Yes, I did it this past week – not because I wanted to but because I had to. I whacked back all my hydrangeas. It was painful, but it was necessary. I was waiting, like we all were, to see if there was any life in those dead brown sticks. There wasn’t.
Not all my hydrangeas got whacked back of course, the paniculatas are fine, except for three Pee Gee hydrangeas, that look dead as doornails, but I’m still hoping (ha ha!) And of course my Annabels are fine, as both paniculatas and arborens both bloom on new wood, and some of my serrata’s, the tougher lacecap variety of hydrangeas, made it through the winter undaunted, but all my macrophyllas, those big mopheads and lacecaps in pink, white and blue, were hacked back with a vengeance.
I knew it was going to be bad a couple of weeks ago when all that was showing at the base of last years stems were tufts of green, looking like each plant was naked except for crazy, big, fluffy, green slipper, but I avoided touch the buds that were formed last fall, knowing without wanting to know, that each brown casing contained nothing but death. I was in denial.
Now the deed is done, all of last years canes, and thus all of this years flower buds were cut back with and the fact that the flowering season of summer would be significantly hydrangea-less was accepted. The garden, well it looks weird, but that’s gardening.
It’s funny how the question I get asked the most is when people should cut back their hydrangeas. Never I shout. Don’t do it, I whisper. It’s a bad idea I try and tell them, but this year when people ask, I tell them go right ahead and go for it. Just know that the way most old fashioned mophead hydrangeas work is that they flower on old wood. This means that those sticks that are so unsightly each year have buds formed in the fall that hold the coming seasons flowers. The ubiquitous Endless Summer hydrangea in remontant, which means that it blooms on both old and new wood, so if you are lucky enough to have that variety, or Mini Penny (a dwarf remontant variety) you’ll probably get some blooms, although they’ll be late this year. It will also be interesting to see whose hydrangeas do bloom anyway. Remember Endless Summer was a lone mutation sitting in a field of Nikko Blue hydrangeas when it was discovered. So the genes are there in some of our plants.
Not mine, I bet, although I have a bunch of remontants scattered around. And of course there are those clients I have who tell me they prune their hydrangeas every year and get flowers anyway. I love those clients and I hope they have plenty of blue surrounding their world this summer. Although I will be jealous, of course.
There was actually quite a bit of death in my garden. Roses that bit the dust, evergreens I knew I planted too late, but lulled by climatic change I was hoping for a mild winter. Some of my crape myrtles also are late to push out, not my classics, but the eight cranberry colored ones that I adore (of course.) No ones lavender really made it, or if they did, they’re struggling. My camellias survived, although barely, but many people have told me hideous death stories. And my fig, wonder of wonders, is pushing out new growth from its roots, although it’s certain not to fruit as this feels like the longest, coolest spring of all time.
We all complained about the winter, I was certainly as guilty as anyone, but when I was a kid Mecox bay freezing over and farmers going ice boating was a fact of life. Crape myrtles weren’t. Memorial Day was when we started thinking about putting out our vegetable starts and tropicals, when we started to assemble of annuals in pots. Not the weekend when everything was already finished and done. It will be interesting to see how our gardening ideas change after this winter, as hydrangeas have always been the big thing out here in the Hamptons, but two summers of scorched flowers by the end of June and a winter of frozen buds, might affect people’s choices. Meanwhile, all the old standbys are fine, rose of sharons, spireas, viburnums, weigelas, kolkwitzias, they’re all pushing strong. And the old roses, Fairy and New Dawn and Seafoam, they all came through the winter with aplomb and verve. We’ve had a good decade plus of being able to play with plants that were at the edges of our zones of hardiness and those of us who explored those boundaries suffered some losses.
Which doesn’t mean we get to whine and cry and fall apart over the experience. This is gardening, green in tooth and claw, to mix metaphors, and this year perhaps a little less blue.
Paige Patterson has a collection of unusual geraniums she’s eyeing for her pots this year, pots she’ll be planting up in June.