Twenty-Twenty

A Great Year for Gardening and Grandmothering

I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that 2020 has been a horrible year so far. Sickly, stressful, polarizing and divisive. Since March 13, 2020 I have worked from home and also had an opportunity to take temporary custody of my only grandchild, Hugo, who lives in NYC with his parents. There, at the epicenter of the pandemic, his parents felt their six and a half year old son might enjoy an extended visit in the southern Delaware countryside with “MiMa.” Both of us did our daily work virtually, and the extra time together concentrated on an outdoor classroom that included birdwatching and feeding, planting vegetables, planting and dividing flowers and learning about insects and pollinators. It was 11-weeks of that silver lining you hear so much about!

My grandson got a kick out of learning about the birds, recognizing the songs and in this case, rat-a-tat-tat of a red-bellied woodpecker
One of our favorite getaways was to go to Best’s Ace Hardware in Lewes and get some birdseed and some toys! Hugo can identify cardinal songs now, and he knows they prefer safflower seeds the most!

Working from home afforded me some extra time to water in the mornings, spend lunch time weeding, and when we were allowed to, visit some garden centers wearing masks.

We safely visited Best’s Ace Hardware, Lavender Fields, Pepper’s Greenhouse, Sandy Hill Nursery, East Coast Perennials, Garden Shack (by phone) and Lowes for bird and garden supplies
An unknown lacecap at the end of a fence line. I bought what I though were nine “Schnee Ball” hydrangeas and three were mis-labeled. This is one of the “mistakes” I am very happy to have in the garden!
This row of white “schnee ball” macrophylla contains two Lacecaps, not pictured and one CityLine “Mars” at the end by the gate.
CityLine “Mars” H. Macrophylla

My hydrangeas (currently 63 and counting) did not get the news 2020 was off to a poor start. I started seeing early indications that this would be a bumper year for hydrangeas. The best ever in my memory.

This is the classic Mophead, French, macrophylla hydrangea that blooms on old wood. I have two of this shrub but I do not know the specific cultivar.
Just look at that blue!

In my ever-shadier woodland backyard setting, I have lost the opportunity to flower garden. But this year, my husband and I took out three of our five concrete block raised beds (they worked but were unsightly) and used the area to create a pollinator garden. It is still a work in progress.

When we bought this property, it was a flat, tree-less, shrub-free plot. Our tree growth in our certified backyard wildlife habitat provides a great deal of cooling shade, but it put a damper on most of my flower gardening.
What used to be a dog run, then later an area for two cinder-block raised beds is now a flower garden, which gets at least 6 hours of sunlight.
We added an arbor to differentiate the woodland garden from the pollinator garden. I’ve ordered two “Major Wheeler” native honeysuckles to flank each side. They will arrive in the fall. The arbor adds a nice touch I think! Photo processed through the Brushstroke app.
I moved this sign to the entrance of the arbor!
Another view of the new pollinator garden. My husband laughs at me when I lean back on the lounge and put the hose on. We don’t have irrigation, one of the big mistakes we made when we built this house. Soaker hoses are in the future! We left two sections of a split rail fence that we had to separate a dog run (I used to have a Great Dane) and I like the way it frames the space.

In the pollinator garden is an assortment of natives and non-natives. Echinacea, nepta (catmint) garden phlox “jeana”, various beebalm, senna, coreopsis, gaillardia, pink and purple Veronica speedwell, salvias, Shasta daisies, fennel, milkweed, butterfly weed (Asclepias), yarrow, false sea thrift (armería), stokesia, lavender, rosemary, cornflower, pokeweed, h.paniculata “Bobo”, solidago “Wichita Mountains”, drumstick alliums, and others.

