Non-Native Shrubs for Wildlife

This may look like an out of control mess (more about what’s actually gone on here in a moment) but this wild hedge of hibiscus syriacus actually serves a wonderful purpose. As you might actually be able to tell from this photo, the land approaching this garden–which is not mine–in a slope. You can see the hibiscus flowers lying on it.

My neighbor mows it with a riding mower. For years I struggled with this garden and with painfully hand pulling the grass that his riding mower threw into the garden (actually it was the grass seeds, which then germinated–but I digress). Now that I have the Great Wall of Hibiscus, it fairly impenetrable.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (And in another digression, isn’t this what gardening is all about? Happy accidents–and some not so happy ones?) That huge white hibiscus you see is one that was sent to me as a test shrub. It is called Lil’ Kim and was supposed to be 3-4 feet tall.

So, as I always say, plants can’t read–but in this case, Lil’ Kim apparently reverted to her parentage, whatever that was.

Here’s the true Lil’ Kim. You can probably tell that her foliage is more delicate and her flowers are smaller than anything in that gargantuan hedge.

By comparison, here is her “reverted” sister, parentage unknown. Same color scheme, same type of flower, just much larger.

So why do I let this behemoth stay? Simple–the wildlife love it. Bees and hummingbirds adore it. The fact that it has created a hedge from the grass clippings is an unintentional bonus.

And you might have noticed some purple hibiscus in my photo too. Both these plants, when they self-sow, occasionally throw off purple seedlings. I let them stay on the idea that purple is a desired wild life color.

Here’s a close-up of the the “purple” one. I guess it’s more lavender. Anyway, I like it. Coming up in the kolkwitzia, it makes it look as if it’s blooming a second time–almost.

Paniculata Type Hydrangeas

On Monday I talked about hydrangea arborescens, a type of hydrangea that blooms on new wood. Once upon a time they were called snowball hydrangeas because they only bloomed in white. As my lovely hedge of pink hydrangeas shows, that’s no longer true. That variety is called Invincibelle Spirit. It was one of the first of the pink arborescens varieties. There are now deeper pink varieties, and “ruby” varieties–everything gets “newer” and “improved” in gardening.

But of course there are other varieties that bloom on new wood as well. One of the first that I have had was an old fashioned variety called “PeeGee” (which is short for paniculata grandiflora). The “old-fashioned” or non-hybrid types of these shrubs can get quite large–up to 20 feet tall and wide at maturity.

Of course, most of us don’t have lovely old mature specimens like this because we’ve planted them in the wrong spots so we are always cutting them back–which we can do–in the spring.

Newer dwarf varieties might only grow to 6-8′. This is my neighbor’s shrub. You can see that this is a later flowering variety as well. It only begins to bloom in August or so here in the frozen north, which is nice because not a lot is going on in the garden at that time.

Other cultivar types–which have a similar flower and leaf structure–are finishing up their bloom about now in my climate. Again, this is my same neighbor’s shrub. You can tell the blooms are nearing maturity by the blushing pink color they are taking on. I am not sure which cultivar this one might be. There are a few that are pink, like Vanilla Strawberry, Fire Light or Strawberry Sundae  but this one doesn’t appear to be those–it’s not pink enough. It’s still quite lovely though!

And the beauty of these is that if deer nibble them, or snow (or your snow plow) damages them or whatever might happen over the winter (should you live in the frozen north, as I do), it’s just fine. They do come back and bloom on new growth.

These plants are hardy to Zone 3, by the way, so they’ll take a lot more cold than my climate can dish out. They will also grow as far south as zone 8 (which these days isn’t as far south as we think). But again, in warmer climates, I know they’ll want more shade than we give them where I am!


Hydrangeas That Bloom on New Wood


On Friday I talked about hydrangea macrophylla–big leaf hydrangea–without ever specifically calling them by name. Today I want to talk about some of the other types of hydrangeas, all of which bloom on “new” wood.

Maybe I need to make the “old wood” versus “new wood” distinction clear first though since we’re not all born with this knowledge.

If something blooms on old wood, that means that right now, this summer, 2019, it is setting its buds for bloom next year, in 2020. So if you were to prune it in the spring, 2020, or, like in my climate, if a hard freeze (or late snow) comes as the buds are unfurling and kills them, you lose the bloom for the year.

If something blooms on new wood, that means that the buds are formed in the same year that the plant blooms. The buds are formed in 2019 and the plant blooms in 2019. So you can prune in the spring without losing your bloom, and late freezes or snows are not a problem.

You can see why these hydrangeas that I mentioned in my prior post–the ones that bloom on old and new wood–have been game changers for us here in the “frozen north.” But as weather becomes less predictable, they will be more useful to more people, I think.

Several types of hydrangeas make the distinction a non-issue. These include the “Annabelle” types, and their hybrids (hydrangea arborescens), tardiva types, paniculata grandiflora types and their hybrids–there are a lot of choices.

The hedge of pink hydrangeas in the photo above is the original Invincible Spirit hydrangea, a type of hydrangea arborescens. It is about as easy care as it gets. All I ever have to do is to remove the spent flowers–and periodically I trim it back a little. That’s it.

But the beauty of these types of plants is that if you wanted to, you could cut them back hard in the spring, or, if there was a hard freeze, or heavy animal browse, it wouldn’t matter. They still bloom because they bloom on new wood.

On Friday I will have photos of some of the other types of hydrangeas that bloom on new wood and talk a little about them.

If I Had a Nickel…


The title of this post comes from my saying back when I worked in retail gardening. The entire saying was “if I had a nickel for every hydrangea question, I could retire now and live comfortably the rest of my life.”

And that’s still true. No matter what I am lecturing on, I get hydrangea questions. It’s our #1 problem here in the “frozen north” as I speak of Connecticut and it’s made worse by the fact that so many of us vacation on Cape Cod, which is wrapping up its own hydrangea festival about now. We come back from our Cape vacations with serious hydrangea envy.

And what do we come back to? Most of us have at least one version of this is our yards.


This is known as the hydrangea that blooms on “old wood. This one looks pretty good, actually. There’s a bud near the top–most of us only have buds or blooms concentrated in a ring around the bottom where the snow protected last year’s buds. All the other buds were killed off by the harsh winter.

The hydrangea in the photo at the top of the post is a “newer” variety, one that blooms on old and new wood so that even if winter kills all our buds, the new growth will still bud and bloom. You have probably heard of Endless Summer–that’s the one in the top photo. It has proven fairly easy care and fool-proof for me, but again, at lectures, I am hearing reports of it failing to bloom as well.

I figure anything that blooms in my heavy clay, on rock ledge, that stays soggy well into the spring and may or may not get eaten by deer, voles or rabbits as it’s trying to come back–and still blooms–is pretty darn foolproof. And mine is blooming again as I post this.

I should have started asking for nickels way back, though.