Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood.

PRUNING HYDRANGEAS THAT BLOOM ON OLD WOOD

Nikko Blue hydrangeas bloom on old wood

Old wood is quite simply, last year’s wood. Hydrangeas that bloom on old wood set their flower buds in late summer on stalks that have been on the plant since the previous year. 

Hydrangeas that bloom on old wood include the mophead, bigleaf (macrophylla), lacecap and oakleaf varieties.  

Oakleaf hydrangea is recognizable by its foliage that resembles oak leaves

In terms of pruning, these beautiful shrubs require very little. But if you must, knowing when and what to cut is key. That’s because the more old wood you take, the fewer flowers you’ll have next summer. 

Follow these three steps to maintain the health and vigor of your old wood hydrangeas:

  1. Immediately after flowering (and no later than July), prune flowering stems back to a pair of healthy buds.
  2. In late winter or early spring, prune out weak or damaged stems. Remove no more than 1/3 of the oldest stalks, taking them down to ground level.
  3. Repeat the process every summer to rejuvenate your shrubs and control their shape.

PRUNING HYDRANGEAS THAT BLOOM ON NEW WOOD

Limelight hydrangeas bloom on new wood

Hydrangeas that bloom on new wood set their flowering buds on the current season’s growth. Since their flowers come from new growth from the base of the plant, they can be pruned almost any time of year, except summer. Follow these three steps to maintain the health and vigor of these types of hydrangeas:

  1. Cut off faded blooms in late summer to improve the looks of the shrub.
  2. Prune out the oldest canes to improve vigor.
  3. Cut back the entire shrub in late winter before new growth starts to appear.

Additional tricks of the trade include leaving some of the older branches as a framework for new growth (these types of hydrangeas tend to open up and get floppy.) Many gardeners also advocate cutting the shrubs all the way back to the ground, which often produces bigger flowers.  

‘ANNABELLE’ 

Considered the crème de la crème of all the varieties that bloom on new wood, Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle is what is called a ‘smooth’ hydrangea. Smooth hydrangeas are known for their giant white blooms. They are native to the southeastern United States.

Distinctive white blooms of Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’

What makes Annabelle so special is that it not only produces enormous, pure white flowers from June to August, but it also stays compact, growing to just 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. At first glance, it can be hard to tell this cultivar apart from other white-blooming hydrangeas. However, a number of gardeners go by this golden rule:

Annabelle flowers open lime green in early summer, change to bright white mid-summer and then switch back to light green in late summer before turning tan in the fall.

More recently, an improved version of Annabelle called Incrediball has been developed. It features basketball-sized blooms and thicker, stronger stems that won’t flop over. In fact, they’re so sturdy that they’ll stay upright even in a rainstorm. 

‘Incrediball’ features 12″ flower clusters and blooms on new wood

Most professionals recommend pruning hydrangeas like Annabelle to help control for shape and to increase blooms. For this reason, many gardeners cut them back to the ground (within 6″) in late winter or early spring. Some say this encourages these varieties to produce larger flowers and sturdier stems. But others claim it weakens the plants over time, causing them to need to be staked.

I recommend taking the middle road and pruning Annabelles back to between 1 and 3 feet above the soil.

PRUNING PANICLE HYDRANGEAS

Panicle hydrangeas bloom on new wood

Panicle hydrangeas also bloom on new wood. As a result, they can be pruned in late winter or early spring before they produce new growth. Cut them to the ground or to just a few feet above the soil depending on the size plant you want to maintain. The best known of the panicle hydrangeas include PeeGee and Limelight.

THE SUNNY SIDE OF LIMELIGHT HYDRANGEAS

When they were first introduced from Holland in the early 2000’s, Limelight hydrangeas took the garden world by storm. Featuring enormous, football shaped clusters of flowers, the shrubs performed great in full sun (although for best color, they require some shade).

Limelights keep their beautiful celadon color all summer long before aging slowly to pink. In the fall, they change to shades of dusty red and burgundy. They are panicle hydrangeas and they bloom on new wood. Prune them like Annabelles.

Limelight hydrangeas bloom on new wood

ENDLESS SUMMER – THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS  

There’s a new kind of hydrangea in town called Endless Summer and it’s rocking the hydrangea world. Introduced in 2004 by Bailey Nurseries, Endless Summer hydrangeas bloom on both old and new wood. As a result, this gives them the ability to flower repeatedly all summer. The company’s tag line is, appropriately,

Experience life in full-bloom.

