The Hippest Hydrangeas

T  im Wood knows his hydrangeas. This makes perfect sense given that it's his job to know all about shrubs and hydrangeas might be the most popular shrub there is.

As I mentioned, I went down to the Proven Winners Outdoor Living Extravaganza at the beginning of March. The main focus of the event was four speakers, three of whom had enough great stuff to say that my pen barely stopped taking notes. I should mention here that Proven Winners allowed me to attend the event for free to cover it, but since I'm a journalist in "real" life I take notes on everything, all the time, just out of habit.

Back to Tim. I was really excited about hearing him because I'm nuts about hydrangeas and in his work as Spring Meadow Nursery's product development manager Tim has either found (through his network of plant breeders) some of the best hydrangeas around or developed them himself.

This is one of my favorite pictures that I've come across on Houzz, taken by Bosworth Hoedemaker. Even though those Annabelle hydrangeas are flopping all over the place (and Tim's got a solution for that), I love how they are in their chartreuse stage and the whole front of the house is just simple and lovely.

Tim started his talk with the tallest of the hydrangeas: climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea a. petiolaris). The two newer cultivars that he called out were 'Skyland's Giant', which gets much bigger flowers than the regular old climbing hydrangea and 'Fire Fly' which is a beautiful variegated-leafed variety. Fire Fly was beautiful in the pictures, but two things probably make it one that I wouldn't choose for my own garden: variegated plants tend to grow slower than non-variegated varieties. Climbing hydrangeas are notoriously slow to establish themselves and I'm not sure I could stand to wait any longer than I already do. Also, the variegation is best in spring and by summer the leaves will be mostly green, and it's less free-flowering than others so you're giving up blooms for those leaves.

Then Tim moved onto my favorite kind of hydrangeas: Hydrangea arborescens, which what I think most people think of when they hear "hydrangea." Annabelle, which is featured in that photo above, is the most popular hydrangea in the world, Wood said. But it's not without it's faults, one of which I've already mentioned, which is it's propensity to flop. I have mine caged about three feet up yet it still manages to flop over.

An outstanding cultivar in this type is 'White Dome,' which is a lacecap variety. I will admit that I'm like most gardeners and greedy for big blooms so I've overlooked the lacecaps in the past. What's good about White Dome is that it has very sturdy stems that never flop and nice big, clean leaves. What sold me on this plant was a photo of it in winter. You know how they always talk about "winter interest?" Well, let me tell you, White Dome in winter is the very definition of that.



It didn't take long for someone to figure that crossing White Dome and Annabelle might be a good idea and alas Incrediball was born. If you've been following this blog for any amount of time you know about Incrediball because I've been talking about it since last year, and you know there will be more than a few heading to my garden this year.



Along the same lines as Incrediball is another Annabelle cross called Invincibelle Spirit. This new one boasts the same strong stems as Incrediball but the flowers are smaller than Annabelle's and in a pretty pink hue. Most outstanding about this hydrangea, in my opinion, is that $1 from the purchase of each Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea goes to breast cancer research.

Then Wood moved onto hydrangea macrophylla Bigleaf hydrangea, and here's where it gets excited. This is the group of hydrangeas that blooms on old and new wood. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Endless Summer, which falls in this group, so it made me happy to hear Wood confirm that it is "undependable" at least when it comes to reblooming. But there's exciting news in this category.

Black stems.

Yep, black stems, which leaves set far apart so you can see them. Then top it off with pink blooms. It's called Abracadabra Star and it's fantastic. It will take more work for those of us in the northern zones because it will be important to try to protect the "old" buds (burlap stuffed with oodles of leaves works pretty well).



For people who are in love with the idea of Endless Summer but, like me, disappointed in its performance, the Let's Dance series might be the ticket. Wood especially suggestion Let's Dance Moonlight because it reblooms faster.

A few quick notes from Wood on this time of hydrangea: prune them before mid-July so you aren't pruning off the next year's blooms and cut the steams that don't have flowers as low to the ground as possible.

There's also exciting things happening in the hydrangea paniculata category, in which one of my faves—Limelight—resides. Limelight is great (so great that Wood said they sometimes receive pictures from people who have Limelight-themed weddings) but it can get big (10 feet). Have no fear, Wood himself is bringing a little gem called "Little Lime" to the market in the next year or two. It will be one-quarter the size of Limelight and I can guarantee you there will be more than a few of those in my garden.

Quick Fire is another variety in this category that Wood said he likes (and an audience member backed him up). It's bred to bloom very early and it's blossoms turn pink much earlier and has a relatively compact habit. Sounds like one to check out.

One other quick note Limelight: if you haven't already pruned yours for size this year, then do it  ... quick. Wood says they cut theirs at the nursery (where they use them as a hedge) by half at least.

Wood left with one last hydrangea tip (one that I can certainly use): Be patient. You need to dedicate at least the first year or two of a hydrangea's life to building the plant. So that means pinch it back to create good, strong branching and don't get greedy for blooms right away. I know ... easier said than done.

You can follow Tim Wood's plant hunting adventures at his blog.


