Hellemania

 A spellbinding double petal, picotee hellebore hybrid.

A spellbinding double petal, picotee hellebore hybrid.

As spring approaches, a gardener's fancy often turns to thoughts of early flowering perennials. A superstar among these is the alluring hellebore, with few rivals when it comes to beauty, staying power and ease of care.

 Wearing its ruffled nectaries like an Elizabethan Collar, this black anemone flowering hellebore is a real show stopper.

Wearing its ruffled nectaries like an Elizabethan Collar, this black anemone flowering hellebore is a real show stopper.

 Smokey wine colored smudges on an apricot H. orientalis hybrid. The endless possible variations and make this an exciting garden perennial.

Smokey wine colored smudges on an apricot H. orientalis hybrid. The endless possible variations and make this an exciting garden perennial.

Often called the winter rose because of its ability to flower in the darkest time of the year, hellebores are not related to roses. They belong to the genus Helleborus and hail for the most part from eastern Europe and southeast Asia. Fascination with early-flowering hellebores, at a fever pitch in Europe for decades, is surging in North America as garden enthusiasts discover their addictive power.

Thanks to the hard work of dedicated plant breeders in the USA, Canada, Britain, Germany, Japan and other countries, intoxicating additions appear every season. Spurred by their own passion with the genus of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) these breeders are creating an array of colours and forms. The most amazing displays belong to the many cultivars of H. orientalis, now classified as H. x hybridus. Midnight purples, smokey blue-blacks, yellows, claret reds and apricots are appearing, along with spotted combinations and bicolours (called picotees).  Flower forms include singles, doubles and star shapes. Some of these beauties can only be admired in photographs; the most alluring orientalis hybrids remain tantalizingly out of reach of all but the most affluent and well-connected gardeners. These strains are so difficult to reproduce in their exact form they can command prices of $60-$100 for a single plant, if they are available at all.

Since they don't always replicate true to form, it's best to by the orientalis/hybridus type of hellebore while in bloom, so you can see what you're actually getting. They are great naturalizers in the garden and will generously spread over time. Seeds ripen in May-June and should be immediately sown in the garden, although they require a period of cold dormancy before germinating the following February-March. You could see flowers in as little as a year, but two years is typical, Just be patient and let nature take its course.

 Anatomy of a hellebore flower, showing the tiny petals, or nectaries and the much larger sepals which create those breathtaking flowers.

Anatomy of a hellebore flower, showing the tiny petals, or nectaries and the much larger sepals which create those breathtaking flowers.

The celebrated flowers are not petals, but sepals and last for three or four months, often changing color over that time. The true petals are much reduced in size and located in the middle of the flower head.

Hellebores grow best in Zones-5-8 and tolerate a wide range of conditions. Many grow on rocky slopes in their native lands and thrive in free draining, alkaline soil. They adapt readily to somewhat more acidic conditions, but don't enjoy heavy, wet soils. Amend your soil with rotted compost, leaf mulch or manure and forget about adding chemical fertilizers.

As a rule, hellebores are drought tolerant, although regular, moderate watering is always a good idea. They can take quite a bit more direct sun than many people believe, especially the Mediterranean species. Deer avoid them, because they are toxic.

 Shady woodland areas benefit from H. foetidus 'Wester flisk' as a ground cover.

Shady woodland areas benefit from H. foetidus 'Wester flisk' as a ground cover.

In addition to H. orientalis and its rainbow-colored hybrids, several other hellebores have long been garden favorites. H. argutifolius, known as Corsican hellebore, is a spectacular evergreen plant with huge, grey-green leaves and green flowers. One of my favorite woodland ground covers is H. foetidus 'Wester Flisk,' a perennial so attractive it does not deserve its name --  'stinking hellebore.'

Both types are classified as caulescent species, meaning they have leaves and flowers on the same stems. I like to tidy them by removing dead and diseased foliage, but avoid cutting them back to the ground every year unless they have become overgrown. H. argutifolius, in particular, is tolerant of direct sun and its silvery foliage partners with lavenders, cat mint, ornamental grasses and herbs. One of the newer cultivars, 'Silver Lace,' is especially attractive. H. foetidus looks at home in woodland gardens with spring bulbs, erythroniums and ferns.

 The pure white flowers of H. niger, called the Christmas rose for its early blooming habit, are a welcome sight in winter.