Endless Summer mophead variety

As of 2018, there are three different varieties currently available. Blushing Bride produces pure white mophead flowers that mature to soft pink. Twist-n-Shout is the first re-blooming lacecap variety. And BloomStruck has vivid purple or rose-pink mophead blooms that hold their color all summer. Summer Crush (available in 2019) will feature raspberry red or neon purple blooms.

It’s easy to imagine the benefits of plants that bloom on both old and new wood. Their flowers naturally last for most of the summer. Moreover, the company says Endless Summer hydrangeas bloom 10 to 12 weeks longer than average hydrangeas. Best of all, these hydrangeas need little to no pruning.

SOME COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT HYDRANGEAS

Why are my hydrangea flowers turning brown in the summer?

The main reason that hydrangea flowers turn brown is too much sun; specifically hot mid-day to afternoon sun. To prevent this problem, site your shrubs in areas where they receive direct sun either in the early morning or late afternoon. Same goes for the lacecap varieties, which tend to have a much shorter flowering span than the mopheads. Attention to watering during dry spells also helps prolong blooms.

What do I do if my hydrangeas have grown too big and floppy?

Most gardeners advise waiting until the shrubs have been in the ground for 5 years before beginning a pruning program. If you’ve got the type that blooms on new wood, prune your shrubs in late winter or early spring for shape, taking them down to between 1 and 3 feet from the ground. If you’ve got the kind that blooms on old wood, follow the method above, removing 1/3 of the oldest living stalks each summer after the shrubs have flowered.

When I cut blossoms will it hurt the other blooms?

After August, cut only short stems to avoid affecting next year’s blooms

For hydrangeas that bloom on old wood, deadheading (or cutting flowers for indoor arrangements) can be performed on long or short stems in June through July without affecting next year’s flower buds. After August, it’s best to harvest only short stems.

Can I prune some of the branches without affecting the others?

Yes. You are only cutting off the flower buds on the stalks that you prune.

Does watering keep the blooms going? Why do my hydrangeas look so dry in July?

As with all plants, watering during dry spells is key. Keep the soil moist around your hydrangea shrubs to keep the flowers going all summer.

I did all the right things and my hydrangeas didn’t bloom this year. What happened?

Weather can negatively affect blooms, too

Finally, you can follow all the rules and prune your new or old wood shrubs correctly, but weather can also have its negative effects, particularly frost. In colder regions, flowering can be adversely affected by either early fall or late spring frosts, making it confusing as to whether you pruned off the blooms yourself or left it to Mother Nature.

For photos of my garden designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall.

 

Daylily Care: How To Extend The Blooming Season

Daylilies are called daylilies for a reason. Each flower lasts for just one day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy more blooms, more often. All it takes is a little gardening know-how, and you can trick your plant into extending its blooming season.

DONE IN A DAY

One of the most versatile and hardiest of perennials, daylilies (Hemerocallis) are a highlight of the summer garden. Although individual flowers come and go daily, plants can keep on producing new ones for up to four to five weeks. Traditionally, daylilies bloom from late June through July. But there are now many re-blooming varieties that make a second appearance in late summer, dramatically extending the growing season.

In fact, nowadays there are thousands of daylily varieties available in every conceivable size, shape and color. And most are proliferous. A single stem can produce many flowers. And an established clump can produce hundreds of blooms over the course of one summer month.

Still, easy-to-grow doesn’t necessarily mean maintenance-free. Left unattended, daylilies can quickly accumulate large numbers of spent, soggy blooms. Not only are these dead flowers an eyesore, but they can have a direct impact on blooming. Here’s why.

HOW DEADHEADING EXTENDS THE BLOOMING SEASON

It’s common knowledge that regular deadheading encourages plants to produce more flowers. But did you know that it can also extend their blooming season? To keep my daylilies blooming longer, I remove the spent flowers every morning by snapping them off at the base. There are two important reasons for why I do this:

1. It makes the plant look better. 

2. If I remove the dead flowers (in particular, the ovary/seed pods), it will send energy to the plant to produce more stalks with more flowers.

Spent daylily blooms

BEWARE OF THE DAYLILY SEED POD

Daylily flowers form near the tip of the stalk during their active growing season. But as each flower withers and drops, it leaves an ovary to develop into a seed pod. Immature seed pods look a lot like emerging blossoms. Located at the base of the flower, they are oval in shape and pale green in color.

Notice below (center) where I snapped off a flower, leaving the ovary exposed. This will develop into a seed pod.

Left alone, seed pods slowly develop alongside emerging blooms. As they ripen, they develop three distinct lobes that eventually grow to around 1 to 2 inches. 

All told, it takes about 50 days for the seed pods to finally harden and dry out. Then, at the end of the season, the pods split open at the seams to release a bunch of black seeds. This explains why you’ll often find daylilies growing in odd places, far from where you may have planted them.

Below is an immature seed pod I picked recently exhibiting just a few seeds.

A daylily seedpod and seeds

WHY REMOVING SEEDS EXTENDS THE BLOOMING SEASON

Of course, if you are planning to grow more daylilies, seed pods are a good thing. I suggest leaving a few on the plant. But if you’re interested in extending the blooming season, it’s important to remove them. Why? Because, if the plant is spending its energy forming seeds, there is little left to produce flowers. Removing seed pods not only conserves energy, but it also redirects the plant to produce more flowers.

So, when snapping off the spent daylily, make sure to remove the entire flower at its base, including the developing seed pod. Then, once the stalk is done flowering, cut it to the ground. It won’t be producing any more blooms this year.

Cut spent stalks to the ground – they’re done for the season

DAYLILIES LIKE EXTRA FOOD AND WATER

And don’t forget to feed your daylilies! A spring and fall feeding can also have a positive impact on blooming while strengthening plants for the winter. And while most daylilies are relatively drought tolerant, the more water you give them, the better the blooms. One has only to look at the moisture-packed flower itself as proof.

Are your daylilies getting large and out-of-hand? Here are some tips on how to divide them.

For photos of my garden designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall.

Top Red, White and Blue Flowers For The Summer Garden

For many Americans, Fourth of July is synonymous with fireworks. But for gardeners, the pyrotechnics start early. That’s because by mid June, spring pastels are already giving way to dazzling color as red, white and blue flowers begin lighting up the summer garden.

RED FLOWERS EXCITE

On the color spectrum, red is the most attention-grabbing of colors. In China, it symbolizes prosperity and good luck, while on Wall Street ‘in the red’ means you’re losing money. And on the American flag, the red stripes represent ‘hardiness and valor.’

Hybrid tea rose

In the summer garden, red flowers make a dazzling display, especially when framed by red’s complementary color, green. Looking for drama? Try grouping red flowers in front of an evergreen hedge and watch the fireworks begin!

red roses and green hedge

Red roses and green hedge

 Or, combine them with other hot colors for an eye-catching composition. 

Too many red flowers? You can cool things down by pairing them with silver. 

red salvia and silver ragwort

Red salvia and silver ragwort

And just like the stripes on the flag, white flowers offer a crisp contrast to all shades of red.

Here are some of the best red flowers for your summer garden. 

Red-Flowering Shrubs

Quince ‘Double Take ‘Scarlet’

Crimson bottlebrush, Callistemon citrinus

Stewartstonian azalea

‘Mister Lincoln’ Hybrid Tea Rose

Red-Flowering Perennials

Begonia ‘Dragon’s Blood’

Geranium ‘Americana Red’

Dahlia ‘Bishop of llandaff’

Daylily ‘Always Afternoon’

Asiatic lily (red)

Gaillardia ‘Spin Top Orange Halo’

WHITE FLOWERS BRIGHTEN

The purest of all colors in terms of composition, white is considered by most cultures to represent goodness and light. It can also indicate cleanliness and perfection. On the American flag, the white stripes signify purity and innocence.

White hydrangea

In the summer garden, white flowers add an unblemished quality to the mix. Since white reflects light, white flowers instantly brighten key areas of the garden. They also help highlight other colors. 

Below, Echinacea ‘White Swan’ enlivens a mixed border.

Drift of white echinacea

Some gardeners even go all out and create an all-white garden. (The great thing about white flowers, by the way, is that they look especially good at night.)

Garden composed of all white flowers and silver foliage.

Here are some of the best and brightest white flowers for the summer garden:

White-Flowering Shrubs

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’

Mock Orange ‘Snow White Sensation’

Azalea ‘Delaware Valley White’

Rose ‘Boule de Neige’

White-Flowering Perennials

Phlox paniculata ‘David’

Iris germanica ‘Immortality’

Allium ‘Mount Everest’

Echinacea ‘Pow Wow White’

Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Physostegia virginiana ‘Crystal Peak White’

BLUE FLOWERS CALM

Located at the other end of the color spectrum from red, blue is considered the hardest color to see. For this reason, it is known as a cool color. On the American flag, blue is the color of the Chief. It signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.

Himalayan blue poppy

The thing about blue is that it appears to recede (notice how the blue section of the flag seems less intense than the red.) Because of this quality, blue flowers can add depth and volume to a garden composition. The only problem with blue flowers is that there aren’t many that are truly blue. Most are tinged with lavender or purple. However, color can be subjective, so people have different opinions on what’s blue.

Here are the truest blue flowers I’ve found to date for the summer garden:

Blue-Flowering Shrubs

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’

‘Bluebird’ lacecap hydrangea

Caryopteris ‘Longwood Blue’

Blue-Flowering Perennials

Blue coleus, also know as bush coleus

Gentian Sage, Salvia patens 

Lewis flax, Linum lewisii

Blue Daisy

Muscari aucheri ‘Blue Magic’

Mostly blue with lavender tinge

Hidcote Blue English Lavender

Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’

Russian sage, Perovskia

Catmint, Nepeta

Wishing you all a very Happy Fourth of July! 

 

 

True Blue Flowers: Why Real Ones Are So Hard To Find

For centuries, people around the globe have searched for a true blue flower. Elusive and rare, it is seldom found in nature. Or, to put it another way, it is rarely perceived in nature. It all has to do with what each of us sees as true blue.

To find out why this is so, I signed up for an on-line lecture given by Brandon George, a grad student in public garden stewardship at Cornell Botanic Gardens. His research not only produced a great list of blue flowers, but also shed some (hint) light on the issue.

WHAT CONSTITUTES BLUE

So why is blue so rare in the plant world? For starters, I’ll ask you to refer to the color wheel below.

Blue is a primary color. On the visible color spectrum, it is located between green and violet. But that’s where things get murky. Take a look at the wheel. Some blues tend towards green, while others tend towards violet. Do all of these pigments merit the name blue?

Indeed, how does one determine what constitutes a true blue? This has turned out to be a problem for horticulturalists and growers the globe over.  To address the issue, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1966 created a chart by which you could match precise colors to flowers, fruits and other plants. Now in its 6th revised edition, the RHS Colour Chart is today the standard reference used by horticulturalists worldwide for communicating information about plants. It contains 920 colors.

Still, while the RHS Colour Chart helps differentiate among different tones of blue, it doesn’t explain why a true, pure blue remains so elusive. And here’s the surprise. While blue is a very prominent color on earth, it is rarely produced in nature. In fact, of all the 280,000 known species of flowering plants, only 10 percent are blue.

HOW PLANTS PRODUCE BLUE

It turns out that plants aren’t born blue. Instead, much like artists, they must mix naturally-occurring pigments to achieve their blue hue. The most common of these pigments are called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are responsible for many colors, from orange and red to violet and blue. And they can vary according to soil pH, which indirectly impacts flower color.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’

What we perceive as blue, then, is actually the result of reflected light from these anthocyanins. And just the tiniest tweak of metal ions in the soil can result in the same plant producing different blues. (Think blue hydrangeas, which are produced by adding acid to the soil.) Finding a true blue flower is pretty hard indeed.

WHEN PURPLE LOOKS BLUE

Even then, some of us may still see purple as blue.  Deutan Color Blindness (do-tan) is an anomaly of the ‘M’ cone (Medium Wavelength Light) in which spectral sensitivity is shifted toward longer wavelengths. If you have it, you may experience confusion between colors such as purple and blue. Take a look at the photo below. Do you see purple and blue or just blue?

Photo credit/enchroma.com

TRUE BLUE PRETENDERS

Nowadays, blue flowers are highly prized. As a result, growers are introducing more and more plants that are labelled as blue. But beware – many are not truly blue! To differentiate among cultivars, horticulturalists now use the term ‘true blue’ to indicate a more true blue pigment.

Take, for instance, the hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’, a popular choice for the perennial garden. Some growers list it as violet, others lists it as blue. How do you perceive it? To my eye, it tends towards purple. While my colleague sees it as blue.

Hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’/Photo: anniesannuals.com

Have you ever wondered why the same blue plant can look entirely different across catalogs? Just because a plant has blue in its name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s blue. Some growers manipulate photos to make plants appear more blue. While others use tricks of light. If you can’t see the plant in person, George recommends consulting  user uploads rather than seller photos to get a better perspective on a plant’s true color.

TRUE BLUE FLOWERS

There is one plant family that typically produces the truest blue flowers in nature. Boraginaceae, also known as the forget-me-not family, includes more than 27,000 species. The plants of this family are frequently hairy and include such garden ornamentals as Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), Lungwort (Pulmonaria), Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis) and Heliotrope (Heliotropium).  Horticulturalists agree that these are indisputable blues, although changes in pH can induce color changes as the petals age.

Virginia bluebells

Other indisputable blue flowers include Grape hyacinth (Muscari), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) and Blue Drumstick (Allium caeruleum), in addition to pH-sensitive Hydrangea macrophylla, which in acidic soil (a pH below 6) will turn blue. 

Blue Drumstick, Allium caeruleum

And don’t overlook the sky blue flowers of Brunnera macrophylla, Delphinium grandiflorum, and Plumbago cerastostigma, which are all great additions to the spring/summer border.

TRUE BLUE ANNUALS

Perennials not your thing? There are also some great almost-true blue annuals. Evolvulus ‘Blue My Mind’, is a dwarf morning glory with fuzzy, silvery-green foliage. It looks great in containers or windowboxes, where it will happily trail over the edge.

Other great true blue annuals include Plumbago auriculata (a very light blue), Love-In-A-Mist, and Gentian sage (Salvia patens), a tender perennial that has the deepest blue flowers you’ll find.

Gentian sage, Salvia patens

DESIGNING WITH BLUE

When working with blue, remember it is considered a cool color, so it will recede into the landscape. Consider bringing it forward to enjoy it and plant cultivars in mass for a stronger effect.

But a word of caution. Placing a lot of different ‘blues’ together will often cause some to look bluer than others (see below). To prevent this from happening, separate them out and plant them instead next to contrasting colors (such as orange or yellow), which will give the illusion of a brighter blue.

Blue or purple? Delphiniums growing in Dalat, Vietnam

For photos of my landscape designs, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through late fall.

 

How To Identify Poison Ivy

Even bad boys can have a good side; and so it goes with an unwanted inhabitant of many a garden, poison ivy.  The native plant sure knows how to take over a room. For humans, its ornamental qualities are less than desirable. That being said, poison ivy does have its uses. See below.

WHAT IT IS

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison ivy is one of the most common poisonous plant species found throughout the continental United States. A native of North America, it grows mostly in the eastern and midwestern states where it tends to inhabit forests, fields, and shorelines. More worrisomely, it’s also come to love urban/suburban environments such as road sides and parks. This in turn has led to it taking up residence in many of our backyards. 

Poison ivy is a member of the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which comprises over 860 known species. Along with poison sumac and poison oak, it is part of the genus toxicodendron, whose toxic properties produce contact dermatitis in affected individuals. 

A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP

So what makes toxicodendron so toxic? The culprit is urushiol, an oily resin with allergenic properties. Urushiol is found in every part of toxicodendron, including dead or dormant plants. When poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac are bumped, damaged or even burned, they release urushiol as a means of protection.

In fact, research shows that only a small amount of exposure can cause an allergic rash. And by small amount, that means just 1 nanogram or one billionth of a gram. There is even evidence that urushiol can remain on a surface for up to five years. The take-away? I’d say avoid these plants altogether.

On a good note, apparently about 10 to 15 percent of the human population is immune to poison ivy and its cousins, and therefore will never experience the rash. And poison ivy is less common outside the U.S., although it can still be found here and there around the globe. 

HOW TO IDENTIFY POISON IVY

A common adage says ‘Leaves of three, let it be’, while another counsels ‘Leaves of three, run and flee’. I prefer the latter, having suffered from major breakouts throughout my lifetime in the garden. That being said, poison ivy is a chameleon when it comes to appearance. it can be downright hard to identify. Compare the photo below to the two above. You’ll see what I mean.

The truth is poison ivy has so many variations it can baffle even the most seasoned horticulturalist. Take for instance its make-up. It can be a creeping groundcover, or a woody vine (referred to as a liane) which, once it scales a tree, can put on 20 feet of growth in just one season. And full sun can cause it to take on a shrub form.

And while most of us know to look out for a plant with three leaves, from that point on, things can get murky. Poison ivy has a compound leaf, which means that what presents as a single leaf is actually three. Additionally, its leaves can be shiny or dull, and their size and shape can vary greatly. Some leaves are toothed, while others are deeply lobed. And in some rare instances, poison ivy can have five leaves instead of three. 

