, Salem, MA

November 23, 2012

North Shore Gardener: Climbing hydrangea was damaged

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I have a climbing hydrangea that was on our chimney and almost two stories tall. It was blown off the chimney during the storm but did not snap the trunk, which is about 3 to 4 inches in diameter at the base. If I could get it lifted back on, do you think I should reattach it to the chimney? If so, how? Otherwise, should I cut it back to a certain height?

A: If the main trunk hasn’t snapped you can certainly save this fine old hydrangea. This fall carefully protect the plant with a thick layer of straw. Additionally, a layer of landscaping burlap will help to allow moisture through and keep the straw and the plant immobile. Also, take the time this winter to construct a very sturdy trellis so it doesn’t happen again to this heirloom plant.

Next spring, as soon as the weather and temperatures are above freezing, carefully unpack the vine from the straw and secure it to the new trellis. Hopefully it will be fine for decades to come.

Q: I always buy many bags of composted soil to fill holes after planting bulbs in my garden in the fall, as well as to mound up around roses and other perennials for the winter. I also use some of the soil to start seeds in late winter and for geranium cuttings. But every brand seems to give me different results. How can I make the composted soil better?

A: Composted soil in bags is mass produced and the maker has a formula and sources for his brand. Try adding compost from your own compost pile of garden and grass clippings, particularly if it contains food items or special manures like from pigeons or poultry, or fish products or coffee grounds. Make your compost healthy with a variety of material — it’s healthier.

Q: I had two bushes that were not growing but had these bulbous growths on them. Someone told me that they were crown gall and to take the bushes out. I did that. But all of a sudden, the leaves have turned black on some black-eyed Susans growing right beside the bushes. Is this because of the bacteria from the crown gall? Can I save them?

A: Whoever told you to remove the infected plant and destroy it gave you the correct advice, but did they also tell you the crown gall disease — a bacterium — will live on in the soil for two to three years, maybe more? With this in mind, I wouldn’t plant anything of value in the same area for a couple of years. Just concentrate on some inexpensive annuals for a few years. Forget the black-eyed Susans — remove them, too. This gall is most often seen on fruit and nut trees, as well as on old favorite like forsythia. You can keep gall from spreading by avoiding damaging the bark or outer stems (such as damage with a weed whacker) and by cleaning tools and disinfecting them when doing pruning and cutting.

Q: I’ve brought all my plants inside now, but every single one of them, without exception, has a cute little green plant that looks like clover only it has a tiny yellow flower on it. Will this plant keep growing and blooming all winter?

A: I’m glad you like you cute tiny flowered plant that will soon take over every square inch of bare soil. It’s called oxalis and by the end of the winter you won’t think it’s so cute — I guarantee it!

Oxalis, or wood sorrel, is in the same family known as the shamrock, or what is generally sold as a shamrock each March. This weed, also called sourgrass, has tiny yellow flowers and is one of the most prolific weeds in our garden. In fact, over the summer, it will seed into the houseplants that you have so kindly put out into the sun and you’ll also have weeds in your flowerpots this winter. This prolific weed — it is a weed no matter how cute — propagates by means of a runner as well as by seed so start now removing it from your houseplants now. Why? Because it and any other weed growing in those pots is stealing nutrients from fertilizers and water from your more valuable/desirable houseplants.

Oxalis grows anywhere but it’s really at home in our acid New England soil. Don’t worry about keeping it alive and blooming all winter. The plant begins its life growing upright, then it bends over, touches the ground, and roots itself again — and again. Plus, all those cute flowers produce seed — lots of it.

You can’t win, but there is a chance that you can stay ahead of it. Try putting a layer of mulch over the bare soil and keep weeding, long winding root and all.

This week’s dirt

Many articles have mystified composting but basically the truth of the matter is compost just happens. Of course we can make it better or faster, but there’s no need for fancy containers or scientifically measured amounts of greens and brown. Any pile of vegetation will rot in time and become a valuable additive or mulch for the benefit of other growing things.

Make a plan for composting leaves — formal compost bin or heap — it all rots. Compost happens!

More dirt

And when you’re not out planting the last of the spring bulbs before the ground freezes, consider digging a hole for planting your live Christmas tree. Store excess dirt in a frost free garage later to use for fill. Protect the hole with a layer of straw and cover with a board. Mark the hole so you can find it under a foot or two of snow next January.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at