I would call Lenten rose deer proof

It is risky to call any plant deer proof, but there are a few I would give that tag. One is Lenten Rose (Helleborus xhybridus or ), which seems like the perfect plant to me. It is evergreen, tolerates part to deep shade, resistant to deer and other pests, and blooms when few other plants bloom. Not just any flower either – sculptural, perfect blooms that entices me to pull out a sketchbook and concentrate on their beauty.

Lenten Rose is hardy from Zones 4-9 and is one of the longest blooming perennials in cultivation, with blooms that last for six weeks or more. To make it even more desirable, it is one of the earliest blooming perennials, with blooms starting as early as January in Georgia and lasting into April. Who couldn’t love a plant that blooms even before the daffodils?

Glossy, bold, leathery foliage is a year-round asset to the shade garden. Leaves are divided into seven to nine segments, falling away from the central stem like an umbrella. These coarse leaves are a great contrast with ferns and bleeding hearts. Although they are evergreen, the leaves can look a little ragged before the new growth emerges. This is just a little winter burn and aging foliage. Trimming off some of the older foliage in January or February not only makes the plants look better; it shows off the blooms better too.

The perfect spot for a Lenten Rose would be in deciduous shade, protected from the wind, in rich soil with plenty of moisture but good drainage. They would like the bank of a creek, along a woodland path. Lenten roses do better planted among hardwoods than pines, because they appreciate winter sun and pine needles accumulating around them can hinder growth. One thing Hellebores cannot take is soggy soil.

These plants are disease and pest resistant and prefer to be left alone. Once established, Lenten roses reseed to form a colony, creating a dramatic woodland groundcover that blooms in various colors. Seedlings can be dug up and moved, but established plants resent being moved or divided and may not bloom the following year.

My first few plants have reseeded to create a colony in my shade garden, with each plant producing slightly different blooms. The blooms come in many colors, including white, pale yellow, pink, maroon, purple and speckled. These are subtle, beautiful, nodding blooms on evergreen plants that are eighteen to twenty-four inches tall.

I love my colony of reseeded Lenten Roses but, oh my, what are available in nurseries now are stunning. The breeders have been working on Lenten Roses and now offer double blooms in bright colors with their faces rising upward, or pale pink fluffy blooms comparable to an English Rose, or blooms that look like they were hand painted in a porcelain factory. Just do a search on Pinterest to be amazed at the variety and beauty. These new Lenten Roses can be pricey – and worth every penny. Once in your garden, they will become your favorite plant, asking little and giving so much.

I suggest you shop for these plants locally, when they are in bloom. Then you know exactly what the bloom will look like and buy a plant that is already at blooming age.

Discover the Microclimates in Your Garden

While in college, one of my design classes spent a few days in Boxley Valley along the Buffalo National River in Arkansas to analyze this historic site for a project. Emerging from our tents in the cool morning, desperate for a hot cup of coffee, our instructor pointed out the other tent in the campground. That tent was covered with frost while ours, sited under evergreen trees, were not. The evergreen canopy kept our tents a few degrees warmer and protected from frost.

While studying landscape architecture I heard many lectures on microclimates: south slopes are warmer than north slopes, cold air settles into valleys, morning sun is less harsh than afternoon sun. But seeing and feeling the difference in microclimates within that small campground was a vivid and memorable lesson-a few feet in one site can make a difference.

The moment you realize that your property is made up of many little microclimates you instantly become a better gardener. There is a reason why the azalea planted where it receives irrigation and afternoon shade is thriving in your neighbor’s yard, while yours, under the same cluster of pines but receiving afternoon sun and little water, is stressed. A few feet in a garden can make a life or death difference to a plant, which is why gardeners move plants that do not seem to be happy.

Our property is a high point for our neighborhood, so I hesitate before bringing moisture-loving plants into my garden. Moisture loving trees are simply not an option for this site. I refuse to garden without hydrangeas and hostas, which love water and are favorites of the browsing deer. So these are clustered together under an old pecan tree that I revere. When I ration water during a drought, this area is the last to be denied our precious well water.

A few feet from the pampered hydrangeas is a red maple, which seems to claim all available sunlight and moisture from the raised bed around its trunk. Several plants have perished in that extreme environment; the proven survivors for such dark, dry, deciduous shade are spring bulbs, epimediums and columbine.

OK, so let’s take a quick walk around your home and look at typical microclimates. The east side receives the morning sun and afternoon shade. The south side gets sun for most of the day. The west side stays shaded in the morning, then gets brutal afternoon sun. The north side stays pretty shaded, but can get afternoon sun in the hottest part of the year. Sounds simple, but few of us live in a rectangle in the middle of a field. The many angles and height of the house, trees, fences, pavement, moisture, soil composition, wind, and more affect your plants. A windy site may dry out foliage. A sheltered area may allow you to grow a plant rated for one zone south (at least for a few winters). Near my home hydrangeas are placed near the downspouts on the east side-sites that offer both afternoon shade and moisture. Rosemary thrives in the brutal area under the south eaves that gets plenty of sun and limited rain.

A plant that can take full sun in Michigan may not be able to handle full sun here in the Southeast. For us ‘part shade’ means morning sun and afternoon shade, while any location that receives three to four hours of afternoon sun, even if it is in the shade until 2:00 in the afternoon, counts as a ‘full sun’ site when selecting plants.

The best way to know your garden is to spend time in it throughout the year, learning where the water flows, where the sun shines at different times of the day and year, and which plants seem happy. To further complicate things, a garden is constantly changing, with trees growing and dying, changing sun angles and more. A few years ago drought tolerant plants were all anyone wanted to talk about here. But weather is always changing. Plants that are suited to a site are the healthiest and the healthiest plants will be best able to survive any weather extreme.

Yes, you can learn about gardening from a book, but the best way to know your garden is to garden in it. You will kill some plants (every gardener does) and move others, you will make mistakes, but you will also find out what works well for you and build on successes. Being aware of the microclimates within your garden will help you be a more successful gardener.

(adapted from an article first published in Lee Magazine, May 2008)