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Garden Q&A: Seemingly dead sticks are alive

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
The best advice for pruning hydrangeas is don't.

Q: I bought a large, purple hydrangea in 2011. It bloomed beautifully. Last spring, I trimmed the hydrangea back to about 3 inches above the ground. Through the summer, it grew very full and nice, but not one blossom. It was all green leaves. I haven't trimmed it yet this spring. Should I just leave it alone? Will it bloom this year, and was I wrong to trim it back? Thank you. Keep up the great articles.

A: I get more questions about hydrangeas than any other gardening topic. I think it's because we love them so much, but they can be so persnickety.

My recent column on trimming back butterfly bushes and other woody perennials led to a barrage of questions about hydrangea pruning — so you aren't alone! Because you describe your hydrangea as large and purple, I'm going to make the assumption that you have a Hydrangea macrophylla and provide you with some information specific to this species of hydrangea.

Hydrangea macrophylla produce their blooms on last year's growth (also known as old-wood), so those seemingly dead brown sticks you see now are holding this year's flower buds. When you trimmed your plant back last spring, you cut off all the flowers for the coming season.

This is one of the most common gardening mistakes in Western Pennsylvania. We see the brown twigs and think they are dead. The best pruning advice I can give in regards to nearly all hydrangeas is: Don't. Just let the brown stems alone. It may drive you nuts for a few weeks, but soon enough the new green growth will push out and mask their presence.

With all types of hydrangeas, if you aren't absolutely sure how to prune them, don't do it at all.

To maintain the health of your hydrangea plants for years to come, fertilize annually with 1 or 2 inches of quality compost spread over the soil surface around the plant. Organic-based granular fertilizers are another option for yearly fertilization.

You also should be aware that occasionally a late freeze will damage the buds and prevent flowering for the season. Some gardeners wrap the plants in burlap or landscape fabric each autumn and uncover them in early May. This isn't necessary, but it may provide some added winter protection.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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