Barrie Bain: Fluffy pink of 'Cotton Candy' hellebore can light up garden

March 3, 2013 

Here I go again with my annual diatribe about hellebores, also called Lenten roses. In the past I always said that my very favorite perennial was the white hellebore, but I may have changed my mind.

Two years ago I finally tracked down and purchased three double pink hellebores that I had read about and seen in gardening magazines. The last two winters these plants produced a few dinky blooms, but this year they have become showstoppers, and they have stolen my heart! Called "Cotton Candy," the fluffy, clear pink blossoms sit gracefully above their deep green, five-fingered foliage and call attention amidst the huge patch of white, mauve and deep purple single hellebores that came from my garden in Spartanburg, S.C. Up until a few years ago, hellebores were only available in singles, but now the hybridizers seem to be adding new colors, more doubles and more species of these popular plants every year. Each time I see a new introduction, I have a compulsion to track it down and add it to my collection (and I usually do).

One of the reasons why I love hellebores is their ease of maintenance. Another has to do with their bloom time in the middle of winter when most of my plants are still sleeping. Also, they produce huge quantities of blossoms that display their beauty for 10-12 weeks, and when the blooms have finished, the lush foliage makes a nice addition to the shady garden all summer and fall.

Time to take a soil sample

The secret to a happy, healthy garden lies in the soil. Healthy soil provides plants with the proper balance of nutrients and water. Before you add fertilizer, lime or any other amendments, it's a good idea to get a soil test, which will tell you the pH of your soil, as well as the percentage of organic matter and nutrient levels it contains.

Instructions for taking a soil sample:

1. Remove debris from the surface of your garden soil, such as mulch and leaves. Check the moisture of the soil with your finger, and do not take the sample if it is extremely wet or extremely dry.

2. Use a trowel or small spade, dig to a depth of 6-8 inches, and remove a good scoop. Repeat this step until you collect at least five samples from random spots in your garden and place them in a plastic bucket.

3. Break up the chunks in the soil and remove any rocks or stones present. Mix the soil samples thoroughly, and let them dry out completely.

4. Place the samples in a Ziploc bag and take them to the local County Extension Office in the Government Annex Building at 420 10th Street where they will put them in a special bag and send them to Athens for analysis.

I talked to Jennifer Davidson, our local extension agent for agriculture and horticulture, and she said the cost for the analysis is $9.00 per sample. She explained that the results can either be sent by email or postal mail. Davidson said that many gardeners fail to take the final step that is necessary before you can make use of the results you get from your sample.

The analysis will come back telling you how much fertilizer, lime, etc., you need to use per square feet, so in order to calculate that amount, you need to measure the size of the landscape area you will be working with. The best way to do this for a large area is to use a measuring wheel, she said, or if you are working with a small area, of course, a measuring tape will do.

I must admit I haven't had a soil test done on my newest garden, but all of a sudden the plants in a certain area look a bit yellowish, like they may need a shot of iron or something. So I have just sent off a soil sample and am eagerly awaiting the results to see just what steps I must take to ensure that my plants look lush and healthy again.

-- Barrie Bain is an independent correspondent.

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