September 2004: Garden Letters from Our Readers

This may be the best autumn perennial, especially if you're a fan of certain football teams.
Steve Bender

Anyone who treasures hydrangeas owes a big thank-you to Penny McHenry. Brimming with passion, humor, and optimism, she did more to popularize these plants in the South than any other person.

I met her in 1991 while working on the story "Shrubs From Grandma's Garden." By using a propagation technique called layering, she had turned two French hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) into more than 400. Her Atlanta garden appeared on the March 1992 cover of Southern Living and became our best-selling issue ever.

This phenomenal response provided our first clue that hydrangeas would eventually supplant azaleas as the South's favorite shrubs. Penny soon founded The American Hydrangea Society, an organization that has grown to 600 members.


Nonstop Flowers
Penny's hydrangeas, named ‘Penny Mac,' expressed the energy, zest, and showmanship of their owner. Unlike other types, hers bloomed continuously all summer. She generously shared them with friends and nurseries so that all could enjoy the nonstop blooms. To everyone who received plants, she repeated her simple formula for success: "Talk to them every day, and tell them how beautiful they are." She contended that, like children, they respond to praise and do their utmost to please their admirers.

Farewell to a Friend
This past March the light that had educated, inspired, and entertained thousands finally winked out. Days short of her 81st birthday, Penny passed away. I racked my brain for a meaningful way to honor my friend who had given so much to so many. Suddenly, I knew. Nothing would please Penny more than to help even more people enjoy hydrangeas.

So here is Penny's easy step-by-step process for taking a single hydrangea and making dozens. Just be sure that every day you tell each new one how pretty it is. Penny will be watching.

Hydrangea fans can contribute to The Penny McHenry Hydrangea Collection at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Avenue NE., Atlanta, GA 30309. To join The American Hydrangea Society, visit www.americanhydrangeasociety.org, or write to them at P.O. Box 986, Grayson, GA 30017.

How to Layer Hydrangeas

Step 1: Select a long stem that is growing from the lower part of the shrub, as Penny demonstrated here.

Step 2: Dig a shallow trench, and press several inches of the stem into the bottom. Fill the trench with soil, and lay a brick or stone on top to weigh it down.

Step 3: The stem will root in several months. After it develops a good root system, use pruners to separate it from the mother plant. Then, plant it elsewhere in the garden, or pot it to give to a friend.

FOR MORE INFO:

Hydrangeas To Share
Page 60: 'Penny Mac' hydrangeas are available from Wayside Gardens, 1-800-213-0379 or www.waysidegardens.com (O), and Wilkerson Mill Gardens, (770) 463-2400 or www.hydrangea.com (O).

"Hydrangeas To Share" is from the July 2006 issue of Southern Living.