Early Summer: Hydrangea, drought
tolerant ground cover, pinching pointers, thumbs up-
and down to butterfly weed and stump dissolvers
Help for a
hydrangea that's fallen and can't get up!
The pride of my garden is Hydrangea 'Annabelle'
It's 5' wide and 5' tall, with blooms bigger than a dinner plate. I
cut it back hard every year. I love it - until it
The flower heads get so heavy with rain they flop to the
ground and don't bring themselves up again. Worse, when I try to
stake around them, they flop over the stakes and the stems break. I
even tried propping umbrellas overhead when we're expecting hard
rain, but that's not very pretty and more work than I want. I'm out
of ideas. Anyone have a solution? - F.K.
Thanks for a new idea -- one that with bright golf umbrellas
could create a very pretty scene!
Try this: Thin it in the spring after you cut it back -- nip off
2/3 of the canes that sprout. Scratch in bone meal this fall. The
stems should thicken after thinning, when each one has more light,
less competition for nutrients, plus phosphorus from bone meal.
Bone meal or "one cup of super phosphate (0-0-20) per
wheelbarrow load of soil," as contributor Hunter Sr. was taught
many years ago. He still follows that practice and feels it gives
his tomatoes denser, sturdier stems, keeps their height down, and
makes all the difference with new roses, too.
To hedge your bets, right after you cut back the hydrangea, lop
some three- or four foot long sturdy branches from a yew, burning
bush or other shrub you usually shear. Pick limbs with forked outer
tips but straight, strong wood below. (Photos and more how-to in Stakes from
Don't worry, those other shrubs can spare the wood. Cut them by
April 1 and you won't notice by June. The bushes will fill in that
fast from side shoots off nearby limbs formerly too dark and
crowded to grow.
Push those branches securely into the ground all around the
hydrangea, making a circle just an inch wider than the hydrangea
itself. Put them in so the forked ends are up and 30 or 40 inches
If this looks a little silly when you first do it, stand back a
pace and you'll see it's as if there's a shrub there not yet leafed
out. The hydrangea will come up right through the props so you
won't notice them in just a few weeks. Yet the hydrangea will take
note! As it blooms it will lean into and over those
In search of
ground cover for a dry area
I have a very large area that needs a drought tolerant
ground cover. The area goes up and down my driveway on both sides.
That's full sun, and must be able to handle being walked on. I'd
like to have something lemon/lime color, chartreuse I believe is
the right name for it, so it will be lighter than the grass. -F
The key words in your question are 'must be able to handle being
walked on.' There are groundcovers that fit all the other
requirements but only one, grass, can handle constant footwear.
How about making a wide-spaced stepping stone path in that area,
then plant ground covers such as stonecrop (Sedum
kamschaticum or S. acre), golden thyme (a
Thymus variety) or yellow lamium (L. maculatum 'Aureum', a plant we
usually place in shade, but take a look at our notes about it
in our notes about it in Choosing
shady plants for why we're changing our minds).
Right: Two sedums (blue arrows) and a thyme (orange arrow)
mix it up in a rock garden. We do walk in this bed to reach the
yews and perennials beyond. That can squash some plants' stems but
their roots are safe between and under the rocks, so they
regenerate, just as lawn grass does after a good stomping.
Those plants will eventually grow right over the stones yet they
will still be there to take the impact when anyone walks in the
bed. You should consider "quilting" different groundcovers so you
won't have a monoculture that a disease, bad year or insect can
wipe out all at once.
You should look into permeable paving, too,
using a product such as Grasspave2. Permeable paving products were
developed for areas that must be planted yet carry some traffic,
such as in botanical gardens where many people walk or emergency
vehicles need access.
Imagine plastic netting into which are bonded slices of PVC
pipe, like two-inch deep, open-bottom cups. You cut the sections of
fabric to the size and shape you need and lay them on the area,
which you've excavated and lined with coarse sand. Dig that area
deep enough that the top of the PVC cups sits at ground level, then
fill over the whole thing with soil and plant it. The plastic takes
the weight, the plants provide the cover.
Ask at local landscape supply companies for this product. We've
found such firms more than willing to order it in -- even before
they learned we were going to write about it here.
Predecessors left us
with pinching pointers
My aunt used to say "On midsummer's day, pinch your flowers
away." Maybe because it was a rhyme and I heard it often as a
child, it's stuck with me, but I've never figured what all she
meant by it. Do you know? - P.A. -
Midsummer -- summer solstice -- may not top your list of
holidays but its influence on your garden should make it a red
June 21 is the longest day of the year. More important, from
many a plant's perspective, it's when nights begin to lengthen.
Ancient, calendar-less people who watched the skies closely to
decide when to plant, fertilize and harvest noticed an end to the
gradual increase in day length and subtle northward shift of the
rising sun. Since the sun seemed to stand still in the sky that
day, the solstice was named from the Latin for "sun" and
The ancients celebrated the day as a beginning and an end.
Plants mark the day, too. Mums, asters, and some other late blooming
plants will react soon after the solstice to lengthening nights by
changing their internal chemistry. Altered hormone levels at the
tip of each branch will cause flower buds to form.
Your aunt knew that if she wanted to lengthen the season by
delaying flower formation on these plants, there was work to do --
solstice couldn't be a stand still day for that gardener!
Rather than dancing and celebrating with other sun-watchers, she
probably went out and made that last pinch on the late bloomers
while the plants were still "in the mood" to make new branches.
It doesn't matter whether you use scissors, hedge shears, or a
weed whip, just clip stems back at the end of June or very early in
July to reduce each plant's height by 1/3. Two or more new branches
will form at each cut end, making the whole plant bushier and
multiplying the number of tips that will flower.
Removing existing branch tips also delays the onset of bud
formation. It resets the already-ticking hormone-driven meter in
each branch end, shifting the plant's peak bloom to a later
For certain species, long nights may be the most
significant factor in flower bud formation. These short day
plants -- more accurately called long night plants -- need
uninterrupted darkness for a set number of hours during each 24
hour period. Without this, flower-production hormones don't reach
the required levels. Bathe such plants for even fifteen minutes in
the glow of anything brighter than the moon and the hormone
production cycle may be broken. That year's flower production may
suffer or fail.
Mums that sit quietly in fall while other mums shout with color
and asters that are disasters on the floral scene may be suffering
from the horticultural equivalent of sleep deprivation. So for the
best fall show, pinch and then move those fall blooming plants away
from your porch lights or street lighting.
What happened to these mums, that bloomed only in
patches two months later than others elsewhere in the
garden? Check Long nights for the
to the brilliant orange and red-orange of butterfly weed
(Asclepias tuberosa) in its isolated-clump splendor in the
fields. (Please don't dig or pick - you can buy one!)
Green thumbs down
to products that promise to "dissolve stumps." Nothing but time
and moisture dissolves a stump. Spend your money on an ax.
Originally published 7/17/04