Monday, July 29, 2013

Evergreens forever!

As I watch the hydrangeas shriveling in the heat of the last couple of weeks, it took all my willpower to not want to just turn the irrigation system up and letting it rip all through the day and night, but it doesn’t work. Sure, the hydrangeas would have been happy, as the word hydra is in their name for a reason, but I’ve killed more evergreens by overwatering them most people would ever admit to.

When it’s the middle of summer, most people are talking about color and flowers and blooms and few want to discuss the intricacies of tone on tone green, but evergreens are awesome, and although, I too was once a “gotta have it if it flowers” kind of a gal, I’m learning the value of foliage that persists.

I am a huge fan of the Mahonia plant family, so naturally I have tortured and killed a great many. This member of the Barberry family has the bang-up potential to do it all. All species have great looking pinnately compound leaves ­­– like hollies on steroids that purple with age in the winter, fragrant, almost lemony scented yellow flowers that perfume the early garden, cool looking berries that persist through the summer and fall and they’re shade tolerant. Woo hoo. They even resprout from old wood, which means you can prune them as hard as you want to without having to stare at old stubs for the rest of your life. They’re meant to be no fuss, but mine, well, mine all died hard. I think the reason is that the shade I was tucking them into was underneath fairly mature trees so maybe it was too much shade and then of course they got too much water and the drainage wasn’t right, and maybe there wasn’t enough humus, or something else I’ll never understand. But I’m not giving up.

The one I’ve killed the most is the Oregon grape (M. aquifolium), which is meant to become a six-foot tall slowly suckering shrub. It is supposedly hardy in zone 4 so I’m bummed that it keeps quitting on me. I also tried the hybrid, Mahonia x media. These are the earliest flowering, and for the time it lasted, my ‘Arthur Menzies' was a rock star. Two foot long leaves arching out under enormous electric lemon yellow flower racemes each standing a foot tall. It was crazy beautiful, but it too perished although it’s hardy to zone 6. Maybe it needed more acidic fertilization, or less, or it needed singing to, I just don’t know.

The Mahonia is actually a perfect example for me of the indefinable nature of gardening. Four of my neighbors have Mahonias, I actually sold and installed one of them, and they are all as happy as can be, which is how it sometime works in gardening. In my Mahonia killing soil, I have agastache that grow to be five to six feet tall. At my neighbors houses they’re all in the 3-foot range. We all live within ten square acres. My rhodos? Dead plants walking! My neighbor’s? Happy as clams. It’s just crazy, but that’s how gardening works. In my back yard I can dig down in one spot and hit sandy soil that is so bereft of organic matter it’s criminal, and then move three feet over and hit a hunk of clay. Just to add insult to injury, I have no problem growing the Mahonia’s nearest relative, the evergreen barberry (Berberis x gladwynensis 'William Penn') so I really think I should be able to grow at least one of the Mahonias, and I have my eye on a beauty at Marders.

Now that I have my deer fence almost perfected I’m thinking of sneaking in a few of my favorite evergreens, the variegated Euonymus japonicus 'Silver King.' I love evergreen euonymus, and used to sell them by the truckload as they are fast growing, really tough, glossy evergreens that shear beautifully and are super, super easy. Unfortunately, they are also deer crack cocaine, so much so that we maybe bring in 5 or 6 of the large shrubby plants for the entire season. It’s terrible because they were such an enormously useful family plants. Happy in the sun or part shade, tolerant of poor soil, from groundcover to climber to midsized shrub, they worked in every yard. And although “Silver King” really wants prefers a little more sun, I would work it in to every garden I did, just because the white variegation worked with every single garden I designed. I miss this plant, as well as it’s upright cousin Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ which although not variegated, had a very interesting columnar form that I also used to great effect in mixed gardens for affordable winter interest and for narrow hedging. I also loved the pure green Euonymus japonica ‘Manhattan’ and it was my go to plant for framing steps and covering foundations. Alas, to plant too many of these glossy beauties is tempting fate, so I’m going to just sneak in a couple, but if you don’t have deer, you really need to look into this family of plants.

