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In the Garden

Those shaggy hydrangeas


[Blue hydrangea bush]A reader wrote to me and asked what to do about hydrangeas this time of year. Clearly something must be done about them, because this time of year hydrangeas may be the shaggiest plants in your garden.

The first thing to know about hydrangeas is that some of them bloom on new growth and others bloom on old growth. A shrub that blooms on new growth will need a good pruning late in the dormant season so that it has plenty of time to put out new shoots and bloom, while a plant that blooms on old growth would not bloom at all if most of the previous year's growth was cut off.

Most Humboldt County gardeners grow bigleaf hydrangeas, also called garden hydrangeas, or H. macrophylla. These plants don't take frost well; to get them through a cold night this time of year, pile plenty of mulch around the base of the plant. Cut them back right after they bloom, because they bloom on old wood. If you have a bigleaf hydrangea and you didn't cut it back after it finished blooming, just remove the spent flower heads now and prune it for shape next year after it blooms.

Among the garden hydrangeas, there is one exception to this rule: `All Summer Beauty,' available through White Flower Farm, blooms on new wood and needs to be pruned back in winter. Other hydrangeas that follow this rule include `Peegee' hydrangeas (H. paniculata `Grandiflora'), which form large shrubs with white flowers and bronzy foliage. Climbing hydrangeas usually only need to be cut back enough to keep them in the space they've been given, but they do bloom on new wood and will usually respond well to a good hard pruning once they are well established. You can do this now or, if you live in an area that is subject to frost, wait until early spring.

The most important thing to remember about pruning hydrangeas is to use a light touch. A hydrangea won't suffer much from lack of pruning, but get carried away with the pruning shears and you may regret it. Remember that if you want bigger blossoms but fewer of them, reduce the number of branches. And give hydrangeas plenty of mulch and a dose of organic acid-loving fertilizer in the spring.

Once the hydrangeas are under control, you might head over to the nursery and check out the selection of bareroot plants. I picked up a dozen asparagus crowns and an assortment of bareroot berries at Pierson's over the weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to find tayberry, a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry, and the even harder-to-find nectarberry, which is similar to a boysenberry and produces the largest, sweetest berry you've ever eaten. This is also the time of year to plant blueberries, artichokes, fruit trees, rhubarb and bareroot roses.

A few reminders about getting bareroots in the ground: Be sure to amend the soil before you plant bareroots and use the right organic fertilizer for the job. Pay particular attention to the soil when you plant asparagus crowns, which will stay put and produce for up to 20 years. Work as much aged compost and manure into the ground as possible before you plant, and plan on adding a top-dressing of compost twice a year. Also, be aware that fruit trees and berries have special nutritional needs -- low nitrogen to encourage fruiting over foliage, sulfur and copper to produce sweet-tasting fruit, and boron to help resist diseases. I like Gardens Alive's product, Fruit Trees Alive, because it meets all those requirements. Visit or call 513-354-1482 to request a catalog.

With temperatures in the 30s and wind howling through the garden every night, summer seems a long way off, but that's what I love about putting bareroots in the ground in January. It's an opportunity to plan for, and dream of, the summer harvest. And with another row of berries in the ground, I'm dreaming of pies and tarts and jam and fresh berries for breakfast. In fact, I'm counting the days.


garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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