Late spring and early summer bless us with some of our most beloved flowers-- hydrangeas. These shrubs look rather ordinary most of the year but transform into a magnificent profusion of color that makes our gardens glorious.
Wendy White has a backyard full of these classic beauties. Every year, clusters of pink, purple, blue, chartreuse, and white blooms grace her garden, causing woody stems to arch and strain as they try to support the many heavy flowers.
The walking trail she started many years ago directed Wendy down a different path and led her to a gardening adventure. Beautiful hydrangeas prosper under her watchful eyes and nurturing hands. Her backyard getaway is a peaceful retreat where she can be alone and get away from it all. She feels very close to God in her garden, where each day she's able to witness his little miracles as they grow and bloom.
Cut a 12- to 15-inch piece off a non-blooming branch in July or August. Cut the clipped stem in two or three pieces, making sure that each section has at least two nodes that can be placed into the potting soil. Strip the foliage, except for the top few leaves of each cutting. If the top leaves are large, cut them in half to reduce water loss through foliage.
Pour rooting compound onto a stripped leaf or into a small container, and dip the bottom end of the cutting into the compound. (Do not dip stems back into the jar of rooting compound, because this could contaminate it.)
Tip 5: Set the plant out in a shady location, and keep the soil moist. Leave the cutting in the pot for a year or two to establish a fibrous root system. Some of the more vigorous selections will be ready in a year, while slower growers will take two.
Wendy hasn't always been a gardener. But, as her children grew up, she began to tinker in the backyard. The large, steep, poison ivy-covered area offered a challenge. At first, she just wanted to carve pathways up and across the hillside so she could walk around the house for exercise.
To enhance the walking paths, she set out a few plants, and a garden was born. She says that after a few years of working with different kinds of shrubs, perennials, and annuals, the hydrangeas spoke to her, and she wanted more. Today, Wendy has more than 100 different selections. She learns about each one as it grows. It's hard for her to pick a favorite because they are all special, but she really likes 'Hamburg' and 'Veitchii' French hydrangeas ( Hydrangea macrophylla) and says they perform extremely well in her garden.
Wendy and her husband, Bew, have an extremely hilly lot that's covered in large trees. A mixture of pines and hardwoods creates high shade, allowing just enough filtered light to sift through the branches.
Each year, Wendy removes low limbs to make sure the garden doesn't get too shady. She says the hydrangeas that get more sun bloom better but tend to become stressed by the summer heat and need more water. They seem to do best when they receive morning light but are shaded from the hot western sun. The backyard has dappled light, fertile, well-drained soil, and a willing gardener, so it's the ideal spot for a hydrangea garden.
Wendy likes to set out young plants. Many of the hydrangeas she sets out come from mail-order nurseries, so the plants are little when they arrive. She also plants small cuttings that she has rooted. The smaller plants seem to be easier to establish. She does most of the work in the garden herself and doesn't want to haul big plants up the hillside. To ensure that each one gets a good start, she mixes peat and manure with the soil surrounding the root-balls.
In early spring, she top-dresses her plants with a granular 10-10-10 fertilizer. Wendy has a sprinkler system she uses when necessary. The hydrangeas let her know when they're dry. If they wilt in the afternoon, they are usually okay, but if they're flagging early in the morning, they need a drink.
Wendy doesn't try to manipulate the colors of her French hydrangeas. She lets them do what they want. If you want to change or intensify their colors, try these tricks. For blue hydrangeas, dissolve 1 tablespoon of aluminum sulfate in a gallon of water, and drench the soil around the base of plants in March, April, and May. For pink hydrangeas, dissolve 1 tablespoon of hydrated lime in a gallon of water, and soak the roots in April and May. Avoid getting the lime mix on foliage.
If you want white hydrangeas, plant selections such as 'Annabelle' smooth hydrangea ( H. arborescens 'Annabelle'), 'Snowflake' oakleaf hydrangea ( H. quercifolia 'Snowflake'), 'Tardiva' ( H. paniculata 'Tardiva'), or 'Le Cygne' French hydrangea ( H. macrophylla 'Le Cygne').
This article is from the May 2005 issue of Southern Living.