Watering place for pollinators, filled with glass beads so they won’t get too wet!
A gazing ball is a nod to my childhood. A neighbor had one of these, and as a little girl, I thought it was magical. I might relocate this, however, just a few feet forward.
Drumstick alliums shifting from green to dark magenta. I saw these in the Maine Botanical Garden and wanted to add them to my garden! Bees love them!
On the other side of the yard I started Clematis “Jackmanii” The trellis comes from Lewes, at a little antique shop across from the blacksmith shop.
H. Macrophylla “Mariesii” this variety was variegated. It has experienced “revision” which means it has reverted back to mostly solid colored leaves. I think this is the result of too much sun. It is a temperamental bloomer, about 15 years old, this year it went bonkers!
Stoke’s Aster or Stokesia
H. Quercifolia or oakleaf “Syke’s Dwarf”
I wish I knew the name of this beauty, bought around 2005. Not knowing what I know now about Hydrangeas, I planted this in the front of my house with a southern exposure. It bloomed these glorious blue Lacecaps, but it minded the heat something awful. I watered twice a day. Thankfully, other trees in the front yard have matured and have provided afternoon sun relief.
Beebalm in the front yard. Powdery mildew is always an issue. Hoping to add wild bergamot to replace as it is native and less susceptible. Still, the pollinators enjoy the stand that is spreading each year.
This lovely was an unmarked Walmart rescue for $6.99. It’s second year in this spot, facing East, it has about a dozen blooms on it this year! I wish I knew the cultivar of this macrophylla!
This was our original pond that we built the first year we moved in. Last year however, we cut it in half.
I always wanted a “Lutyens” bench and a special place for it. It sits under a large red maple where we can enjoy the waterfall and watch the frogs. We kept koi for many years but had to resort to unsightly nets to keep them safe. All they did was catch falling leaves and the whole thing looked like a big mess. So we found the koi a new home and simplified the water feature.
Blue Herons still come by and visit, hoping for a Koi buffet. We spotted this beauty and her balancing act atop a hot tub privacy fence.
Another view of the Walmart rescue. In the back yard we don’t grow grass. No mowing, no fertilizing, no weed killing. Weed pulling yes! I am trying to establish a moss carpet. Tree and leaf droppings keep the floor mostly vegetative free. I would prefer to dress the ground with pine straw however. This is a bit too rustic for my taste.
Shasta daisies next to a cobalt blue birdbath filled with sedums and succulents. The succulents overwinter quite nicely.
I overwintered most of my pots in the garage. The spikes, geraniums, and lantana all overwintered! I only had to add the alyssum!
H. Arborescens “Incrediball” enjoy their third summer. I haven’t pruned these yet, I think I might do that next March to encourage bigger blossoms.
Another part of the shade garden. The Zen Den is at least 10 to 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the property. The Buddha honors respect for life, and all sentient beings. As a backyard wildlife habitat, insects, snakes, rabbits, possums, turtles, frogs, have all found a home here. I still swat mosquitoes though!
Enjoy your gardens! Bee Safe!

I’ve got the blues!

Hydrangea blues that is!

Hydrangeas are my favorite flower and shrub, a passion I inherited from my mother! And while I am fine with the traditional blue, as I expand my hydrangea landscape, I’ve attempted to introduce some other colors, such as whites and limelights (successful) and pinks (unsuccessful).

My lack of pink hues in my macrophylla hydrangea collection reminds me of a close friend whose first four children were boys. When she became pregnant a fifth time, she decided to wear only pink for the entire pregnancy! In her first trimester she was told to expect twins. She adored her sons, but I think the trains, trucks, footballs, baseball bats and dinosaur decor had run its course. She wanted that pop of pink!  She wanted to introduce Barbie to Spiderman! But, what popped out were fraternal twins-two adorable baby boys! She was delighted. She was in love. Her passion for pink did not linger.  She saved a fortune on baby clothes and toys, and she’ll certainly save a fortune on weddings!

But I empathize with her when it comes to my blue hydrangea children. I adore their show-off blue audaciousness and rock-steady performances. Although I turn to other flowers to contribute pinks, roses and magenta hues in my landscape, I must confess: I too, yearn for that early pop of pink in my macrophylla hydrangea family!

The failure in pink is all about my soil chemistry. Here along the Delaware coast, USDA Zone 7b, my soil has a good deal of aluminum composition and as a result my pink purchases eventually turn into blue boasters! And I am fine with that! But I keep trying, thinking my soil’s chemistry will change all by itself.

