Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pride and prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an urban gardener in possession of a good portion of shade must be in want of a new shade plant. Hostas only go so far, and already they command a large area of shady real estate in my garden. "Large" is, of course, a relative term, when one considers my narrow Chicago lot. Earlier this fall, I summoned previously hidden wells of plant cruelty and heavily edited my backyard beds. I divided, I dug up, I composted. Now, I am left with some gaping holes, mostly part-sun to light shade. I have finally cleared the way for a nascent obsession: hellebores.

Now, I admit, I tread fashionable ground on this one. It is like admitting a nascent obsession with butchering, locally-sourced cocktail ingredients, or Grizzly Bear's latest album. I am making an effort to accept that I am an ordinary dilettante gardener, and that I should stick to the tried-and-true plants noted in gardening books for their ease, economy and reliability. Who am I to be too proud to plant begonias and impatiens? How dare I be a snob about hostas, especially when they brighten up otherwise dank corners in my yard? But, I do have a kernel of prejudice for the ordinary. I welcome work-a-day plants in my garden, but long for some corners of "plantsmen's plants" and rare specimens. This is not unlike the aspiring cook's habit of serving a comfort food like macaroni and cheese, but lacing it with a rare ingredient like truffles. The dish may seem ordinary at first, but take a bite and you will understand that the cook knows something special, has taken the time to offer a precious taste.

Ever since I laid eyes on a "Lenten Rose" at a nearby fancy-pants nursery this past season, I have been plotting my entrance into the world of Helleborus. Reading of them in Our Life in Gardens only stoked the flames of enthusiasm. I was scared off by the price last year -- the plants are expensive, partly because of burgeoning demand and partly because they are a challenge to produce quickly on a large scale. As usual, I am now ashamed of my chintziness: once they are well-situated, this is a plant that keeps on giving. Plant Delights Nursery gives a wonderful testimonial of a hellebore garden from the 1940's surviving despite being home to a frat house for over 50 years!

I firmed up my budgetary resolve for this upcoming season, and was ready to spend for a few good plants. If it meant less pots or annual flats, so be it. Then, as I was perusing the first of the seed catalogs, I noticed a package of H. orientalis seed for a couple of bucks. Impulse seed purchases began early for the 2010 season. Of course, it was only after they arrived that I started to do my research. Germination can take over 18 months! Only the freshest of seeds should be planted! I scanned the hellebore websites with growing dismay: impassioned gardeners battled over the minutiae of germination, but all seemed to agree that it was best started in the spring or fall. So, I was faced with a dilemma. I could hold on to the seed for direct sowing in March, or I could try to kick-start the process now. I worried that holding on to it would compromise the "freshness" factor. I worried that starting it now would leave me with tender seedlings at the wrong time of year, should my efforts succeed. I do recognize the irony of my worry over a two-dollar packet of seeds, when I had previously decided to drop a hundred bucks on mature specimens in the spring.

I decided to plunge right in. The source of the seeds offered little instruction as to the best method of germination, so I will have to go with the Internet on this one. I went with the most authoritative post on one of the gardening forums, who advocated for Tom Clothier's method. Soak the seed in warm water, then subject them to months-long cycles of warm and cold, with the aid of your refrigerator. The first cycle will probably take about 5 months, which will hopefully give me some seedlings in April, just in time to put outside with protection. We'll see what happens. I applaud the seed-sellers who managed to lure me into a seed impulse buy before the year even turned. But, should this experiment work, this gardener will be ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the company who, by bringing her into the world of home germination, had been the means of uniting her with hellebores.

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