, that is fascinating but am I right in thinking that your hellebores therefore flower in early spring? Here we are just coming into mid autumn – leaves on deciduous trees are just starting to show a little colour, but the hellebores are already pushing out their new foliage and the first flower stems are appearing. For us they flower from early winter onwards. I think it will only be a month or so before these plants are flowering and putting out new leaves, just as we go into winter. Our climate here is probably a lot more forgiving than yours.

      A man who only thought 12 out of 250000 seedlings is man after our hearts! Mark is similarly discriminating when it comes to magnolias, though with trees, it is only 1000 or so, not hundreds is thousands!
      Kindest regards,

      1. Andre´Johnke

        Dear Abbie,
        that`s true. Here they never flower before early spring and as seen in your garden, they obviously do not care for the typical growth cycle at all.
        I was very envious reading about your 30 metres border. Amazing!! Reminds me of my grandfather´s garden and I still think they should only be planted this way. Unfortunately in our area the times of mass plantings are over now since the horrible `Black Death` virus appeared on stage. Hopefully you don´t have this in your country.

        Kindest regards

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