I fell in love with a particular hydrangea below (left). Its old-fashioned look and combination of pink centers and creamy white edges reminded me of something my grandmothers might have selected. I quickly scooped it up in my garden center cart and made a bee-line to the checkout counter. I planted it in a special location–at my garden gate entrance where my visitors and I would not miss this unique greeting. For the remainder of the summer I enjoyed the variegated pink display. It was a great choice as the official welcome hostess to my garden. I looked forward to it growing profusely offering delicate pinky goodness in my landscape and bouquets!

I should not have been surprised, but I was, that my soil had a different plan in store for that shrub. The following year not a trace of pink remained. The blue bully lurking in my soil battled for dominance and won, replacing all of the original, dainty pink hues. To the victor goes the spoils! I am a gracious loser!

While the colors of some hydrangeas varieties are affected by pH, that is not the only factor. Your soil’s pH will affect the uptake of nutrients and minerals that pre-exist in the soil. With hydrangeas, it is the uptake of aluminum that is the primary factor for color.

If you have pink, and want blue, it’s easy to add aluminum to the soil if it is not there, and make your soil more acidic.

But if aluminum is already in your soil naturally, it’s much more difficult to remove, and simply changing the pH toward alkaline will only slow down the plant’s ability to access that aluminum. But it will not be enough to override the blue. This Georgia Extension site explains it. A good deal of misinformation and Old Wives’ Tales on changing color abound on the Internet. My mom told me pushing pennies in the soil would change, or boost the color!

Another way to explain how it works is to think of your soil pH as a straw. Acidic soil would be a very wide straw, allowing the plant to uptake its mineral needs, and therefore turning pink into blues or purples or violets. Alkaline soil would be akin to a very narrow straw, preventing the plant from accessing those same minerals, therefore remaining pink. If the aluminum sulfate and other minerals are already in the soil, it’s easy to change the size of the straw. But those minerals have to be there, or be added. It is next to impossible to remove minerals, which is what one needs to do to get the pink hues. But you can try to reduce access to those minerals by narrowing the straw.

Some soils have pockets of alkaline and acidic qualities. Rarely is your soil consistent across your property. Soil’s with these characteristics, combined with an unknown history (did a structure exist on the spot sometime in the recent or distant past?) That might account for a pH or metallic anomaly. Neutral pH can be a delightful blessing providing the hydrangea owner with blues, pinks and purples from the same plant. Roots spread in all directions so who knows what they’ve tapped into!

The plants I buy purposely as blue are normally not as beautiful as the blues that start out as pink and transition over to blue. Those chameleon blues are stunners! The flower below, was a deep pink, hot-house hydrangeas with blooms forced for the Easter market. I planted it that same year and it stopped blooming, which I expected. For an additional two years it grew and leafed out and did not bloom. But on the third planted year, the shrub, nearly 5 foot tall, was festooned with these beautiful blue balls with just a whisper hint of lavender! Why its more blue than any of the blues I bought as blue!

In July 2017, I bought another hydrangea (because one can never have enough and I am completely justified since I suffer from GBTH (Gotta Buy This Hydrangea) Syndrome–a serious affliction for which I am refusing treatment! My husband, however, has tried many forms of intervention upon me, alas (hooray) to no avail. I google-eyed and exclaimed “ooh la la” over a specimen and eventually bought the “Merritt’s Supreme” looker, seen below. The garden center owner assured me it “should stay” pink. Even without this expert assurance, I was going to buy this showy darling! I heaved her my trunk for the short ride home (yes, I refer to it as a she). Here it is where I gave her a new home:

Miss Merritt is leafing out now and setting  her 2018 buds. Other than adding home-grown compost at planting, I’ve not added any fertilizer or amendments. I resolved to let nature take her course. Stay tuned for the June reveal!

UPDATE: June 17: We’ve gone purple! I love the color shift.

In 2018 I don’t have as many blooms. The spot I selected clearly gets more shade than what my Merritt’s Supreme obtained at her nursery. We’re going to do some strategic tree pruning, and take down one Arborvitae that is not doing well, and that should allow more light to filter through and improve the flower yield of this shrub for 2019. But look at this violet color!

My Hydrangea Obsession

I’ve written about why I became interested in growing hydrangeas and I wonder now if it has gotten a little out of hand! Yesterday, I walked my three-quarter acre property and tallied up my hydrangea collection. Sixty three and counting! Here’s the list!

