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.
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.
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.
Today, we welcome the one and only Birdman Bill Stovall to the studio! It was wonderful to have him in person for this extended interview about fall birding, bird houses, and winter feeding – plus, he brought some great stuff to share that you can see in the YouTube version of the show above. We only had time for a short bit of our conversation in the radio show, but you can catch it all on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform.
If you are looking for a birdfeeder, birdhouse, bat house, or any of the products that Bill’s company makes, just look for “Stovall Products” online or at your favorite birding store. Here’s a sampling of what he has designed. From listening to Bill, you already can tell that he really knows his stuff, you can trust his designs to be designed with birds in mind, not merely decorative items.