In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
June, 2012
Regional Report

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These deep purple-blue mophead hydrangeas are breathtaking and a long-time-coming surprise for the owner.

Surprise! Janis' Purple Hydrangeas

For many years, my book group has had the great good fortune to meet one summer weekend at Janis' house in Sea Girt, New Jersey. For as long as I can remember, Janis has been disappointed that her hydrangeas just don't bloom. They get big and leafy but produce no flowers, year after year.

Once or twice I've clipped away the dead branches. That's enough off, I've insisted. No need for more pruning.

Janis, though, has eagerly pruned in spring and fall to shape the hydrangeas. This habit comes, I think, from wanting the landscape to look tidy. But in so doing, she, like many homeowners, unknowingly removed the branches holding flower buds. This is a difficult concept to grasp -- potential flower cells deep inside hydrangea branches waiting through winter to bloom in spring.

Surprise on Neptune Place!
This summer is awesomely different! Two huge mounds of large purple and blue-purple mopheads took my breath away as I parked the car on Neptune Place. I've never before seen such rich vibrant colors on a hydrangea.

While I was oohing and ahhing at such unusual, bold flower colors, book group member Marbie confessed to her part in this transformation. "I told Janis not to prune," Marbie said. Simple as that. When Janis asked about hydrangea care, Marbie,a long-time friend and neighbor, urged her to put the pruners away.

A passionate, long-time gardener, Marbie volunteers at the Philadelphia International Flower Show. For several decades, she and book group member Mary have manned the information booth where show visitors seek answers and horticultural tips. One of the most frequent questions, Marbie says, is "Why don't my hydrangeas bloom? They have plenty of leaves. Why no flowers?"

Pruning: Keep It Simple
The first thing Marbie asks is "When do you prune?" Usually the owner describes cutting back with gusto -- at the wrong time. Timing depends on the hydrangea variety but most people don't know that. Marbie then explains: In general, pruning is best done soon after hydrangea flowers die. Pruning then will preserve future flowers on all types of hydrangeas.

On closer look, the pruning schedule according to hydrangea type can be more complicated. Hydrangeas fall into three categories: those that bloom on old wood, those that bloom on new wood, or newer cultivars that bloom on old and new wood.

When I don't know the species or variety, I heed Marbie's advice. It's always safe to clip off dead flowers above the first plump bud or leaf node and prune off dead branches. No potential flowers lost, no matter the hydrangea variety.

Hydrangeas that bloom on old wood -- wood that's grown since last summer -- should only be pruned soon after the flowers die. Removing branches later in the season or in spring removes flower buds.

Hydrangeas that bloom on new wood can be pruned in the fall, winter, and early spring. Flowers form on branches new in spring and summer.

I conservatively prune hydrangeas that bloom on old and new wood. I remove dead flowers, dead branches and sometimes a few branches for shape.

Back in Sea Girt, Janis is so proud! Finally, beautiful purple lollipops!!! Admiring her garden, she mentions that all the hydrangeas had pink flowers when she first planted them. Humm. Must be something in the soil that changes their color, she wonders. Yes, that's another story.


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