Garden Notes: Hydrangeas, Island dream flowers

And permission to leave your trashed veggie gardens alone.

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The famous Fair Oaks panicle hydrangea. —Susan Safford

The Columbus Day weekend nor’easter was a big, prolonged blow: two-plus inches of rain, masses of stranded seaweed for those energetic enough to collect it, and many plans for the long weekend’s festivities aborted. Trashed vegetable gardens may remain that way; it is close to season’s end.

Hah! The “unpaid landscapers” are aerating lawns: voles or moles, the result is spongy areas and tunneling that booby-traps mowers. Praying mantises are stealthily combing gardens; suddenly, as you work, there is one right next to your face at eye level. An uncanny experience.

Despite seasonal focus on garden cleanup, wildlife-aware clients ask us to be mindful of the needs of wildlife, which needs seed heads and plant debris for winter cover. Eco-advice urges lawn and walkway cleanup, while leaving beds untouched: bit.ly/FallGard.

Island love affair: Hydrangeas

Island gardens have come to be almost defined by hydrangeas. In their assortment of species and forms, they are an object of desire for many gardeners. Especially the blue ones! Not only for gardeners, but also florists, flower arrangers, brides, and visitors to Martha’s Vineyard, where there must be hydrangeas planted by the thousands. According to Wikipedia, Hydrangea is a genus of 70 to 75 species of flowering woodland plants native to Asia and the Americas. By far the greatest species diversity is in eastern Asia, notably Korea, China, and Japan.

Dirr’s “Hydrangeas for American Gardens” (Timber Press, 2004) is good reading research if you desire to learn anything relating to the garden plants involved in this love affair. The website of the American Hydrangea Society lists an additional eight works by other authors in its hydrangea bibliography, bit.ly/HydrangeaRefs. (It must seem that I spend my time extolling Dr. Dirr’s books, because Garden Notes frequently relies upon the information, facts, and data they contain. In fact, that might be a fair criticism, because if one desires to learn and know more about plants, including hydrangeas, one probably should be reading them. They are invaluable reference assets for both lay people and professionals in the plant world.)

Without getting too nerdy and boring about it, let us simplify the hydrangea clan by giving it 11 species, and by reserving its relative, the Cornidia of warmer climates, for specialists. Eleven species! Even that may be more than you, dear reader, want to know. Maybe for the man or woman on the street it is Hydrangea macrophylla that elicits the greatest fascination; these are the hortensia, or mophead, types, including lacecaps.

Hydrangeas thrive here, where the hardiness zone 7a and the maritime climate are generally kind. It was not always so; the more brutal, mid–20th century winters required the prized plants of those days to be swathed in wintertime burlap. When frost penetrated the ground more deeply and longer, the crowns of those hydrangeas could be completely killed.

In their native habitat, these plants thrive in moist, cool, temperate environments, as the name indicates (roughly translated, hydrangea means water vessel). I cringe to see a row of mophead hydrangeas planted on hot, south-facing sides of houses and businesses. Unless they are in very deep, rich soil, or connected to their very own dedicated 24-hour drip irrigation, hydrangeas in these sorts of locations are doomed to a stressful life.

My sister shared this link to an article about the amazing hydrangeas of the Azores, especially Fayal: http://bit.ly/AzoresHydrangeas. The Azores enjoy an evenly mild, moist, maritime climate. The article supposes that the reason we in this part of southeast New England are so attached to the plants is because the numerous forebears coming from those islands may have brought hydrangeas with them from home. My sister said it reminded her of the beautiful blooming plants we would see when we went down-Island into Vineyard Haven.

One of the great things about hydrangeas is the ease with which they root, so it is quite reasonable to suppose Azoreans might have brought hydrangea cuttings from home. As many gardeners know, a large mophead with canes weighed down by huge flowerheads will easily form roots where it is in contact with the soil.

And what of panicle hydrangeas?

Invoking almost as passionate feelings as blue mophead hydrangeas are the panicle hydrangeas, H. paniculata, to be seen enjoying full sun and, often, locations quite dry (by H. macrophylla standards), their papery flowerheads now turning pink in autumn gardens.

The best-known plants are called PeeGee hydrangeas, which stands for H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora.’ They too grow all over the Island. The plant pictured grows at the property on the North Road formerly known as Fair Oaks. In bloom, it drew visitors for many decades, when Island life was a little slower and less “exciting.” Easy to establish and grow, and (until recently) deer-resistant, these are plants that have begun to compete in popularity with the blue mopheads. The flowers of many panicle hydrangeas dry well. Cultivars such as ‘Limelight,’ ‘Little Lamb,’ and ‘Bobo’ are well marketed, and have increased in popularity. A new generation of panicle hydrangeas that color bright and early, and whose names reflect that, includes ‘Quickfire,’ ‘Vanilla Strawberry,’ ‘Fire Light,’ and ‘Pinky Winky.’

Hydrangeas gone wild!

People we garden for ask, “What have you done to our hydrangeas?” We have to deny having “done” anything, but alas, do not have an explanation of what is happening. Plants in numerous gardens have grown much taller than their norms, and in many, have one late bloom at the end of an overlong cane.

The row of ‘Endless Summer’ alongside my friend Mike’s house is gone. I asked what had happened to them. He texted me that he’d taken them out: “Too tall and did not bloom reliably.” It seems we can duplicate that complaint all over the Island. This is the current twist in the Vineyard love affair with hydrangeas.