Last summer, we had nary a bloom on the hydrangea in our backyard. Apparently, I had pruned them too late in their cycle and so, in a fit of pique, they decided to take the summer off. The wee wife was verklempt. She loves their colors, shapes, and size, and they always look perfect when arranged on the table by our front door. They greeted our guests like those nice old folks who smile and say hello when you enter the local Walmart. We don’t have a Walmart in our little town, but that’s another story for another time.
Anyway, I vowed never to make my pruning mistake again. In my desire to tame the beast, I had literally nipped them in the bud. So I did what I always do when I need to expand my horizons: I googled “hydrangea” and went to school. I got about as far as second grade. By then I had learned that hydrangea are not plants; they’re shrubs. They’re originally Asian, there are several varieties, and they can grow to a height of fifteen feet. All good information, but what about pruning them?
The Google gurus had this to say: “Trimming should be done immediately after flowering stops in summer, but no later than August 1. Do not prune in fall, winter, or spring or you could be cutting off new buds.” (Note the words in bold; googles typeface, not mine.) I had not thought to trim my plants—sorry, my shrubs— after they had flowered the previous year, and I had pruned them in late fall or early winter. I was twice chastised. No wonder they had taken the year off!
So, at the end of the summer—last summer—I did absolutely nothing to our hydrangea. I let them be. All fall and into the winter and spring, I watched and worried. Buds appeared on the old wood, but how would they survive the cold, dark days still to come? Nevertheless, I staid my hand and held my breath.
As winter turned into spring and spring to summer, a wondrous awakening began to unfold. There was new growth on old wood, leaves began to unfold, and then, one morning in early June, I saw the first blossom. That first globe was followed by dozens more and suddenly, the deep end of the backyard was in full bloom again. I was giddy; the wee wife was delighted. We were back in the hydrangea business!
But there was just one little problem: the blooms were very pale, not the cornflower or cerulean blue we longed for. So, I dug just a little bit deeper (so to speak) and learned that hydrangea crave acidic soil. Now I knew just enough to be dangerous: the soil in our yard is very base so I went to the local nursery, explained the problem, and was handed a plastic jug filled with crystals. “Shake a little of this around the base of the bushes…”
“Shrubs,” I corrected.
He looked at me. “Whatever. Shake some of this under your shrubs out to the drip line and give them a good soaking.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
I was dubious but did as I was told. Within a week, the flowers were getting bluer by the hour and new blossoms were exploding on every stalk. My self-esteem returned; I was master of my domain; most importantly, the wee wife had her welcome flowers back on the hall table.
The moral of this story is whatever you want it to be. But this I’ve learned: sometimes less is more. Trim and prune at the right time. Feed when necessary. And never, ever take those friendly Walmart greeters for granted.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.