Incredible Incrediball!

Crazy weather. After two days of record setting warmth we have been plunged back to into the depths of winter tonight with a wet snowstorm covering the landscape. Yesterday the temperature reached a toasty 77° on our New Hampshire Seacoast, a record for the books!  Of course, the ground was still frozen solid with piles of snow everywhere, but it was warm enough for mister gardener and me to take our meals outside for two days without coats….or sweaters!

Yesterday was also a good day to do a little yard work. Too soon for cleaning up borders but perfect time for pruning our 3-yr. old hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’ shrubs. I left the flower heads on the shrub for visual interest in the fall, but they had become frazzled from winter weather.

The ‘Incrediball’ is an improvement of the old favorite ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea or the smooth leaf hydrangea because the stems are sturdier and the white blooms are much larger. (I am withholding judgement for one more season) Because it blooms on new wood, pruning can be done anytime from from the first frost to late winter so now, on this warm winter day, I chose to prune these shrubs.

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I removed sick, dead, and crossed branches and shaped the shrub a little. Some experts advised cutting ‘Incrediball’ to the ground but I chose to leave about 2′. I cut out many of tiny branches, leaving the sturdier branches for support.

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Looking at the same shrub through our screened window this afternoon, a whole different scene greeted us. It’s 27° now and that’s okay because it’s winter in New Hampshire and this is our norm. The unusual 77° we experienced yesterday was an anomaly but a sweet hint of spring, a gift that we greatly appreciated.

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The Arborists’ Crime….

Maybe locals in New England have heard of “Crape Murder” in the south when the tops of beautiful crape myrtles are hacked off to control size. It’s a sad sight done in the name of pruning every spring but it’s a familiar scene in strip malls and neighborhoods in Virginia.

I had a similar thing take place by the arborists who labored in our neighborhood last week. I’m sure they were hired to work fast with the only tool they carried… the chain saw. I stepped outside to the sound of the saw and to my horror, they had sheared the doublefile viburnum into a ball shape. By the time they saw me, there were only two or three stems left to cut.

doublefile viburnum

This is a species with a naturally graceful horizontal form. In the spring, lacy white blooms line up like soldiers along a bough, developing into tasty drupes adored by birds in the fall. Shearing all the ends of the branches destroys the viburnum’s natural form. Terminal buds are removed and the lateral buds are stimulated to grow creating a water sprout nightmare at the end of each stem requiring more maintenance than ever. And removing the stems this time of year also sacrifices spring blooms and the subsequent fall fruit that birds adore.

What this shrub needed was thinning or trimming back branches that allows the tree to maintain its natural form. Viburnum authority, Michael Dirr, summed up pruning viburnums, “Pruning viburnums should be an exercise in restraint…again, as with so many things, less is more.”

Judging from the broom-like tips of the branches, this viburnum was probably sheared yearly. Once done, is there any help for the shrub? My guess is not… unless it is taken back almost to the ground and allowed to redevelop naturally. Yes, I think I must do that.

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They fibbed….

My grandfather loved roses. He grew beautiful prize-winning roses. My mother, a knowledgeable gardener, followed suit and grew roses for pleasure. But NEVER, EVER did I want a rose garden. I witnessed the time it took my mother to tend to her roses, examining leaves for fungus or insects, pruning, deadheading, picking off the Japanese beetles and plunking them into soapy water. (She never knew that when she walked away I dumped them out and rinsed them with the hose. Playing with Japanese beetles was great entertainment for a youngster with no TV, video games or smart phones in the late 50’s)

Years ago, a landscape designer friend opened the back of her car and unloaded 3 healthy red single Knock Out roses (Rosa x ‘Knock Out’) for me. “You must have these,” she said. “Disease resistant, insect resistant, no deadheading, no pruning, blooms all summer….  Carefree!”  I was grateful and appreciative but I was a little reluctant and wary. Carefree, indeed….

Carefree and continuous blooming were the two thoughts that stayed with me as I planted the three rose bushes center stage in my sunniest garden. The instructions read, “….compact plant, 3-4 feet tall and wide.”  I played it safe and planted a little further apart, two side by side and one slightly angled behind.

That was that. For two years, they were true to form. They did bloom heavily from June to Thanksgiving or until a killing frost. The shape of the shrub was naturally round. I never deadheaded. I never pruned. Japanese beetles visited occasionally but did not swarm. No black spot. No mildew. No aphids. I got compliments. I beamed. Eventually this became my new ‘Red Garden.’

Just as the directions read, they reached 3 feet tall after a year, then 4 feet tall the next summer, but they continued to grow…. 5 feet, 6 feet, 7, 8, 9, 10 feet tall. Eventually two grew together appearing as one massive bush. They have withstood hurricanes, salt water spray, Nor’easters, and an earthquake, and they’re still growing. I do not prune. I do not spray. I do not deadhead and I don’t fertilize.

They ‘fibbed’ about the 4 foot height but it’s all good: It is a favorite hangout for birds in the garden; I have lovely cut flowers from June to Thanksgiving; they provide great curb appeal as people point and ask about them before getting out of their cars; and this summer they provided a profusion of blooms as a backdrop for a wedding reception and photographs.

K.I.S.S. in the garden. What more could a gardener want?

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester