Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holidays Without Decorating Disasters

Holidays are supposed to be enjoyable. But everyone, every family, has their personal tale of decorating gone terribly wrong. These (mis)adventures often make for side-splitting merriment when retold years later around the holiday table, disaster participants excluded. Haha. Perhaps a holiday catastrophe can be averted by considering some of these tips during advance prep.

  • Every live tree type has its own distinct advantages and occasionally a downside. For example, if you're the  family that puts the tree up Thanksgiving weekend and keeps it up 'til New Year's Day, a balsam shouldn't even be a consideration. Instead, choose a Concolor, Fraser, Noble or Nordmann fir. They'll perform for the long Christmas stay.
  • Apply an antidessicant spray, such as Wilt-Pruf, to the undersides of the branches of wreaths, roping, fresh greens and trees to reduce dehydration. If indoors, try to keep fresh greens in arrangements in water.
  • Divorce is expensive and seldom amicable. Your tree is the center of the festivities so buy the correctly sized stand for your cut tree and be done with it. Don't try to whittle a 6" trunk into a pencil point for a stand with a 4" diameter opening. If you spend the hour(s) and somehow succeed in this engineering miracle be prepared for the fallout, or more accurately "fall over". Stability in all aspects of the holidays shouldn't be underestimated. The aesthetics of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree are somewhat lessened when guy-wired to the walls to stay upright. Trust me, this happens regularly.
  • Sorry, but tree stand again. Example, 6" trunk in 6" stand. Even without high school physics this scenario means there is no room left for water. Can you say dangerous?
  • NEVER let your fresh tree run out of water. A dry tree is a hazard. Make a fresh cut just before placing the tree in the stand indoors. Fill immediately with warm (not cold) water. Check the water reservoir at least twice daily the first few days when the tree is hydrating. Once uptake slows a daily inspection of the stand should be sufficient. You know the only fire you want for the holidays is in the fireplace!
  • Follow light manufacturers' recommendations for the limit on how many light strands can be put together for one continuous sequence. Failing to do so may result in all manner of electrical hijinks.
  • Test your lights before stringing the tree. Holiday cheer fades quickly after weaving them artfully in and out of the branches and the plug-in ceremony reveals they're not live. Use cardboard tubes to store individual light sets after the holidays. Only cats enjoy playing with tangled light sets.
  • Ask if the artificial berries or greens you're purchasing for outdoors are suitable for that purpose. Don't assume. Usually the water-resistant ones will be labeled as such. If they aren't, dyes may bleed and stain surfaces. Colored berries or podded stems may crack and expose their white interior. I'm pretty sure that's not the look you're trying to achieve.
  • Be mindful of leaving ceramic, terracotta or ceramic containers full of soil outdoors for the winter. Alternate freezing and thawing of wet soil may cause cracking, deterioration and the premature demise of these porous pots. Instead consider using the plastic or composite containers with the faux finishes. No one will ever know what they're not.     
Hope this saves even one family from a holiday disaster, large or small!            

Friday, November 4, 2016

"Winter Wear" for Your Mophead Hydrangea

I just hosted my annual "Getting the Garden Ready for Winter" class at Chalet. While the range of questions is always diverse the lack of success in getting the new Hydrangea macrophylla varieties to bloom seems universal. It's a valid frustration given the assurance from growers that Hydrangea 'Blahblahblah' is the second horticultural coming, and will bloom reliably on both year-old (the previous season's) and current season's growth.

First, some Hydrangea basics. What is a Hydrangea macrophylla anyway? The common name is "mophead" Hydrangea because of its big, domed baseball-sized blooms in pink or blue, depending upon soil pH. When soil pH is alkaline, flowers will be pink. When the soil is acidic and more aluminum is available, flowers will be some variation of blue.

But color is a moot point if you can't get a flower bud on the darned plant, wouldn't you agree? Until recently we had only mophead varieties that bloomed on year-old growth. That meant that in bitterly cold winters if the plant's stems died to the ground you were out of luck for flowers that summer. The root system could still be alive so you'd have a lush plant rising like a Phoenix from the ground in spring. But the plant wouldn't produce a single bloom.

Recently, varieties have been introduced that have the potential to flower on both current season's growth and previous year's stems. Hallelujah, cue the celestial choir. In theory this means twice as much bloom potential...if this year's stems survive the harsh winters of the upper Midwest. With so many disappointed Hydrangea lovers the logical question is: Can I increase my chances for bloom if I winter protect this year's stems?   

The correct answer may be "yes". The previous year's stems of these new, theoretically superior varieties have dormant flower buds from stem base to tip. So, if there's a way to protect those stems from dying to the ground you have just doubled your flowering chances. While I'm not a LasVegas-kind-of-guy those odds are definitely worth exploring!


I'm embarrassed that I haven't experimented with Hydrangea winter protection before this. I need to see if it makes a difference in flowering. I acquired a friend's H. macrophylla, 'Twist-n-Shout', two years ago. I wanted to test the plant's potential and therefore haven't given it any winter protection ... yet. Up to this point the plant has died back to the ground each winter, but still produces an average of three flowers annually on brand new shoots. Admittedly not show-stopping, but better than a sharp stick in the eye.

BloomStruck -  the latest, and greatest?

I just bought the latest guaranteed-to-do-what-the-nursery-people-promise-it-will-do variety. A gorgeous plant of 'BloomStruck' went into my garden just last week. After it goes dormant (leaves discolored and hanging limp, frost in the ground) I'm going to build hardware cloth cylinder to place over it. While everything I read suggests filling 15-18" deep with shredded leaves, that just doesn't feel right with whatever plant intuition I've acquired in 57 years of gardening.

Mound 'em with a cage full

Instead, I'm personally sticking with a long ago recommendation from a veteran Ohio nurseryman who said, "If  I was going to protect those tender Hydrangeas I'd mound 'em with a cage full of chunk bark." That makes sense to me. Medium chunk will be my weapon of choice. That size should be dense enough to pack a bit, insulate, yet have enough air space not to turn stems to mush over the winter like leaves or straw might. Coarse pine needles or stacked evergreen boughs also seem like logical choices, although the latter shouldn't need an engineered cage. In any case, 15" of depth should be enough if it's going to work at all!

So, that's what I'm going to do with my scientifically inconsequential test of one plant. I'll follow this up with periodic Hortiholic mophead updates starting next spring. Good luck with whatever course of winter action you take with your mopheads.