Episode 58 – The Mistakes Show – sharing our garden mistakes and what we learned

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

A listener wrote to ask us to talk about our gardening mistakes - "If we made any," in her words. Well, have we ever! The good news about gardening mistakes is that those hard-learned lessons tend to be the ones that stick with us the most. Whether it was Rick storing canna rhizomes too early and ending up with a smelly, soupy mess, or Stacey overenthusiastically cutting back lavender in spring in her first garden (which, it turns out, there are few better ways to kill it!), we haven't just made mistakes, we're proud of them. Listen along on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above to hear our stories of woe and redemption.

Why? There are few other shrubs that people have made more mistakes trying to grow than big leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla. I could fill the rest of this episode with the reasons why, but I’ll try to summarize: first, they bloom on old wood, which means they have flower buds on them, either for the current season or the following, almost all year-round. This means that the plant cannot be cut back, or damaged by winter cold, spring frosts, or animals, or there go the flower buds. Second, these plants in winter look like they should be cut back. I’d go so far as to say they dare you to cut them back: the branches are so light and dead-looking that it’s very easy to cut them back when you do your clean up in fall or spring, which would remove all the flowers. But we do have a Proven Winners ColorChoice hydrangea that aims to change all of this, and that’s Let’s Dance Can Do hydrangea.

It has two unique characteristics that make it different, and those directly address the two reasons above why so many people have had a bad experience with hydrangeas. First, it has better flower bud hardiness. This means that the flower buds on the stems are better able to withstand winter cold and spring frosts – they can take more of that than conventional varieties, and it won’t harm the flower bud tissue. Second, it sets flower buds down the entire length of its stems. This may not seem like a big deal, but it truly is. Conventional big leaf hydrangeas set flower buds primarily at the tips of the stems, which means that if they are cut back by a well-intentioned but misinformed gardener, or eaten by deer, or nipped by severe cold, there are still buds lower down on the stems to come out and flower.

I could sit here and tell you all this how and why all day when it comes to Let’s Dance Can Do hydrangea, but the bottom line is that seeing is believing, and that’s exactly how I have come to see that Let’s Dance Can Do hydrangea really is the variety that makes up for all the mistakes people can make when it comes to hydrangeas. I’ve been observing a planting of them just outside my office window for about five years now and they have never once ceased to bloom. I have seen them cut back in March and still bloom beautifully in late June (not that I recommend that!). And I have seen an abundant rebloom on them time and again.

Ideally, when you make a gardening mistake, you learn from it and do better in the future. But when it comes to big leaf hydrangeas, some of those “mistakes” are out of your control. So if you’ve struggled with big leaf hydrangeas, if you just don’t feel like figuring out what’s been going wrong, try Let’s Dance Can Do hydrangea and see the difference.

If you’d like to add Let’s Dance Can Do hydrangea – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

This sounds like a classic case of the bathtub effect. The bathtub effect occurs when you dig a hole for a plant and fill in with a loose, fresh amendment like potting mix, topsoil, or compost. That new stuff you added has very large spaces between its particles so is capable of holding a lot of water. Your natural soil has much smaller spaces between its particles, especially if it’s a clay soil (and, unfortunately, it’s those with clay soil who are most likely to do this and suffer the worst effects). So, when you water, or it rains, a lot of water infiltrates into that fluffy amendment. However, as gravity takes its toll and it starts to drain out and down, it hits your natural soil and comes to a screeching halt. You can think of it like a huge crowd trying to fit through a very small door – eventually, everyone will get through, but it’s going to take a long time. So while the water is waiting its turn to drain through, it sits around the roots where it creates a poor drainage situation that reduces the oxygen available to the roots and can lead to root rot. While Lemony Lace elderberry can take some wet soil, very wet conditions can be especially difficult when it is young and hasn’t yet developed a good root system to help it withstand the stress of wet conditions, and I think that’s what happened here. Many plants wilt in response to overwatering as much as they do to underwatering, which makes things difficult because of course the natural impulse is to think it needs more water, which only worsens the problem. 

The best thing to do is to dig up your plants, thoroughly incorporate the amendment with your native soil until they are essentially indistinguishable from one another and then replant in the mixed soil. This breaks the “bathtub,” so to speak, avoiding those drainage issues.

You have a bad case of snow scale – although we’re not sure there’s any good cases of snowy scale, as University of Florida describes them as “…some of the most damaging and unmanageable pests of perennial crops and ornamentals.” Yikes! Scale are actually pretty fascinating insects (at least in my opinion!): the females hunker down on a branch and lay eggs. When they hatch, the young – known as “crawlers” – scurry out from under her protection and find a new spot to hunker down themselves, repeating the cycle. That’s how you end up with such a thick infestation like this. All scales can be difficult to treat due to their intensity, but snowy scale is especially tricky as it is an armored scale. That means the adult scale insects develop a thick, hard coating that makes controlling them even more challenging. As such, we recommend that unless your plant has special sentimental value to you, that you discard it. You could also look at pruning off the worst portions, but you would still need to treat the remaining portions regularly with a horticultural oil or soap to prevent the issue from worsening. Be aware, too, that bringing such a plant indoors will stress it further. A branch of a tropical hibiscus covered thickly in a white substance, which is snowy scale.

The best plant ID app might already be on your phone! If you have an Android, the Google Lens app may be already part of your camera/photo roll, and it will take your image and compare it to the millions of images Google has access to for an ID. If you don’t already have Google Lens on your phone, you can download it as an app. If you have an iPhone, go to a photo of your plant on your camera roll and look for a lower case letter i in a circle with two little stars to its left. Tap that, and then tap at the top of the window that comes up that says “Look up – Plant.” It will return results right there in your camera roll. 

Another option to consider is Right Plants – this app was made for gardeners and will include care instructions with your image search. A few additional recommendations from our team include PlantNet, Picture This, and iNaturalist. Though all plant ID apps have improved substantially from their early days thanks to AI technology, bear in mind that they are not foolproof and often return bad results. For example, I tested a couple of these on a photo of a Japanese anemone plant and all the results said it was a rockrose (Cistus sp.) which actually doesn’t even grow around here. So once you get your result, you might want to do a little more research to confirm it.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick