The Gardener's Apprentice

Hydrangea Hope

Last year we had no blue hydrangea flowers.  A late spring frost decimated the buds of all old-fashioned Hydrangea macrophylla bushes and for most hydrangea lovers in my corner of the northeast, the blooms never came.  Eventually the shrubs bore fresh green leaves in abundance, but hydrangea aficionados were forced to say “next year” in wistful tones.

Two of my three mammoth ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangeas sat idly by last June, while the third produced exactly one flower cluster.  Since my husband, David, loved the blue hydrangeas best, I took it as a tribute to him, much like the blue plumbago houseplant that flowered unexpectedly on our first Christmas Day without him.

Nature often compensates for years like the last one by overproducing in the following year.  I was ready for that and thought that by early summer my ‘Nikko Blues’ would be well rested and ready to produce masses of flowers.

Then we had a savage, late spring frost.  I did not have time to swath my hydrangeas in old blankets or burlap or any of the other insulating materials that gardeners use to cocoon prize specimens.  I resigned myself to another fallow hydrangea year, though I clung to the hope that a single bush might push out at least one memorial flowerhead.  When spring finally set in, I had a hard time doing the necessary task of pruning out the dead hydrangea branches, because I didn’t really want to face the reality of a second flower-free season.

Last week I decided it was finally time to get real and face the truth, so I set about cleaning the beds around the hydrangeas.  The number of dead branches was disheartening, but I squared my shoulders and took up my clippers, intent on rectifying to the situation.  I was about six feet from the hydrangeas when I noticed that the bushes—all three of them—bore nascent green flowerheads that were just beginning to show a blue tinge.  They have continued to develop and the attempt is robust, not feeble.  The bushes are producing flowers as if the spring freeze never happened at all.  Though the blooms are coming on a bit slowly, in a couple of weeks I will have blue billows on all three.  The languishing dark blue-purple hydrangea in the front garden even appears prepared to do its duty and flower.

Why has this happened?  It’s possible that the savage frost was simply not as bad as I thought, though every gardener I know agreed with me about the likelihood of hydrangea damage.  It’s also possible that my little microclimate was just warm enough to keep the shrubs from the worst of the cold.  If that is the case, the microclimate has changed over the last eighteen months.  It is also remotely possible that I was running the clothes dryer on the night of the frost.  The vent is reasonably close to the hydrangeas and maybe the warm air provided just enough protection.  There is, of course, the even more far-fetched possibility that my own capacity for magical thinking, in regular use since Dave’s death, created a spontaneous response from his much-loved hydrangeas.

The latter is highly unlikely, but who knows?  Maybe magical thinking is actually a form of climate control.  If so, a lot of us should work on our magical thinking capacities.

All theories should be tested, so in the next few weeks, I’ll spend lots of time inspecting the neighborhood hydrangeas to see if they are also in flower.  If they are, I will know that the spring frost was only mildly savage.  If they are not, I will default to the microclimate/dryer vent/magical thinking hypotheses.  In any case, I will provide my hydrangeas with some encouragement in the form of good helpings of fish emulsion fertilizer.

If your hydrangea fails to bloom, it is most likely due to late spring frost.  If it has been a warm spring and the branches still won’t produce, or produce only a few flowerheads, it probably needs more light.  Hydrangeas are often sold as shade-tolerant plants and they do like shade or filtered sunlight and consistent moisture.  They will languish in Stygian darkness.

If Stygian darkness is the problem, either limb up neighboring trees so that the plant gets more light, or transplant it.  This is best done in the very early fall, after the worst of the summer heat is over.  Trim the hydrangea back to about eighteen inches, dig carefully around the shrub to accommodate its root ball and lift it gently out of the ground.  Place in its new location in a hole deep enough so that the top of the root ball is flush with the ground.  Fill in around the hydrangea with the soil from the planting hole mixed with an equal amount of compost or composted manure.  Water thoroughly and continue to water every day that it does not rain.  If all goes well, it should sprout new growth in the spring.  It may not flower the first year, but as long as growth appears, have patience.

You can also try a little magical thinking on your hydrangea.  Some plants seem to respond very well to that treatment.