Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Of Hair and Hydrangeas

We women spend a lot of time fretting about our hair. Is it too gray, too short, too long, too thin, too straight, or, in my case too curly? Not curly really, just wavy. I would have made a good flapper, I think. I became a teenager in the 1960’s and pined for long, straight, silky hair like my best friend Sharon. Nowadays, I would be thrilled with course gray hair that didn’t need constant tending like some of my now best friends have. Sad to say, finger waves have not been around since I was a toddler, and my hair has gotten thinner, grayer, of course, but no less unruly. And so my battle against the forces of nature continues.

What the heck, you say, does this have to do with gardening? What it has to do with gardening is this: you always want what you don't have. People in Charleston want to grow delphiniums and peonies that last for more than a week, and people in Alaska want to grow dogwood trees taller than three feet. And what do people with blue hydrangeas want? Pink hydrangeas, of course, and, presumably, the opposite is also true.

I have to say I am less dissatisfied with the color of my hydrangeas than I am with the color of my hair. The good news is that changing either of them is pretty simple. All it takes is a little patience, a bag of lime or a bottle of Clairol. I don’t know what would happen if you put the Clairol on your hydrangeas, but DO NOT put the lime on your hair.

Hydrangeas left alone in our slightly acidic Aiken soil, tend to be blue, but if you are bored with blue, you can pretty easily make them pink.

If you kept going past my house, my street would make a turn and change names, and if you keep on going on that street, it would change names two more times until you come to the garden of Ann and Don Robinson.

The Robinsons have lived in their house for about forty-five years. It’s a ranch style house with almost an acre around it that they’ve filled with beautiful and interesting shrubbery, some of which came from the garden of Ann’s mother.

In front, in a bed that has grown considerably over the years, are hydrangea bushes. Each spring, over about three years, more out of curiosity than dissatisfaction, Don Robinson threw several handsful of lime, the same lime with which we dress our soils in late winter, around the bases of these blue hydrangeas, just to see what would happen, and, over the years the plants have grown pinker and pinker.

According to Michael Dirr’s book, “Hydrangeas for American Gardens,” hydrangea color is determined by the amount of aluminum in the soil solution which can be absorbed by the roots of the plant. The pH of the soil affects that process in a way that is more involved than most people care about knowing, but the bottom line is, if we want to make the hydrangeas deeper blue, we should drench the soil with an aluminum sulfate solution.
Dirr goes on to say that “excess phosphorous in the soil will also tie up the aluminum in insuluable precipitates, even in acid soils. Hydrangea macrophilla grown in pine bark medium, pH 5 to 6, are typically pink because, even though the acidity if high, but there is almost no aluminum present in the bark. To make them blue, aluminum sulfate is added to the surface of the container at a prescribed rate, usually 0.75 to 1.5 ounces evenly distributed on the surface of the 3 gallon container medium. Greenhouse growers also apply it as a drench at the rate of 2.4 ounces per gallon solution with 8 ounces applied as a drench per 6-inch container. Greenhouse treatments start at budbreak and continue every 2 weeks for three additional applications.”

There are other formulas, but whatever you use, you should be sure to water thoroughly after each application and too much is worse than too little, Dirr says. He also suggests that pink hydrangeas are beautiful and if the soil pH is too high, we might just want to enjoy them, but, if we really, really can’t live without pink hydrangeas, we can put lime on the soil, as Don Robinson did. Both lime and aluminum sulfate are available at garden centers.

I heard a lecturer say once that in our hot climate we could never expect to see the deep red hydrangeas that grow in cooler places.

The Robinsons have many other beautiful hydrangeas besides the pink and blue ones, including some huge oakleaf hydrangeas that have so far escaped my capabilities as a gardener.

There are healthy, red and yellow climbing Gloriosa Lilies. The Gloriosa has flowers with yellow petals flamed with red on the upper two thirds and turned up like a turban or an umbrella blown inside out. The stamen and pistil splay out from the center of the bloom.

Gloriosas are planted from tubers in the spring and will survive the winter if they are kept from freezing. Mulch them well in the fall and have them planted where they are protected. They appear to reproduce tubers easily and may be dug and divided in the fall after the plants have completely ripened their foliage, then kept indoors. Make sure that each severed piece has an eye, or growing point. You may also divide the tubers in the spring if you’ve left them in the ground. Be sure they have a tall trellis to climb. Gloriosas, like most lilies, make beautiful cut flowers.

The Robinsons also have a Smoke tree and, Don says, a “smoked tree.” It seems his Texas Star hibiscus leaves looked so much like marijuana leaves that once some marauding youngsters chopped off a branch and tried to smoke them. Wonder what that was like.

It was one of the hottest days of the year when I visited the Robinsons’ garden. Still it was as cool and peaceful as could be. You can see why they’ve stayed there for so long, and I’m guessing they’re not about to make any changes, except maybe to the color of their hydrangeas.