The pure white flowers of H. niger, called the Christmas rose for its early blooming habit, are a welcome sight in winter.

        Hellebores are winter-spring flowering perennials and subshrubs originating in woodland or scrub regions of Europe, Eurasia, the Mediterranean and China. Most are evergreen. There are about 18 species, although this is open to debate among botanists, who are still struggling with classification issues. Only two, H. orientalis and H. niger, are categorized as acaulescent; meaning they do not produce true leaves on flowering stalks. It is best to remove old foliage just before the flower buds emerge for greater flower production, followed by a flush of shiny new foliage.

Most garden hybrids trace back to H. orientalis, but when it comes to hybridizing, H. niger, known around the world as the “Christmas Rose,” is considered by hellebore breeders to be the ideal mother plant. A sturdy plant 23-30 centimetres tall, it has large, showy flowers carried singly on strong stems between January and April. The flowers are usually white with green centers, but can be blushed with pink on the backs of the sepals. The leaves are dark green, strong and leathery, usually with seven to nine segments. It’s definitely a winner in the looks department, but notoriously difficult to grow. One of the best crosses, H. niger x H. argutifolius, produces H. xnigercors, a robust plant with large flowers, white with a greenish cast. It looks like a Christmas Rose on steroids.

Also wonderful are offspring of H. xballardiae, the result of hand crossing niger and H. lividus (probably the rarest of all hellebores, since very few plants remain in their natural habitat, the northeast coast of Majorca). The leaves are dark green with silvery veins and the flowers often apple green inside and flushed with pink/purple backs). The hybrid xballardiae keeps the leaf shape of niger, with the distinctive silver veining of lividus. The short stems carry two or three flowers each and a mixture of both parents in colour and form.

 H. argutifolius provides attractive erosion control on a steep slope

H. argutifolius provides attractive erosion control on a steep slope

Potentially, the most promising hybrid is H. xericsmithii, the result of hand pollinating niger with H. xsternii (a vigorous hybrid with reddish stems and flowers, originating in England from bee-pollinated crosses of H. lividus and H. argutifolius). The xericsmithii hybrid resembles a pink-tinged nigercors, vigorous with long lasting flowers. All the niger hybrids have the makings of excellent sellers – they are robust, grow rapidly and carry masses of flowers. Unfortunately, all three of these hybrid offerings are sterile and are created for mass marketing via tissue culture, which means they all look exactly alike, no surprises!

 Helleborus xballardiae "Pink Frost" a growing favorite for spring color. It has mauve flowers, wine red stalks and silvery veining on its foliage.

Helleborus xballardiae "Pink Frost" a growing favorite for spring color. It has mauve flowers, wine red stalks and silvery veining on its foliage.

 The delicate beauty of H. lividus, rarely found in the wild.

The delicate beauty of H. lividus, rarely found in the wild.

 H. x ericsmithii "Ivory Prince' is another great performer with a long season of bloom and a tough constitution.

H. x ericsmithii "Ivory Prince' is another great performer with a long season of bloom and a tough constitution.

more beautiful hellebores
ashwood strain
hellebore yellow flower
 Hellebore hybrids continue to surprise with new colors, shapes and forms. Can't wait to see what this season will bring!!

Honors from Houzz

 Best of Houzz award for 2017

With the New Year comes the exciting news: Urban Habitat Landscape Studio is a winner of a Best of Houzz award for the second straight year. Since Houzz, with more than 40 millionsubscribers, is one of the most influential home and garden renovation sites on the internet, this is wonderful news, indeed.

The Best of Houzz award for customer service is awarded annually to approximately three per cent of professionals listed in the Houzz service directory. Customer service honors are based on several factors, including overall number and quality of projects and client satisfaction.

"We are so pleased to award Best of Houzz 2017 to this incredible group of talented and customer focused professionals," said Liza Hausman, vice president of Industry Marketing for Houzz. A Best of Houzz award appears on winners' profiles, as a sign of their commitment to excellence. The badges help homeowners identify popular and top-rated design professionals in every metro area on Houzz and will be announced globally throughout the month.

In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Houzz has international offices around the world, including London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Tokyo.

Thyme to turf the lawn

  Blue oat grass, fescue and lots of silvery thyme make a spectacular display in this hot, sunny front yard..

 Blue oat grass, fescue and lots of silvery thyme make a spectacular display in this hot, sunny front yard..