4-Little Limelight – local nursery

3-Macrophyllas lacecap 2 blues, 1 purple

1-City Line “Mars” 2011

5-Schnee balls macrophylla, (white blooms, ruffled blossoms) 2011

1-Limelight panicle

1-Mom’s hydrangea (funeral bouquet 2001)

1-Oak-leaf Ruby Slippers (2004)

2-Mariesii variegated

1-Little Quick Fire Proven Winners (2016) local nursery

1-Oakleaf Syke’s Dwarf

2-Blue Billows Mountain Hydrangea – original parents Wayside Garden

2-Endless Summer (ES) Let’s Dance Blue Jangles (2019)

5-Macrophyllas propagated from cuttings (2018)

1-Walmart rescue (purple) (2018)

1-Gift macrophylla propagation (2019)

1-Vanilla strawberry (2017)

2-ES Proven Winners Tuff Stuff Ah ha, double bloomer (2019)

1-Annabelle (2015) MG Plant Sale

3-Macrophyllas unknown variety, traditional

2-ES variety unknown. Slow growing

8-Blue billows mountain by propagation from original parents

1-Mountain lacecap Greywood – Wayside Gardens (2002)

1-Oak-leaf Snow Queen (2017)

1-Mystery layering

1-Pinky Winky (2018) Local nursery

2-Nikko Blue (2002)

2-Incrediball h.arborescens

4-Pistachio

1-Merritt’s Supreme (2017)

2-Oak-leaf “Snowflake” double bloomer (in transit 2019)

I’ve obtained these specimens from local nurseries, mail order, propagation from friends, and those I have created myself from layerings and cuttings! I currently have a dozen cuttings in a tub and it looks like all but two will make it!

The challenge now is to find a place for all of these. I would say half of my collection is small and in that “getting established” period of its life.

Back when I did not know what I was doing, I planted some macrophyllas in high heat, strong sun locations. Most are doing okay, but take daily and sometimes twice-a-day waterings. I doubt at this stage they would take to transplanting, but in leaving them where I have, I am creating additional work for myself down the line. I have taken layering and cutting samples from all of these, as I may try to replace them with paniculata.

Here are some of my favorite photos:

Little Quick Fire panicle hydrangea

Proven Winners Little Quick Fire panicle

Variegated Mariesii. This layers very easily. Much of the new growth is not variegated.

Blue and cream flowers on CityLine “Mars”

Proven Winners City Line “Mars”

A hot house hydrangea grown into a large blue shrub
This was a pink florist hydrangea bouquet that was for my mother’s funeral in 2001

Unknown blue macrophylla in foreground. Oakleaf “Syke’s Dwarf” in background

For me a “generic” macrophylla, bought and planted before I knew to record the variety!

Pistachio

Proven Winners “Incrediball” hydrangea arborescens

A young Merritt’s Supreme blossom

Twist and Shout

Oakleaf, I believe is Snow Queen is decidedly lime in July first summer bloom!

Pinky Winky

Pinky Winky first year in the ground! Wiley’s Market Middletown, Delaware

Little Quick Fire July

Vanilla Strawberry or Strawberry Sundae from Wayside aGardens ma order

Ruby Slippers oakleaf. Last year, I did not water this faithfully and it went from white to brown quickly this year I am watering it every day and it helps sustain the pink part of its season.

Little Lime in early July. Despite its 4 foot maximum height, mine are shooting up stems that are over 5 feet!

2018: Summer of Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas were my mother’s favorite flower and landscape shrub and she was a strong influence for me to include hydrangeas in my garden. I now have 55 separate plants on a pie-shaped .73 acre lot. Most I have purchased outright to get different varieties, and about 12 or so are propagated, something I learned how to do from Master Gardener workshops.

A large factor on how hydrangeas will perform is Mother Nature. A dip in temperature in the spring — a late frost will devastate the summer performance of many hydrangeas. Knowing the type of hydrangeas you have, where it will thrive, its sun requirements, and ultimately how to prune correctly are essential for growing profuse blooms.

In Delaware, Zone 7b, we had a very wet, soggy spring and no late frosts! The result: a blooming bonanza for Hydrangeas! July will bring the paniculatas such as Limelight, Little Limelight and Little firelight.