Hydrangea photos from Spring Meadow Nursery

Sorry to leave you hanging

I have some great posts from the Proven Winners Outdoor Living Extravaganza in the works, but I ran off to Texas to go sailing and didn't have time to finish them like I thought I would. And now I'm laid low with some sort of epic illness. Anyway, here's my luck for you ... it was warmer all week at home in Wisconsin than it was in Fort Worth, and when we tried to leave this morning there was snow on the ground in Texas and none in Wisconsin. Go figure.

Anyway ... stay tuned.

Gardening with your senses: Tips from a Martha Stewart Living Magazine garden editor

W  hen I saw that the senior associate garden editor of Martha Stewart Living Magazine was on the slate of speakers for the Proven Winners Outdoor Living Extravaganza that I went to last weekend, I'll admit I had a preconceived idea of what Stacey Hirvela was going to be like: prim, proper and, well, very Martha-esque.

So imagine my surprise when a very down-to-earth gal walked to the front of the room wearing a great sweater, demin skirt and a simple ponytail. In the introduction, it was mentioned that while the other speakers were talking she had been sitting in the back of the room knitting. She looked like the kind of person I'd like to garden with.


So if I wasn't already taken with this incredibly knowledgeable woman, just five minutes into her talk on "Gardening For—and with—All Five Senses" she had me.

Showing off one of the stunning slides featured in her talk of a very unusual but creative wall of regular old garden pots taken during the Buffalo Garden Walk, she said, "Is this classy? Is this something that Martha would approve of? I don't know, but I love it."

Dear Stacey, will you be my new BFF?

After I got past wanting to run up to the front and asking Stacey if she wanted to exchange gardening tips over a cosmopolitan later, I settled into her talk which was, as she urged the crowd of about 300 people to do with their gardens, full of "simple, rich, satisfying moments."

Good gardens, she said, should be "bursting with vitality and life" and that's something that's accomplished through using all five senses in the garden.

 Don't you just love this garden path? From the wonderful color palette to the sound of rustling grasses it invites you to follow it to explore what is lies beyond. Martha Stewart Living photo

Sight might be the most obvious of those senses but how you get to a pleasing looking garden can sometimes be difficult. Hirvela used the idea of a jewelry box to show one way to achieve great results. Showing a slide of a tiny area of a cemetery that had somehow escaped the wrath of the lawnmower, she showed how a presumably accidental planting of seeds that had grown up into a bright mix of wildflowers is a mini jewelry box. Apply that principle to your entire garden and you're onto something, she said.

And if all those colors are the jewels (flowers) in your box (garden), then the standout of them all—the diamonds—are whites. White is a controversial color in the garden. Some people love it for its ability to brighten up a dark corner, but others say it interrupts the eye, stopping the flow in the garden. Hirvela said she looks at it as a "Band-aid" that will tie everything else together.

 Whites are the "diamonds" in your garden, Hirvela says. Martha Stewart Living photo

She also talked about the sense of touch, and this applies to texture in the garden, both in a small (fuzzy lamb's ear) and large (the whole garden) scale.

"Gardeners are not good in art museums," Hirvela said. "We need to reach out and touch things."

Don't you find that to be right on? If I am in a nursery, the first thing I do when I see a plant I'm interested in is touch it. I feel the leaves and the stems. I'm the same way in clothing or fabric stores, touching everything. I'm a shopkeeper's nightmare.

Hirvela showed a photo of a woodland setting in which the prominent feature was variegated Japanese Knotweed, which is nicely considered a garden thug on the East Coast. But in this context it was a wonderful strong horizontal accent, that pulled the texture together (and it was kept in check by planting it in a shady spot instead of the sunny spot that it apparently loves). The best way to judge the texture in your garden is to convert photos of the garden to black and white, she said. By eliminating color, which tends to overwhelm the senses and keep us from seeing beyond it, from the equation, we can get a much better feel for the texture of a garden, which is equally as important as color, if not more so, because texture is always there but color is fleeting.

Can you see the texture in this garden?

How about now? Fine Gardening photos


Hirvela was quick to warn of overplanning.

"You need serendipity in your garden," she said. "If you maintain your garden within an inch of its life you won't get those special, unplanned moments."

Nature, as we all know (or undoubtedly find out at some point in our gardening lives), makes the best combinations. If we're too quick to pull out all the volunteer seedlings or move a plant that has spread beyond its original allotted space, we might miss a great "moment" that we wouldn't have thought of. Chalk one up for the lazy gardener!

The sense of sound, she admitted, at first can be  difficult to bring into your garden. Of course there are water features (including a giant croaking toad feature she showed a slide of from a Nantucket garden), but there are so many other sounds a well: Birds singing, bees buzzing, hummingbirds zooming by (illustrated by a fantastic photo of a house whose owner had taken the doors off a porch-type area and hung hummingbird feeders in each doorway to literally create a hummingbird thoroughfare through the middle of the house), tall grasses rustling. It's all part of the gardening experience.