 English lavender frames this lawn-free garden. Circular plantings emphasize the circular patio and are designed for a dynamic lookfrom a distance and from above.

English lavender frames this lawn-free garden. Circular plantings emphasize the circular patio and are designed for a dynamic lookfrom a distance and from above.

Seriously, people. Why bother with lawn when you can have a no-mow yard filled with interesting shapes, textures and colors? Not to mention bees, butterflies and birds? And a reduced water bill.

 Fine textured feather grass floats over the top of a rock wall.

Fine textured feather grass floats over the top of a rock wall.

Simply remove turf and add the ground cover of your choice. Some of my favorites include: Woolly thyme, creeping thyme, blue star creeper, brass buttons and baby tears.

When designing a lawn-free garden, I often use large groups of ornamental grasses. Taller grasses make excellent privacy screens for blocking unwanted views or muffling street noise. Smaller grasses can be used in huge blocks for impact.

Blue oat grass, fescue and maiden grasses are great for sunny areas. Sedges, liriope and black mondo grass are wonderful in mass plantings and can take a bit more shade. It's like painting with living material. Arrange them in geometric patterns, or free form, like abstract art. You can use huge drifts of perennials in the same way. Think lavender, catmint and salvia for the sun and ferns, hellebores and heuchera for part shade.

In garden design, creating bermed garden beds linked by wide paths is the key to a successful lawn-free yard. Tuck in a seating area, add a water fountain or a bird bath and you have a wonderful outdoor space.

Great plants to try:

Low spreading ground covers

  • Alchemilla ellenbeckii
  • Leptinella squalida "Platt's Black"
  • Oxalis oregana
  • Pratia pedunculata
  • Soleirolia soleirolii
  • Thymus pseudolanuginosus
  • T. serphyllum
 The fiery orange tones of pheasant grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) look fabulous with the cool blue of hardy Geranium "Brookside."

The fiery orange tones of pheasant grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) look fabulous with the cool blue of hardy Geranium "Brookside."

Taller perennials

 Varying the heights and textures of grasses will give you dramatic effects that make lawns seem ho-hum by comparison.

Varying the heights and textures of grasses will give you dramatic effects that make lawns seem ho-hum by comparison.

  • Corydalis lutea
  • Heuchera "Palace Purple"
  • Lavandula angustifolia "Hidcote"
  • Liriope muscari/spicata
  • Nepeta "Walker's Low"
  • Salvia "Caradona"/"Hot Lips"

Ornamental grasses and sedge

  • Calamagrostis "Avalanche"
  • Carex "Everest"
  • C. "Prairie Fire"
  • C. "Evergold"
  • Festuca glauca
  • Helictotrichon sempervirens
  • Miscanthus sinensis "Cabaret"
  • M.s. "Morning Light"
  • Penisetum "Little Bunny"
  • P.  "Moudry"

The art of outdoor living

 It's all about details

It's all about details

First rule of gracious outdoor living -- create an environment protected from the elements. Think retaining walls, sunken patios, strategically placed trees and shrubs as wind blocks, south or west exposure and plenty of stone to soak up heat and release it into the space at night.

Second rule -- add atmosphere with water features, fire pits and containers brimming with beautiful flowers. An outdoor kitchen is a plus, but a simple BBQ works.

Third rule -- Be strategic and plan your outdoor living area near access to the indoors, especially the kitchen. It doesn't hurt to have easy access to the rest of the garden.

Fourth rule -- Furnish the space as if you were inside. This means comfy couches and chairs, pillows, tables, throw rugs made for the outdoors, candles, lanterns and other accessories.

Fifth rule -- Sit back and enjoy.

 A comfy wooden deck, outfitted with bistro table and chairs and potted hibiscus and roses, makes an inviting spot for lounging and enjoying the outdoors.

Fabulous fountains -- Add water to be stirred

 This classic, two-tiered fountain is a study in simplicity. Placed in back third of the yard, on a bed of river rock, it draws they eye to the statue embedded in foliage along the property line.

This classic, two-tiered fountain is a study in simplicity. Placed in back third of the yard, on a bed of river rock, it draws they eye to the statue embedded in foliage along the property line.