While I’m tempting fate, lets talk hardy gardenias. Although fairly new to the trade in our area everyone is excited to try these plants (regardless of the fact that they too are supposedly hardy only to zone 7 according to the plant god Michael Dirr) as the scent just about knocks you off your feet. I’ve seen at least two different varieties and I know that it’s my duty to bring both home and plant them in my gardens so I can report back to you on how well they’re doing, but the last few winters have been ever so easy so no one really knows yet if we’re all just wasting our time. That said, if they do survive, they are a great glossy green before they flower, so would be a nice addition to our winter interest evergreen collection.

Of course part of the joy of being a plant geek is the need to try new plants and to push planting boundaries. I don’t know a single plant geek in my area who hasn’t tried at least once to grow a spring blooming camellias. I myself planted three ‘April Remembered’ last fall so that I could see them when I looked out my writing window. I’ve had other camellias follow me home but it was hard to judge their hardiness when the deer kept browsing them to the ground. After the ice storm at the end of the winter, one of my plants, disappointingly, dropped nearly all it’s buds, but they all made it through fine. Now granted, it might have been smart of me to wrap these camellias up for the winter, both for protection from the snow, and to prevent the snow from weighing down and breaking the branches, and if you are up for that, more power too you. I, unfortunately, am a lazy gardener, so nothing at my house gets coddled. Like I say, do as I say, not as I do.

Besides, we might be heading for zone 7 out here, as when I was a kid, no one had crape myrtles and now they are everywhere, and thriving.

I could fill this paper with other evergreens that you could incorporate into your garden, but I think I’m going to stop here, although I must mention the Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) since I’ve wanted one for years. Umbrella pines, as the Latin points out are not actually in the pine family and have been in existence for over 200 million years. I figure once I have this and a dwarf Gingko tree I will have a good representation of living fossil species, although if I want to corner the market, I’d need to add a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) and a Sweet Gum (Liquidamber) and perhaps get an Orycteropus afer to walk on a leash next to my seething mass of dachshunds.  I’m not sure who would be unhappier about the situation, but my money is on the aardvark.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Put down those clippers!

The real reason most people go to a hydrangea lecture is not to find out about all the different cultivars, and all the different ways you can use these magnificent plants in the landscape, nope, the real reason they come is to ask when and how they can prune their big blue, big leaf (macrophylla) hydrangeas. I probably get asked that question about forty times a week every spring. I’ve thought about wearing a shirt that has the short but sweet answer printed in red, but the truth is, the answer isn’t one people want to hear so I have to explain it to everyone each time. And since no one really wants to believe me, I sometimes have to explain it twice. Here’s the short answer to the question of when can I prune my hydrangeas.


See, I told you that you weren’t going to like it.

The truth is that most people have huge, mop head flowering big leaf hydrangeas planted around the foundation of their homes and they’ve grown so much in the 10 years since they were planted that they’re now covering the windows. These same people either whacked their hydrangeas back, or had their gardeners cut them back, or one of the couple is more fastidious then the other, and someone wanted to see out the windows and guess what? Those plants had no flowers the following season. Invariably there was an argument over who did what when, or who’s to blame and now that couple, or that gardener, or that individual would come to our lecture asking us to tell them when the correct time to cut their hydrangeas, so they can have shorter plants with just as many flowers. The problem is they can’t. 

Most Hydrangeas macrophylla bloom on old wood. This means they set their beds in the fall on branches that grew up this spring, and that next spring, these buds are the ones that flower. Which translates into “please don’t touch the dead looking brown sticks that are looking so gangly and unattractive in the winter since this is where next years flowers are sitting and waiting out the winter.”

Got it? Good, but in my experience everyone says they’re got it, but their brains just haven’t really accepted the truth so, what I do during the lectures is that I manhandle a plant up in front of everyone and I show them the bud that’s forming at the base of each leaf. I make them touch the bud and then I explain that the bud under their finger is the same bud that’s going to grow the branch with next years flower and the end and that for each bud that gets pruned off, that’s how many fewer flowers they’re going to have next year.

It is at this point that a few of them start to get it.

Of course this is also when someone always tells us how he or she has an uncle or a neighbor or a family friend who cuts their hydrangeas each year and always gets flowers and I say, “Fantastic! Here’s the deal, I want you to try and get that uncle/neighbor/family friend to come over to your house and cut yours too, since there are always exceptions to all rules.” I also tell them I know people who have had success by cutting back their hydrangeas before next years flower buds are set, but that means they are pruning hydrangeas in July which, for me, sort of defeats the whole purpose of having hydrangeas to begin with.