Poison ivy taking on fall color

Look for bright green leaves during the growing season and bright red ones in the fall.

HERE’S THE RUB

The good news is that, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), poison ivy rashes are not contagious and therefore cannot be spread from person to person. However, it is possible to pick up the rash from toxins stuck to clothing, tools or other items including pets (see below.) And contrary to common thought, the rash occurs only where the oil has touched the skin. So rubbing or scratching won’t spread it. What may seem like a spreading rash is actually the toxin’s effects appearing gradually over time.

Photo credit/medicinenet.com

Always wash your skin and clothes after coming into contact with poison ivy. This is essential to removing all traces of urushiol. And use cold water, not hot. Hot water thins the oil and helps it dissipate more quickly.

CAN ANIMALS GET POISON IVY?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the answer is rarely. Usually, their long protective coats prevent the plant oils from ever reaching their skin. However, animals can carry the toxin on top of their fur, so don’t let your pet rub against you if you think he or she’s been in contact. Try bathing yours with a colloidal oatmeal shampoo while wearing gloves to eliminate the urushiol.

My cat, Squeaky

IT’S GOOD FOR SOMETHING

Before you decide to remove that patch on your slope, you might want to think again. Like kudzu, poison ivy is great at erosion control, especially on coastlines where it acts as a stabilizer for sandy soil. (It’s a big player along the Eastern coastline.) Moreover, it provides valuable food for many species of wildlife, who eat its fruit, stems and leaves.  And it also functions as a protective shelter for small mammals.

Small animals like rabbits like to feed on poison ivy

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

As with most unwanted plants, the best way to eliminate them is to get to know their seedlings and start early. As poison ivy matures, however, it may require years of patient digging to totally eliminate its root structure.  You can apply an herbicide like glyphosate to the plant’s roots, leaves or vines. However, be sure to wear eye protection and gloves when chopping down vines. And never use a chain saw, which can spread the toxins by air.

 

 

How To Build The Perfect Monarch Butterfly Garden

monarch on pink flowers

Daniel Potter freely admits he’s not an expert on monarchs. But as Professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, he and his grad students sure love to run experiments. Recently, they completed a two-year study on the likes and dislikes of the popular orange and black butterfly. Now for the first time ever, there’s a roadmap for building the perfect monarch garden.

WHY WE CARE

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already a monarch fan. The butterflies’ annual migration from Mexico to Canada is one of the most spectacular events worldwide. All told, the tiny insects fly upwards of 2000 miles roundtrip each spring, stopping four times to breed and lay their eggs. They are the only butterfly species to make such a long, two-way migration.

monarch migration

Over the past 25 years, however, there’s been a sharp decline in monarch populations. Part of this is due to a loss of habitat at the butterflies’ overwintering site in Mexico. Activities such as logging, agriculture and urbanization have all taken their toll on the central highland forests that play host to the insects six months out of every year.

But by far the most significant factor driving the decline is the dwindling supply of a plant called milkweed. The native wildflower is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. And without it, the butterflies cannot complete their life cycle, sustain their migration and ultimately, perpetuate their species.

monarch feeding on milkweed

MONARCH BUTTERFLY GARDENS NEED MILKWEED 

According to the North American Monarch Conservation Plan, we need 1.8 billion milkweed stems to replace those that have been lost to agriculture and urbanization. And these contributions need to come from all land sectors in order to sustain the annual migration. This includes farms, roadsides, schools, zoos, rights of way and yes, suburban and urban gardens located along the butterflies’ migratory corridor.

Luckily, an initiative called the Monarch Waystation Program is starting to make a crucial difference. Established in 2005, it engages citizens in conservation by providing instruction and materials on how to create habitats for monarchs. The guidelines are simple – Plant two or more milkweed species for the caterpillars, some nectar sources for the adults and you become part of a national registry. To date, over 6000 Monarch Waystations in 46 states have become part of the effort. 

WHAT MONARCHS LIKE

And as it happened, the Waystation Program Registry provided the perfect jumping off point for Potter’s research into monarch butterfly gardens. A quick Google Earth search by his team revealed hundreds of habitats scattered along the butterflies’ northward route. What’s more, they represented every kind of landscape.

As Potter put it, ‘Some were non-structured, others ‘wild’, and still others were surrounded by hardscape or located in open rural areas.’ Below are some aerial shots of a few of them. (Photo courtesy Dr. Daniel Potter.)