Water is one of the four essential elements – along with earth, air, and fire – but it’s often overlooked in our garden spaces. It shouldn’t be so, even the simplest water fountain adds much to a landscape. The sound of water splashing and gurgling pleases our senses and makes us feel relaxed. And running water has the power to reduce or even eliminate unpleasant noises, road traffic, for example. The sight of sky and trees reflected in a classic water bowl creates tranquility. Fountains come in so many sizes and styles, there’s no reason not to have one in your outdoor living space. Many fountains can be purchased as a package, with pump and low voltage wiring, so all you need is proximity to a power source. Just fill, plug in and presto! Instant atmosphere. From a simple light reflective bowl to a multi-tiered masterpiece, a water fountain is a sculptural element that looks good to the eye while providing music to the ear.

Garden

A small water bowl creates a delicate accent in a lush blanket of hostas.

Fountain Garden

Ornamental boulders fitted with water bubblers bring this winter garden to life amid crocus and snowdrops. A surprising touch of whimsy.

Fountain

The simple beauty of this four-tiered fountain is stunning in combination with the plain Georgian style architecture of the house in the background.

 The combination of bench and urn fountain invites quiet contemplation.

The combination of bench and urn fountain invites quiet contemplation.

Make an entrance -- 10 inspiring gate ideas

When it comes to garden gates, you're only limited by your imagination and the materials you buy or scrounge. The gate above, made from 200 year old mesquite doors in a steel frame, is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting. It could be the entrance to a magic kingdom. The one immediately below is the back of an old horse cart with a horse shoe handle.  The ideas here are inventive in design and construction. Some of them are quirky and rustic, others are elegant.  They are all original.

Here's a gate that manages to look formal and rustic at the same time, thanks to the juxtaposition of solid stone pillars and wrought iron inserted into a barn-like wooden gate frame.

Purple beans drape over this weathered cedar gate, the entrance to a veggie garden.

I love the contrast between the delicate scroll work on the wrought iron gate and the solidity of the brick pillars on the gate above. The gate below could fuel a lot of Medieval fantasies.

Above: Lattice gets the palladian treatment on this Cape Cod style gate and fence in Salem Massachusetts. The large urn shaped finials on the fence post add some serious weight to what would otherwise be a very lighthearted structure.

Industrial steel makes a relatively low cost, but effective, gate with a lot of visual impact at the entrance to a modern home in Seattle.

Ode to a water lily

 Yellow water lilies glowing in the afternoon sun seem lit from within.

Yellow water lilies glowing in the afternoon sun seem lit from within.

Ode to a Water Lily

If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.

But if you remember, then turn away forever
To the plains and the prairies where pools are far apart,
There you will not come at dusk on closing water lilies,
And the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.

Sara Teasdale

Nothing stirs my soul more than a flotilla of incandescent water lilies illuminated by the late afternoon sun. Although water lilies have been grown and cultivated for thousands of years, I  treasure the unexpected sight of them growing wild in a lake, like a shot silk gift from a higher power. The sight of such ethereal beauty is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

 Twin visions of loveliness: wild mauve water lilies float on a pond.

Twin visions of loveliness: wild mauve water lilies float on a pond.

 Even the name of the botanical family to which water lilies belong inspires flights of fancy -- Nymphaeaceae. Many species of water lilies have rounded, notched, waxy-coated leaves on long stalks filled with air pockets that allow them to float. The stalks arise from thick, fleshy, creeping underwater stems anchored in the mud. Each fragrant flower floats or is carried above the water’s surface, its perfume wafting in the breeze.

  The genus Nymphaea makes up the water lilies proper, with 46 species, including the common North American white lily Nymphaea odorata .

The genus Nymphaea makes up the water lilies proper, with 46 species, including the common North American white lily Nymphaea odorata.

More water lily trivia:

Flowers of most species have many overlapping petals and a bright yellow centerpiece of glowing stamens (male reproductive structures). Some flowers open only in the morning or in the evening to attract insect pollinators and have nut-like or berry-like fruit. Some fruits ripen underwater until they rupture or decay, and the seeds then float away or sink. Some water lilies also have submerged leaves. All members of the family are perennial except for the genus Euryale, an annual or short-lived perennial found only in Asia.

 A flotilla of water lilies.

The genus Nuphar, with about 10 species distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, includes the common yellow water lily. The yellow water lily has submerged leaves that are thin and translucent and leathery floating leaves.

