After a wild wintry start to the week, we have progressed to some cold crisp mid-winter days. This cold weather is perfect for promoting the flowering of two real July favourites - polyanthus and hellebores.
If you want some winter cheer by the front door, in some pots or in a garden bed then look no further than polyanthus. The warm colours evoke great happy feelings to boost the spirits of a cold wintry day.
Another great plant for July are hellebores. The garden centre this week is filled with an abundance of hellebores. Commonly known as lenten or winter roses, these cold weather beauties produce a spectacular display in the wind, rain, frost and any other conditions that generally make resting by the fireplace seem the most desirable.
The winter rose is a highly valued plant, offering colour at this time of year when it can be hard to find it in the garden. The blooms can be enjoyed indoors where they will last for up to three weeks as a cut flower.
Hellebores will flower for six weeks or more. Some early blooming varieties start flowering from late May and run through into late July, other varieties start during July and will run into late August or even September. In the northern hemisphere this coincides with the Christian festival of Lent, hence the name lenten rose.
Traditionally hellebores were mostly white and pink with shades in between. No longer is the colour range restricted. The winter rose has experienced intense focused breeding and selecting of varieties in recent years. The result has been an abundance of new highly desirable flower forms, colour shades and shapes.
The colours now range from the traditional white through the shades of pink to dark black flowers. Also, there are green flowered hybrids, yellows, apricots and all the combinations of above in "picotee" or "spotted" form. There are also double-flowered hybrids in an exceptional colour range.
Some varieties highly worthy of mention are:
Ice N Roses Red has blooms in a vivid red. These deeply coloured blooms stand relatively upright, showing their faces. Grows about 40cm high by 60cm wide. (Ref: Kiwi Gold).
Sophie's Delight combines pure white and deep mulberry on a simple and elegant bloom held above its evergreen foliage. (Ref: Living Fashion).
Penny's Pink has lovely dark crimson pink flowers. The flowers are huge, reaching up to 10cm across and stand relatively upright compared to many other hellebore varieties. The stamens and anthers in the centre of the flower are coloured yellow and contrast beautifully against the petals. The leaf form of Penny's Pink is also unique. It has attractive marbling throughout the veins of the leaves; this starts off pink in spring and deepens to a light grey/green as the season progresses.
Tutu has semi-double flowers that are a dusky pink colour and show lovely speckling. Bred for its superior flowers, it blooms in August and September each year.
Molly's White has white flowers that are flushed lime green. It is an attractive plant and flower with its cup-shaped blooms.
Hellebores are a shade-loving plant, preferring good drainage. They are ideal for growing under trees and along the shady side of a house or fence.
Most of the hellebore species enjoy humus-rich, free-draining soil. They occur naturally in the deciduous forests and meadows of Eastern Europe. This situation provides lovely organic material in the form of leaf mould and built-in drainage provided by the tree roots. You can mimic this situation in your own patch with planting hellebores under trees and the addition of Yates Peat Moss or Tui Organic Compost.
Hellebores also enjoy soil of higher pH, lime rather than acidic soils although as long as there is relatively neutral pH you can grow hellebores with rhododendrons.
In areas that have heavy clays, one needs to be a lot more careful to provide the necessary drainage. Planting in raised beds is one helpful solution and planting under trees is another.
The method of planting right into the base of deciduous trees works on the principle of the tree taking up excessive moisture immediately under it, therefore providing suitable drainage. You need to be a little careful with the likes of conifers which may block out moisture completely, as the hellebores do need some moisture.
Hellebores enjoy being mulched. This has many benefits - it keeps the plant moist and cool over the summer, is a great source of organic material and is also really good at keeping the weeds down. The best time to apply mulch is generally in the spring at the time when the old leaves are cut off just as the flower buds are appearing.
Cutting the leaves off the H x orientalis hybrids is beneficial, but not absolutely necessary. The flowers will come through the old leaves perfectly well, but the plants look tidier with the old and dying leaves removed. You can leave on any good-looking healthy ones.
The clearing of the old leaves does help display the flowers better and also provides a good airflow around the plant's corm to reduce the risk of fungal disease. Don't cut the leaves off the other species, just H x orientalis.
Diseases in hellebores are not a major as the plants are very resilient. Hellebore leaves are poisonous to animals, and they will not eat them unless under extreme pressure. Some people have them growing in paddocks and the sheep and cattle will graze right around them without touching the leaves. But the aphid, however, doesn't care if they are poisonous or not - aphids just love those lush green leaves in summer and can make quite a mess. The use of Yates Mavrik proves effective against these pests.
Hellebores do not need much in the way of fertiliser. If you mulch once a year you can rely on that to provide nutrients. A top-dress with Novatec fertiliser is beneficial, but don't be too heavy handed. Dolomite lime is also beneficial to add calcium.
The hellebores will tolerate a dry site far better than a wet one. It doesn't really matter how much rain, hail and snow you get as long as the plant doesn't sit in wet, boggy soil for too long. The free drainage is paramount. You can bring a hellebore back from death's door from being too dry, but it won't come back from being too wet.
• Gareth Carter is general manager of Springvale Garden Centre