What Potter and his team wondered was this – with all of this diversity, could there be certain habitats that were more appealing than others? To discover the answer, the group decided to survey 22 citizen-planted Waystations. Below are some key outcomes from their findings. 

1. MONARCHS LIKE STRUCTURE

Like most species, monarchs use visual cues to zero in on what they’re looking for. And in the butterflies’ case, these ‘search images’ are made up exclusively of milkweed. But as the Registry revealed, not all waystations were the same. Did monarchs favor certain monarch butterfly gardens over others?

Monarchs from ‘search images’ for milkweed

To find out, the researchers counted larvae and caterpillars for a year in their target Waystations to see if the type of habitat made any measurable difference.

monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed leaf

And they discovered that yes, the butterflies had a strong preference. A structured garden, with milkweed set off by mulch, attracted three to five times more monarchs.

The takeaway? If you want more monarchs, make it easy for them to find the milkweed to lay their eggs on. Plant it apart from other plants. Even better, surround it with a mulch circle. But make sure to provide other nectar producing plants nearby for the returning adult butterflies to feed on.

2. MONARCHS PREFER A NORTH-SOUTH ACCESS

Interestingly, the researchers found that gardens with unimpeded north-south access recruited more monarchs. This makes sense since it coincides with the butterflies’ migratory route.

monarch migration map

Monarchs prefer gardens with a north-south access

3. THE TALLER THE BETTER

While all milkweed species are suitable for food, not all are equally favored by monarchs. To find the answer why, the group compared 8 species of milkweed all grown in Kentucky and native to the area. They evaluated them as to their suitability for egg-laying as well as their usability as food for monarch caterpillars. And there was a clear preference.

Where they had a choice, monarchs preferred the taller varieties, Swamp, Common and Showy over the smaller varieties like Butterfly weed

The takeaway? If you want to attract more egg-laying monarchs to your monarch butterfly garden, plant the tall, broadleaf milkweed species.

4. MILKWEED CULTIVARS ARE EQUALLY TASTY

But what about all of the new milkweed cultivars, you ask? As it has grown in popularity (mainly due to monarchs), milkweed now comes in many cultivars boasting unusual colors and sizes.

Asclepias Gay Butterflies Mix/White Flower Farm

Not to worry. Potter and his students discovered that monarchs find these cultivars just as attractive as the straight species. But again, go with the bigger varieties if you want more monarchs.

5. DON’T LET YOUR MONARCH BUTTERFLY GARDEN BECOME AN ECOLOGICAL TRAP

Finally, there’s the case of tropical milkweed, a non-native plant that has exploded in popularity over the past decade. Both gardeners and monarchs love it. But buyer beware. Tropical milkweed is not ‘bad’, per se, but when planted in warm areas of the U.S. it encourages monarchs to stick around longer and even enables them to winter-breed.

tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Research shows, however, that monarchs breeding on tropical milkweed throughout the winter (rather than returning to Mexico) have higher levels of protozoan infection compared to monarchs in the normal migratory cycles. It turns out that migration is key to outrunning these pathogens.

The takeaway? Stick to the tried and true native milkweed species in your monarch butterfly garden and help the insects keep to their schedule.

To learn more about Daniel Potter and his research into monarchs and other insects, click here for the Dr. Daniel A. Potter Laboratory.

This article was update January 2021.

Why Carnations Are The Official Mother’s Day Flower

For those of you who think Mother’s Day was created by Hallmark, the real story is much more poignant. It all sprang from a daughter’s love for her mother, the trials of war and a gift of 500 white carnations.

IT ALL BEGAN IN WEST VIRGINIA

It all began in 1905 when Anna Jarvis lost her mother. She and her mother had been very close during Anna’s lifetime. Consumed by grief, Anna made a solemn vow. She pledged to establish a national day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had raised her family in the mid 1800’s and had suffered great hardship. Of the 12 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid and diphtheria. 

MOTHERS HELPING MOTHERS 

But despite having suffered so much loss, Anna’s mother was stout-hearted. In the 1850s, she began organizing coalitions of mothers from across West Virginia to combat childhood illness. The women raised money for medicines, inspected food and milk and provided nursing care for those who were sick. 

The coalitions became known as the Mothers Day Work Clubs.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

And when the Civil War broke out in 1861, the mothers acted as volunteer nurses, caring for soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies.

Mother’s Day Work Club members took care of all soldiers

Even after the war, the clubs continued to be a unifying force. In 1868, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day, which brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.

