Hydrangea Mysteries

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
My grandmother Lallie grew hydrangeas, pruned the shrubs in winter and rooted the cuttings in wax milk cartons full of dirt. Summer came and we schlepped the plants to family members’ homes on the cavernous back seat of the family Chevrolet. That back seat was big enough to comfortably accommodate me, my sister, our games for the road trip, 2 pillows and a blanket, a dozen plants and the ‘picnic’. There was food for a traveling army, fried chicken, sandwiches, cookies, carrot sticks, you name it, we had it and we ate it as we drove from Louisiana to the relatives in Mississippi. There are pictures of everyone in my family for generations standing in front of hydrangeas at one or another of the homes, and I’m happy to say I continued the tradition.
On more than one winter’s day I stood by my grandmother as she cut the leafless hydrangea canes down to near ground level. She cut off the top foot of cane and stuck it, sometimes in a jar of water, sometimes in the ground right next to its mother. I remember how surprised I was the first time she let me poke a piece into the dirt, how very soft and cold it felt to my little hand and how easily the cut stem slipped in. If I had thought about such things then, it would have seemed she was just amusing me. Soon the new growth began on the big hydrangeas, leafy and full like every year. Their name, Hydrangea macrophylla, literally means ‘big-leaf hydrangea’ and if yours are not bigger than a man’s hand at least, the flowers will be compromised. Soon my cutting was shaded almost totally by the fast-growing shrub, yet by the time the bushes bloomed in June, the babies were rooted, leafy and ready to plant in the long row or pot up for the relatives.  
Years later I began moving those same hydrangeas from place to place, but Lallie’s once-in-the-winter pruning doesn’t work well for me. The leaves never all fall off of the older kind, whether grown in the same climate or further south. The lack of dormancy seems to change how the shrubs grow, and if I prune severely in winter, they take until midsummer or later to bloom. One year they never got enough new growth to bloom at all. That’s when I decided to stop!
The next year, I didn’t prune at all. I fertilized and watered regularly, in case my routine failings were the problem. They bloomed in July but every cane was a different height. I couldn’t stand it, and returned the hydrangeas to their expected round form right after the flowers finished. Since then, I prune hydrangeas after the flowers bloom, and trim off any dead canes that remain once growth starts up in spring. That’s it. No more is needed. The newer remontant (reblooming) types bloom best if deadheaded after each flush of flowers, anyway, so I do the two more or less at the same time in early summer. The once-blooming mopheads grow on, adding leaves and wood to bring on the next year’s flowers. The rebloomers keep on setting buds and showing off with dozens of flowers for months. When fall finally arrives, I clip the fading flowerheads for decorating.
All honor to Lallie, but her ways don’t always work for me. Maybe it’s climate change, maybe all the mulch I heap around the hydrangeas keeps them from going dormant (but it also helps to keep my water bill affordable), maybe it’s not explainable. In much of gardening – and life – change is inevitable, so you may as well roll with it, Baby.
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