Q: We were given a Christmas plant with very pretty light green flowers. I have never seen one before, but the tag calls it a hellebore. It also says to plant the hellebore outdoors in the spring. How do we take care of it in the house, and where do we plant it outside?
A: Hellebores are shade loving plants. They can manage with some morning sun, but the warmer afternoon sun will dehydrate them and turn them brown. Hellebores also hate wind. Keep your plant indoors with those same sun exposures. Protect it from the draft of an opening and closing door nearby. Do not let its soil dry out.
One of the delights of hellebores is that when the flowers fade, they turn into equally lovely seedpods. The seedheads will look just like the flower itself, but with fading color. They may well last on your gift plant until spring. They stay all summer on outdoor hellebores.
Unfortunately, your hellebore may not have a long-term future in Montana. The flower color says that it is a green hellebore, one of the more tender varieties. I have good luck growing the hellebores with pink and white flowers. They bloom in early spring in a shady garden outside my back door. I would try the green hellebore in the most protected place I could find, out of both sun and wind. Or you could carry the hellebore along on your next trip to visit family and friends west of the Cascades. That climate will suit it perfectly.
Q: We bought a house with very old lilacs. Unfortunately, they have been trimmed to a formal hedge. They do not bloom much, and they are not a pretty shape. There are thick bunches of upright stems. Can we restore the lilacs to a natural shape, or must we pull them out and start over? That would be a huge job, because their roots must be a tangled mess.
A: Yes, getting out the lilac roots would require either a backhoe or a tractor and logging chain. As long as the plants are healthy, returning them to a natural growth pattern would be much easier. If you are willing to forego their presence for a year, the rejuvenation can be done quickly. Cut the whole hedge to the ground before buds swell in the spring. New sprouts will start to grow as soon as the ground warms up. Give the area a light dusting of nitrogen fertilizer to encourage new leafy growth, and keep it well irrigated over the growing season.
There will be many more lilac stems starting to grow than you want to keep. Whenever you get to it, cut off the weak ones; you will need to remove somewhere between half and three quarters of the new sprouts. By the second year there will be the beginnings of a new lilac hedge again. By the third year there will be flowers.
On the other hand, you may feel that even though the lilacs are heavy on woody stems and light on flowers, they look better than bare ground. To keep some kind of hedge in place while its looks gradually improve, spread the rejuvenation over three years. Any time from now until spring, cut one third of the lilac stems to the ground. This will be the hardest part of the job because the thicket of old stems will make it hard to reach the ones you want to remove.
The third of the stems to remove should include all the biggest ones. You want to encourage the growth of healthy young stems, which will flower the most in years to come. Also prune out the forest of sprouts, which will be spreading in all directions. They are entirely superfluous; their numbers need not be counted unless you want to brag about the size of the job.
In another year it will be time to prune out half of the remaining old stems. This time it will be easier to see into the working area, and the lilacs will already be looking much better. In the third year of pruning it will be time to cut out all the rest of the old stems. What remains will be a healthy young line of lilacs which flower to the maximum and which have a graceful natural shape.
To keep the lilacs in the best of health for many years, prune them once a year. Always cut out a quarter of the stems, and always cut the biggest ones. You will be leaving a continuous stock of young, healthy, flowering wood.
Journey to a new apple
Like many gardeners, I have thought about trying to grow an apple tree from seed. Once, eating a pretty good apple from a seedling tree, I thought about sending samples of the apples to a commercial nursery. I had dreams of discovering a wonderful new apple variety. Eventually I learned that developing a new apple was not that simple. But more years passed before I learned what a long and complicated history lies behind every new apple that appears in stores.
In the famous English nursery of East Malling, which operates on a budget supported by government funds, growers plant 20,000 apple seeds every year. All the seeds come from hand-pollinated apple blossoms. Some of the seeds grow into trees, but that is just the first step. All the trees are checked for resistance to aphids. The ones that pass that test are grafted to a rootstock, planted in a test field, and subjected to further testing for insects. The survivors are sprayed with the spores of common apple diseases to see whether they live or die.
Those still surviving are grown for three or four years while they are evaluated for the quality and quantity of their fruit. The winners have more trials to see how they perform on a commercial scale. By that time the 20,000 seeds have been reduced to about six. Last comes the final trial, to see whether the apple-eating public likes the new variety.
A reader reports on their particularly lovely fuchsia from last summer. They are trying to save it until next year. The fuchsia is living in a humid bathroom under artificial light, and so far it is holding its own.
If you are also trying to save a fuchsia, remember that it will bloom only at the stem tips. When the stems get too long, prune one at a time. If a stem is cut by half, it will start making new leaves from near the cut end. When the new stem begins to flower again, prune another stem. This technique will keep its gangly tendency under control without loss of all the flowers, while you wait for summer.
If you despair of ever learning to spell fuchsia, remember that it honors a botanist named Fuchs. The plant has his name plus an ending.