ANNA JARVIS AND 500 WHITE CARNATIONS

Shortly after Ann’s death, her daughter Anna organized a memorial at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. With this unofficial inauguration, Anna began writing letters to national, state and local politicians to gain their support for a Mother’s Day movement. 

And unbelievably, in just a little over a decade later, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day celebrations. Then in 1912, Anna began campaigning for international recognition of the day.

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day as A public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Letter signed by President Woodrow Wilson establishing Mother’s Day

The second Sunday in May became the official day of celebration. And the wearing of a white carnation, Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower, became a tradition.

THE CONTROVERSY OVER MOTHER’S DAY CARDS

Anna Jarvis’ originally intended for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and write personal, hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

Vintage Mother’s Day card

With the official recognition of the holiday, however, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more enraged as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. And nothing upset her more than the growth in popularity of the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. 

By 1920, Jarvis had become so upset over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop others from profiting off of the day.

In 1923, she even filed suit against the Governor of New York over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.

Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She is buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.

THE ROLE OF CARNATIONS

Yet a century later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day celebration. And there’s no doubt that carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower. In her day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red colors have also become popular.

In fact, today it is generally believed that pink carnations represent gratitude while red ones signify admiration. And white carnations are now reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.

Red carnations signify admiration

Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)

On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.

Wishing all of you a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Why Lily of the Valley Is The Official May Day Flower

Years ago, I was living in Paris when there was a knock at the door followed by the sound of running footsteps. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. Little did I know, I had just received a gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.

A ROYAL HISTORY

In France, lily of the valley (or muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom started on May 1, 1561 when King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck.

The King liked the idea so much that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward on the first of May, he presented a bouquet of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. And thus began in France the Fête du Muguet, otherwise known as May Day. 

Portrait of King Charles IX

MAY’S MOST CELEBRATED FLOWER

Over the centuries, lily of the valley has become one of May’s most celebrated flowers. And for good reason. Depending on climate, it typically blooms in mid April and retains its blossoms for most of May. The species itself is small in size, averaging only 6″ tall.  Each plant has a pair of upright, sword-like leaves and a single stalk of sweetly scented, white or pink bell-shaped flowers. 

Still, for what it lacks in size, lily of the valley rapidly makes up for in numbers. When given ample shade, it will form low, thick masses of bright evergreen color, making it the perfect complement to other shade-loving perennials.  

THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE

Once upon a time, the very first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night, the nightingale would come to her garden to sing. However, the lily of the valley was shy and hid herself from the bird. So after a while, he grew lonely and flew away.

Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. Eventually, she grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She started flowering again only after the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.

A SYMBOL OF ROMANCE

In the early 20th century in France, men often gave bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. French people still practice the card-sending ritual today.

A vintage Fête du Muguet card

A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN FRANCE

These days in France, the first of May coincides with National Labor Day. As a result, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday. In the days leading up to the event, lilies of the valley are sold from roadside stands that pop up all over the country. And while it’s normally forbidden to sell flowers on public streets, the ban is lifted on May 1 in honor of this long-standing tradition.

Photo credit/Shutterstock.com

HOW TO GROW LILY OF THE VALLEY

Easy-to-grow lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate climates and are believed to have originated in Japan. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize easily and can quickly become invasive in the garden. Unless you’re up for continually digging them out to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard.

And like most shade-loving plants, lilies of the valley prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Never plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn ugly shades of brown. 

DON’T EAT THEM

Finally, you may be surprised to learn that all parts of the lily of the valley are toxic if eaten. So when handling the flowers, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.

To see photos of my garden designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall.

 

 

Six Secrets From Bunny Mellon’s Garden

Bunny Mellon never formally studied landscaping; yet she grew to be one of the most celebrated gardeners in America. Her list of accomplishments is staggering, ranging from installations on family properties in Virginia, Nantucket and Antigua, to private residences in Paris, to the White House Rose Garden. There is much to be learned from her trial-and-error approach to horticulture. And now, a new book entitled Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon offers a glimpse into how she developed her aesthetic while providing readers with practicable tips on design. Continue reading

When To Cut Back Daffodil Foliage

Once the flowers have quit, daffodil foliage can get pretty ugly. Nevertheless, it’s critical to the health of the bulb to let the leaves yellow. Removing leaves prematurely may neaten things up, but come spring you’ll have far fewer flowers. And everyone knows daffodils look best in big numbers. Continue reading