, Salem, MA

September 13, 2013

North Shore Gardener: Hydrangea may have been pruned to death

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I have a lovely old climbing hydrangea that climbs up and over the porch, but this year the porch has to be painted. I knew this was coming, so last fall I gave the plant a severe haircut. After winter I was anxious to see if it would bloom — but besides not blooming, the rest of the plant looks dead. There are many buds on the branches, some of them green but many of them black or brown. Will my plant survive?

A: I am afraid I have bad news for you: there’s only one chance in a million for survival, and you’re to blame. Climbing hydrangeas should be carefully pruned in late fall after bloom. If ever a major pruning is necessary, do it in stages over a period of years to avoid killing the vine. If a vine is growing in a spot that will need occasional painting and the vine will need occasional pruning, it is quite possible to plant on a trellis that can be carefully pulled away from the structure, then easily reattached when painting is finished — and you’ll never even break a branch.

Q: Do you have any hints on getting my kalanchoe to bloom again? Also, is it lime you use to make your hydrangeas bluer? Would coffee grounds help?

A: Your kalanchoe is a succulent, and like poinsettias and Christmas cacti, it is light-sensitive. The blooming period is late fall to winter. As we all know, those are our low-light short days, but plants are often forced to bloom at other seasons. Try growing them in a totally dark closet or covering them with a large box — take them out every morning just as you would a poinsettia.

Now to the hydrangea: you need to add aluminum sulfate to the soil to turn a hydrangea blue. And they need an acid soil to allow better absorption of aluminum. You are too late for a color change this year, but do use the aluminum this fall and again in the spring. Color change does not happen overnight, but in a season. Use an acid fertilizer as a foliar feed to help keep the soil acid — coffee grounds are OK, but do not have enough acid to change the pH without the aluminum sulfate, too.

Q: I see a lot of stuff growing by the roadside; the plants are pretty enough to put in the garden. Then just what is a weed? Some smarty always tells me a weed is “just a plant that is out of place,” but I see beautiful bunches of roadside flowers for sale at farmers markets — even some with goldenrod. Can I grow any of these plants in my garden? Can I just dig them up or is there a place to buy them?

A: I love my weeds! Who’s to say what a weed is and what it is not? Weeds are plants that have, without any help, acclimated themselves perfectly to our climate, temperatures, moisture and soil conditions — that’s why they’re so hardy. They’ve adapted themselves and they’re happy here, so why fight them? Join them and you’ll enjoy your weeds. Before running out and adopting them, though, remember that they could easily take over the garden.

How did they get here in the first place? Some of them are Native American plants that have been here for centuries. Many escaped from Europe and were carried to the New World as valuable medicines and herbals. Seeds from these plants escaped into the fertile landscape of the Americas and grew, well, just like weeds! Weeds are found surviving in the most difficult growing conditions. When you adopt them and place them in your fertile garden with plenty of moisture and food and your tender care, they’ll take off and thrive.

Some weeds I won’t weed out of the garden:

Tansy: A stalk of button-shaped flowers top this old-time fumigant. Also called Stinking Willie, the very attractive, dark-green foliage has a spicy scent and is known to repel insects. Try rubbing it on the dog — it will smell good and repel flies and bugs. Tansy is a 3-foot tall plant and spreads easily. It can be root-divided every year or two, and it dries well for winter arrangements, where it retains a bit of the spicy scent through the winter.

Queen Anne’s lace: My favorite weed! The delicate, lacy, flat flower heads have become the darlings of florists everywhere. In the winter months, this weed is imported from Southern Europe for a dollar a head and more. All summer you find it growing wild in dry fields, along railroad tracks, and in piles of construction rubble. After this sort of Spartan treatment, Queen Anne’s lace will thrive in your pampered garden. They are great for cutting and adding to any summer bouquet. The flowers are sometimes dried for winter arrangements, although they will turn brown and curl as they dry, losing both shape and color. They are not bad dried as a pressed flower. Queen Anne’s lace is hard to transplant since it has a long, deep taproot — it isn’t called wild carrot for nothing! It reseeds with ease.

Milkweed: If you have a butterfly garden, you want and need milkweed. It is the primary food for the monarch butterfly. The pods are great for drying. Milkweed is easy from seed. Another large weed, milkweed clumps tower to 6 feet with ease.

Silver fleece vine: A flowering junk vine that provides cover in a single season, this weed can be bought from nurseries at about $10 a pot. It has become very popular in the past decade because it can grow as much as 20 to 30 feet in a season, and is covered with stems of tiny, foamy white flowers from mid- to late summer. Silver fleece vine will not become invasive because it dies back during the winter. Be careful where you put it — the bees love it!

Goldenrod: Mistakenly blamed for hay fever, its pollen is no worse than any other flower. (The real culprit for hay fever sufferers is ragweed, which blooms at the same time, beginning in mid-August.) Goldenrod, with yellow plumes of flowers on tall arching stems, is widely grown in European gardens.

Common orange day lilies: These are weeds — or are they? You will hardly notice that the flowers last only a day because of the profusion of buds that follow each day. Day lilies have literally no preference for growth. You will find them from the cold regions of Canada to the warm south of Florida, or in the high altitudes of the Pacific Northwest. Our acid soil accentuates the color, making the oranges particularly strong, while the alkaline soil of Texas causes the color to be slightly less intense — but they grow anywhere. The thick roots multiply with ease. After a year or two in the garden, large clumps of foliage become established, making them an ideal foundation planting as well as a regular in the perennial border.

This week’s dirt

A warning: Since so many “weeds” have been embraced by pharmaceutical companies, there is the temptation to try some of these old-time remedies. We never recommend that you grow these or any other medicinal plants or mushrooms for anything except garden appeal, unless you are sure of what you are doing.


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