Hirvela also encouraged gardeners to create a space for themselves in the garden. I have a great blue bench in my garden but I don't think I've ever sat on it. Like most gardeners, I can't stop. If I sit there, I see a weed that needs pulls, a plant that needs pruning or a hosta that needs dividing. Resist the urge, she said.

"You owe it to yourself to sit down and enjoy your hard work," Hirvela said.


Hirvela offered excellent suggestions to improve one's gardening experience accompanied by photos of the gardens of "super rich people on Nantucket" to a lowly but creative pot wall, but of all them, this was my favorite:

"I say do whatever the heck you want."

Amen.

I'm back (in French)

T   hat is how pathetic my French language skills are. I've been wanting to post for a couple days and could not figure out how to say anything catchy in French. I've finally given up trying.

Anyway, I was in Marseille on business for two and a half days last week. Unfortunately about 20 hours of those two and a half days were spent suffering from what I'm assuming was food poisoning. I've never been afflicted with any sort of major food-borne illness before that I'm aware of, and I have to say that was a most horrific experience. At one point I was fairly convinced I was going to die in a Marseille hotel room, which sounds almost a little romantic until you find out that the cause is bad chicken (or maybe lettuce, I really don't know).

Spring was just attempting to make an appearance there, which was obvious from the roadside trees in bloom (no one could tell me what they were though). The sun had warmth to it, which felt great. Because I was at a very well-scheduled event I had no time whatsoever to explore the city or get more than a few blocks away from the hotel.


I was there testing new sailboat introductions, so I spent quite a bit of time on the water and quickly snapped this picture on my phone.

Anyway, the good news is that right after I got home I went down to the Proven Winners Outdoor Living Extravaganza in Chicago where I was able to really get into gardening mode through the great line-up of speakers. So much good stuff to report from that that I'm not even going to attempt to fit it all in one post. So stay tuned for a handful of posts on that this week.

Free your garden (and yourself) from the grip of Roundup

F  or almost five years now I've been an almost entirely organic gardener. The caveat is there because I keep a bottle of Roundup in the garage for particularly offensive weeds that seem immune to the more friendly ways of deals with their demise.

No more. The Roundup is going away (through my county's hazardous waste disposal program). You won't catch me telling you what you should or shouldn't do very often (I'm very much a to-each-his (or her)-own kind of person), but I'm going to do it right now: Get the Roundup out of your life.

Roundup is the best-selling herbicide on the market so if you use herbicides, odds are you're using Roundup. It's made by a company called Monsanto (which also brought us a little herbicide you might be familiar with called Agent Orange). I could go on for a long time about all of the things Monsanto does that I do not disagree with, but I won't. If you want to know more though, you can check out some of these posts from Garden Rant here, hereand here.

But here's the problem: Roundup is bad stuff and we're finding out just how bad it is. Genevieve over at North Coast Gardening addresses the issue here.

Check out this wheelbarrow full of weeds pulled from my garden last spring. It was a lot of work, but I got them out of the garden never to return by pulling them out, root and all, no chemicals involved.

Now I know you might be thinking, "How bad can it really be?" Well, first of all, there are all sorts of instructions about what sort of protective clothing, eyewear, etc. you should be wearing before you use it. How many times you have actually followed those instructions? If you're like me you might have taken the time to throw on sunglasses first. Not good.

As you find from reading Gen's blog post, the active ingredients in Roundup have been found to be endocrine disruptors which, plainly put (in my most unscientific sounding language), can screw up the reproductive system. That's bad for animals and really bad for humans (of all ages).

Even if you're a naysayer who thinks that this uprising against Roundup is one more example of organic goodness gone wrong, I ask you, why take the chance? Why even tempt fate if there's even the slightest chance that this may be true?

Because, you know, there are a lot of other ways to get rid of weeds. How, you ask? Well here's where we can start:

1. Pull them. Pulling out the entire weed, root and all, is the simplest and most effective way to get rid of a weed. Period.
2. Prevent them by mulching (in your garden) or by using a pre-emergent natural herbicide such as corn gluten meal (on your lawn).
3. Burn 'em. Yep ... you can burn weeds with a weed torch like this. I think this sounds like tons of fun, especially for guys (who seem to be prone to having pyromanic tendencies).
4. Boiling water. This obviously works best on an area where you want to kill all vegetation rather than spot treating just a few weeds, but it does, in fact work after a few applications.
5. Horticultural vinegar. The North Coast Gardening article linked above has a coupon code for 30% off a new product called Weed Pharm, which is super strength vinegar in a spray bottle just waiting to take the place of that nasty Round-Up. Like boiling water it will kill anything it comes in contact with it, so you want to be careful to shield nearby plants that you don't want to kill. The safest way to apply it is probably to brush it on, but that's far too tedious for me to be bothered with.

If you don't want to open up the link to the North Coast Gardening article, here's the link to buy Weed Pharm. If you use the code WEED30, you will receive 30% off through March 11. I've not tried it yet, but I plan to order some and give it a go.

If you're still using products like Roundup, just try going without them this spring. I bet you'll find that you don't really miss them much and just think of the peace of mind you'll gain knowing you're not putting yourself in potential danger. That is, of course, unless that weed torch gets away from you.