December 11, 2017

Not the "Winter Interest" I Had in Mind

Gilding the Hydrangea

Christmas is around the corner, we've just put up the Christmas tree (well, my wife did) and there are seasonal decorations everywhere around the city adding to the festive feel. But I think at least one property owner has gone a little too far in applying the Christmas spirit in the garden. But let's first talk about that old warhorse of a garden design term, "winter interest."

Toronto gardens will look bare until next March aside from the presence of evergreens (boxwoods, yews, and cedars usefully provide the plant "bones" when your garden is denuded) and very early season blooming plants like witch hazel, hellebores, and crocuses which give us much needed colour. How bare depends on how much "clean up" occurs in October and November: one can ignore the garden as it goes into dormancy by leaving all stalks, flowers, berries and leaves alone, in situ. On the other end of the garden maintenance spectrum, you could also remove all leaves and dead material in order for the garden to be "clean and ready for next spring" (words used by a client in the past.) Why a garden is in such dire need to maintain horticultural hygiene has always been a mystery to me. I occasionally remind such clients that a vigorous fall cleanup doesn't occur in nature.

And of course a happy medium can occur by removing some plant material to make your spouse and/or neighbours happy.

By choosing shrubs and trees that have ornamental stem and bark features like vivid colour and interesting texture, horizontal branches, old flowers and berries to catch and contrast against the snow, you can extend the seasonal interest of your little patch of heaven. (I can't help you here if you're a veggie grower.) You can also plant many perennials with dormant leaves and stalks that hold up well under the weight of snow and howling winds (ornamental grasses fit the bill perfectly.) Given winter is easily more than a third of the gardening calendar here in Toronto, that goal may be worthwhile.

"Annabelle" Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle') is very commonly used in Toronto gardens and I've posted many pictures of the shrub in my "fall cleanup" posts recently. In a nutshell, if you grow this shrub, every autumn you face the question: "should I leave all the dormant stalks and flowers [more accurately, the flower balls are "corymbs"] alone for winter?" like this:

Autumn Annabelle Smooth  Hydrangeas by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Autumn "Annabelle" Smooth Hydrangeas 

Or "should I cut the aforementioned stalks hard to the ground?" like this:

Pruned Annabelle Smooth  Hydrangeas by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Pruned "Annabelle" Smooth Hydrangeas 

I think either option is fine going into winter. I do recommend that in the spring, an older Smooth Hydrangea shrub which hasn't been pruned hard in a few years should undergo some sort of rejuvenation pruning to clear out the inevitable dead interior stems and branches. Since "Annabelle"'s flowers are produced on new wood, you won't go through a season without those beloved white pom-poms by doing this.

Now getting back to the Christmas theme, what I don't recommend you do is this, as recently seen in my neighbourhood:

Spray painted Annabelle Hydrangeas by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Spray painted "Annabelle" Hydrangeas 

Spray painted Annabelle Smooth Hydrangeas by garden muses-not another Toronto gardening blog
Spray painted "Annabelle" Smooth Hydrangeas 

From a plant health care perspective, spray painting dead flowers shouldn't affect the shrub. You can make the argument that the flowers are going to be pruned away next spring and I'd agree with you. And for all I know, the owner/artist will prune away Hydrangea arborescens "Metallica" (trademark pending) on December 26.

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I'll leave it up to you to decide on the shrub's artistic merits going into Christmas and the New Year. I think it's gosh-awful ugly.

On this positive note, I wish everyone well wishes over the holidays! And leave the spray painting to poinsettias...

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