The largest water lilies are those of the tropical South American genus Victoria, comprising two species of giant water lilies. The leaf margins of the Amazon have upturned edges, giving each thickly veined leaf the appearance of a platter up to 6 feet across and accounting for its common name, water platter.

 

 

 

Gardening Gone Wild

Nothing makes my heart beat faster than exuberant gardens, wantonly growing without a single a blade of boring turf grass.

I love rivers of blood grass and drifts of bleach blonde Stipa tenuissima swaying in the wind like hula girls. The sight of huge blocks of violet Salvia ‘Caradonna,’ acid yellow ‘Moonbeam’ yarrow and hot orange Crocosmia 'Lucifer' gives me a thrill. I am crazy about mauve carpets of creeping thyme running amok and keeping the weeds down.  In the background, the steady drone of contented insects is music to my ears.

As a designer, nothing thrills me as much as turning a dead zone of high maintenance lawn into a magical kingdom; alive with birds, bees and butterflies. Living creatures need habitat to sustain them and lawns offer none. The trick is to plant LOTS of each kind of plant in generous size beds, with paths in between. Great perennials for this are lavender and salvia (all kinds), hardy geraniums, catmint, agastache, bee balm, verbena, persicaria, lady's mantle, caryopteris, thyme, oregano and other herbs.

Add phormiums, yucca and ornamental grasses for structure and visual interest. Don't be afraid to plant elderberry or other shrubs in large groupings -- remember, you are creating an ecosystem. If you have room, plant a little grove of trees, tatarian maples or river birch, for example.  Make friends with 'volunteers' -- seeds that float in from other places -- and have a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to weeds, you won't see most of them anyway. Add secret patios and seating areas, water fountains, bird houses and garden art. Then sit back and watch life unfold.

Confessions of a Rose-aholic

 The amazing English rose, Evelyn, developed for Crabtree and Evelyn by David Austin.

The amazing English rose, Evelyn, developed for Crabtree and Evelyn by David Austin.

It started innocently enough. A harmless flirtation with Abraham Darby, which led to a dalliance with Sexy Rexy. Then I moved on to Just Joey. Before long, I succumbed to the charms of Graham Thomas and Jude the Obscure. The first glimmerings of panic surfaced.

 “It’s okay,” I told myself, “I can stop any time.”

 The most fragrant rose -- Gertrude Jekyll.

The most fragrant rose -- Gertrude Jekyll.

But, on my very next trip to the garden center, I was seduced by the beauty of Harlow, then the intoxicating fragrance of Gertrude Jekyll captured my heart. I had to have them.

 “This is really it. Now you are done,” I told myself sternly.

A few days later, I caught sight of Evelyn and I was undone. Like the song says: “Just one look, was all it took.” I leaned in for a closer look and I was lost. She smelled like ripe peaches and cream.

 I had to admit the truth: I was addicted to roses. Not just the sturdy, tough roses I considered worthy, like rugosa and species roses. No, it was the sweet hybrid teas, the flashy floribundas and, most of all, the spectacular English roses of David Austin I lusted after.

 Easy Does It goes from hot orange to the colour of a summer sunset.

Easy Does It goes from hot orange to the colour of a summer sunset.

“How did this happen,” I marvelled. I’d always been so level headed where roses were concerned, able to cruise right by them at a nursery without a glance.

I quickly filled every available space in my garden plot with roses and then potted them in containers. I pushed my guilt aside and looked for every opportunity to design rose gardens for my clients, even when they knew nothing about the care, feeding and pruning of these divas of the plant world. And, as we know, the average maintenance gardener for hire doesn’t have a clue how to take care of roses.

Then, Evelyn died. Always weak and sickly, she failed to rally after a first, amazing flush of blossoms early this year. I tried everything to save her, but, in the end, she succumbed to a host of pests and disease. And broke my heart.

For a while, I kept busy designing and installing drought tolerant Mediterranean style gardens and ornamental grass and herb borders. Gradually, the pain subsided. And so did my cravings. I entered a kind of rose withdrawal.

“I'm over the worst of it, thank goodness,” I thought, with a sigh of regret tinged relief.

Until the other day, when I was looking for astilbes at the nursery and stumbled upon Angel Face in full bloom. Familiar feelings stirred and I could hear the music begin, all over again…

  A raspberry sorbet confection, in ruffled petticoats, Angel Face lives up to her name.

 A raspberry sorbet confection, in ruffled petticoats, Angel Face lives up to her name.