The more you cut, the less flowers you’ll have is the rule, I tell them for every hydrangeas that blooms on old wood. “But my hydrangeas are flopping over!” someone will yell or, “but they’ve gotten so big, you must be able to do something!”

So I tell them about rejuvenation pruning, a technique where you prune a plant back hard, to let it start all over again, and I tell them how my experience with my hydrangea. This sucker was 8’ tall, no exaggeration and flopped all over the place, and since I had planted it right next to the steps to my kitchen door, it made entering and leaving the house a real challenge. My husband had started to call it the bondage hydrangea based on how I resort to was using garden twine to try and pull it up and back with loops that tied it to the railings of the porch behind it and that each year I was using more and more twine. So I whacked that plant totally back to the ground, assuming that the following year it would be smaller and more manageable. I knew that I’d have no flowers, which I didn’t, but what I didn’t guess was that the next year, my mature hydrangea would send up new shoots that were close to 7’ tall and guess what? No flowers! So again, I could not get in or out of the house.

We prune plants to improve their shape and the way it fits into the landscape, we prune for health and to make a plant appear either balanced or unbalanced depending on your desire, not to control size, unless we are talking about privet. And privet that is pruned doesn’t bloom. If you want hydrangeas that stay shorter, you should invest in one of the newer dwarf varieties like the Citiline cultivars that max out at 3 or 4 feet. I happen to adore the cultivar called Berlin and replaced the bondage hydrangea with one last year.

I know that no one wants to hear about having to change all their hydrangeas, I understand, but if you have Nikko Blue’s, the most common, old fashioned big blue mopheads that you see everywhere, you could end up without flowers even if you don’t prune, since with the crazy weather we’re having lately there’s a good chance your hydrangeas' buds are going to start opening since the plants just can’t tell when winter is over and sometimes mistake our warmish winters for spring only to be shocked when the cold descends like a hammer.

Which is why the best time to prune the old growth hydrangeas is in the spring, when the leaf buds have started to open. It makes it so much simpler if you can see which ones made it through the winter and which ones need a little reshaping to deal with dead wood or to reshape because one branch is three times longer than all the others, or there’s a little tuft of green leaves flailing away a foot higher then the rest of the plant. At that time it’s also easy to see which of the old brown sticks are dead wood and can be removed completely to make room for new growth. The neatniks in the audience don’t like it, they tell me those brown sticks look unattractive all winter long, so I tell them to get a little twine and tie them into bundles, or avert their eyes or get a different plant, since this is what hydrangeas are all about.

It's also why people are so excited about the hydrangea called Endless Summer. A famous plant breeder and plantaholic named Michael Dirr was visiting a nursery in St. Paul, Minnesota in September, and saw, in a block of hydrangeas, one that was covered in big, new blue blooms while all the others were over and done and faded. He immediately knew this was the holy grail of hydrangeas, a remontant hydrangea, a plant geek word that means this plant had the ability to bloom more than once, since unlike the other old fashioned varieties of big leaf hydrangeas, this one was blooming on both old and new wood at the same time. Dirr recognized the importance of this plant since not only would it keep flowering much longer then it's regular brethren, but since it also had the ability to create new buds on new wood, if it's old ones were pruned off by mistake or if they were killed by weirdly fluctuating temperatures, this plant could still produce flowers. He immediately got the plant patented and it became the queen of all hydrangeas, a seriously important plant and pretty much the only plant most people to buy if they’re looking for a big pink or blue mophead hydrangea.  Yes you can prune it, but you will delay flowering and have fewer flowers in the spring, however if you dead head it, it will keep going significantly longer then your Nikkos do.

Of course, since that plant has come out there’s been another new introduction called Mini Penny. This is a dwarf Endless Summer. It’s maximum height is supposedly 3-4-5 feet we don’t actually know yet, since it’s so new, but since it blooms on both old and new wood, and will rebloom copiously if dead headed, it seems like it will be the plant of the year out here. I recommend you rush out to your favorite nursery and buy a boatload full.

But then again, we all know I have a bit of a plant-purchasing problem.

Paige Patterson has a new variety of hydrangea, called Everlasting riding around with her in the back of her car. She’ll be sneaking onto her property soon.