Is this a wonderful gardening season, or are you frustrated? Is it the best year ever for your mock orange and roses, or are you disappointed that ‘Endless Summer' hasn't bloomed yet? Which of your treasures are blooming really early – hurrah! – but which flowers will finish before your party? And what about pests? Early, late or missing in action?
Answers: All of the above. I'm hearing it all – satisfaction, complaints and quandaries. It's an unusual season.
>About the hydrangeas
Two general truths about many hydrangeas in many yards: As usual, many ‘Annabelle' types (large, old-fashioned hydrangeas that often don't bloom because their buds freeze in May) again won't bloom this year because their buds popped off in May. So much depends upon where you live, and where and when the late frosts hit.
If you often have this problem and wonder "Why is my hydrangea all green and healthy looking but has no flowers?," then I recommend this: Accept it as a green shrub, or move it and replace it with a different hydrangea. If you want a large hydrangea, consider a panicle type instead – the ones with pointy flowers – such as ‘Pinky Winky,' ‘Little Lamb' or ‘Strawberries 'n Cream.' They are foolproof, a great beginner's hydrangea.
As for the repeat-blooming ‘Endless Summer' hydrangeas and their offspring (City Line ‘Mars,' 'Twist 'n Shout,' ‘Double Expressions'), they were starting to produce viable buds on their stems in April. Then sometime in May those stems and the life in them were killed. Cut off the dead, brown sticks. The second flush will produce blooms eventually and they'll continue all summer.
One more hydrangea comment deserves clarification. Customer: "I'm so mad. I bought this hydrangea in the spring and the salesperson said it would bloom this year, and my neighbor bought hers last week. And now hers is gorgeous, full of flowers, and mine's got nothing!"
>Great perennials, but are they done?
Some plants have really been great. No kidding – the mock oranges, some kinds of viburnums and spider flowers (Tradescantia) have been better than usual. Rosarians have told me that many kinds of roses have been extraordinary. (On the other hand, I've heard that the fungus disease called black spot has appeared early and it's intense. Spray horticultural oil on them, and hope for low humidity.)
Early flowering is a mixed bag, but it could turn out well for us. You may be depending on certain perennials to perform at certain times – as in: The garden tourists are coming! Gardens on various garden walks, or Open Gardens, from Williamsville to Hamburg, are built around some perennial staples. What to do if the daylilies, daisies, campanulas and Asiatic lilies are finished?
>Make them work harder
Many perennial types have new cultivars that truly bloom for many weeks, some even all summer. (Watch for the Proven Winners, some called sterile.) In the future, consider replacing unimpressive old plants with those.
Meanwhile, many perennials repeat blooming if you cut them back as soon as most of the flowers begin to mature, such as perennial geraniums, campanulas, coreopsis, cat mint (Nepeta) and salvias. I think that this year, more than ever, we should already be cutting back early blooming perennials. If the timing is crucial – you must have flowers on July 28 – you might even cut all the flowers back now. As a rule of thumb, cut them back at least halfway down the stem, and you'll be surprised how soon you'll see flowers reappear.
>Hedge the bet
Here is a trick I first learned from Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of "The Well Tended Perennial Garden" ( Timber Press): If you have a large clump of one kind of plant – penstemon, Veronicastrum, Chelone (turtlehead) – that will produce a mass of flowers for just a couple of weeks, schedule two performances. Before they all flower, cut the stems on one part of the clump to a half or two-thirds their height. The clump section already in bud will flower first, and when it finishes you can cut it back to let the second section show off its flowers. Result: twice as long a flowering period.
Experienced gardeners know that a garden never performs exactly as planned. Often you simply have to fill in the gaps with flowering plants, containers or a piece of art at the last minute. If your moment of truth is at hand and the daylilies are still in bud but the salvias are goners, don't accept disappointment. Instead, fill that hole with a blue ceramic planter full of roses, a colorful Euro-pot brimming with annuals, or an already-flowering St. John's wort. Voila – you're a genius.
>State of the pests
As with flowers, the timing of insect life cycles is completely weather-dependent. Scientists measure and predict insect emergence or stages by "growing-degree days," referring to the heat that has accumulated on each day during the growing season. Warm seasons mean that insects appear early. Still it's not simple: When our April heat wave forced insects and plants into premature development, and then they were nearly frozen, how many were damaged?
Precipitation is crucial, too: In a wet season, some species drown before they emerge from the soil. In a dry season some dehydrate and die. Perhaps lots of slug eggs dried up around the bases of the hosts. Maybe weather is why I heard very little about four-lined plant bugs ruining the lavenders and black-eyed Susans. I know that hot, dry weather helped pest spider mites (helpful, predatory spider mites preferring moist periods) and scale insects – both thriving when plants are heat-stressed.
The Japanese beetle question is still hanging – good season or bad? I'm betting they developed beneath the soil unscathed by heating in April and freezing in May, and we'll see all too many of them. Like weeds, some pests will always be with us.
If gardening seasons were predictable, if plants and animals arrived and performed on schedule, and if we kept good notes – how easy our jobs would be! Every garden would be a Better Homes and Gardens photo op, each garden wedding and garden tour a pleasure to orchestrate. But alas, each different season offers something new – just to keep it interesting. Embrace the diversity.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.