We replaced most of our Knock-out roses in the southern front of our home with plants like this “Little Limelight” which won’t get as big as regular Limelight and loves the sun the front of our house receives.

Hydrangeas are beautiful inside too! Bring them indoors! Accented here with lavender spires and lemon balm

Hydrangea “Sikes Dwarf”

So many blooms in 2018, there is plenty to show and take inside. Sprigs of lemon balm add a soft green accent. The tiny white flower is “pearly everlasting.” By mid summer, dill and parsley are starting seed heads and these add interest to a bouquet!

I call the above mom’s hydrangea. This was one of the pink hot house flowers the florists delivered at my mother’s funeral. I planted it in 2001 where it grew for three years before blooming. This shrub is 19 years old and is the most vulnerable in the winter. It faces east. This year it has come back nicely.

Variegated “Mariesii”

I don’t know the name of this hydrangea as it was mislabeled by the home improvement garden center. I thought it would be a white schneeball, but its first blossoms were pink and white. All subsequent years produced this blue and cream white blossom. I don’t know the cultivar but I love the old-fashioned look. It is always a reliable bloomer. Faces south but it is shaded by large trees from direct sun.

Above is a mountain variety I purchased from the mail order catalog Wayside Gardens. I wasn’t good about writing down the cultivars. I’ve asked them to see if my purchase from 10 years ago is still on record. These blossoms start out white and transition to pink and rose. A beautiful water color effect.

Niko Blue Macrophylla

This lacecap beauty was one of two my husband and I purchased at a garden center in Pennsylvania in 2006. One was for my mother-in-law, and I loved it so much he got one for me! I was so bad then about saving the labels. It is planted where it gets afternoon sun (not the best place) so we have to baby it and water it generously. It is a delightful frame for our front porch and is a true blue performer!

Hydrangea quercifolia “Snow Queen” looking up through the blossoms!

My wonderful hydrangea addiction

I just bought my 40th hydrangea shrub. That may or may not seem like a lot unless I factor in my .73 acre lot! There isn’t a garden center in the area I haven’t patronized!

Some recent redesigning of our landscape, including the removal of a diseased tree and a long narrow raised bed along a fence line, provided an excuse to go out and fill up my backseat and haul home new family members.

At the onset of my hydrangea condition, I wasn’t very good at chronicling what I purchased. I tried. I’d collect the plastic labels or containers, neatly stack them in the garage whereupon my husband would toss them out in the trash. Many of my earliest cultivars are mysteries.

One is this beautiful lacecap! In 2007 my husband and I traveled to Pennsylvania to visit his mother on Mother’s Day and we stopped by a local nursery to get her something for her front yard. She didn’t have any hydrangeas and we both fell in love with a stunning 2ft tall blue lacecap, just loaded with the most intensely blue blooms. We got one for his mother and one for me to take home. I planted her facing south, probably not the best idea, but we have enough trees in the front yard to provide some shade. The heat is what gets her, rather than sun, so we have to be generous with the water.

Delaware in USDA Zone 7b has of late had its share of late frost in early spring. My blue beauty, now nearly 5 ft tall is vulnerable and can only boast three or four show-stopping years in her blooming career. The last few have been duds. But 2018 is a good recovery year! She’s started off with a good showing of azure blossoms, some with the flat pan in the middle, others with it missing. I might never learn the cultivar, but I call her Marian’s Pennsylvania Pretty, in honor of my mother-in-law who we lost in 2008.

Hydrangea “pistachio”

I bought this little gem from Wayside Gardens, a well-known garden mail order catalog. It didn’t bloom the first year it was shipped, which I expected, and last year it just leafed out. This year, it has only grown a little bit, but I am happy that it produced a couple of blooms. I planted it in partial sun/shade and it receives mostly dappled afternoon sun. So far, it’s just a wee little shrub.

I am delighted.

About six inches across, it has a violet blue center, somewhat like a lacecap – not sure if this is a true lacecap, if so the surrounding petals are much more dominant. I love the color. No photo apps or filters, I am eager to watch this grow and continue to bloom. Most of my “pink” hydrangeas have turned blue.  How will it evolve as the blooms age? I am eager to see!