Snow on plants; orchid auction, hydrangea care

WASHINGTON — Germaine in Greenbelt writes: “I have an oakleaf hydrangea that was damaged last year because a well-meaning neighbor shoveled snow onto it and broke one of its branches. I now do my own shoveling, and won’t put any more snow on my shrubs than Mother Nature already has, but that was plenty — and I haven’t shoveled any of it off yet.”

That’s just fine, Germaine. Our primary concern after a storm has to be clearing ourselves out first.

You don’t ever want to be shoveling snow off your plants — the risk of damage is just too great. If heavy snow seems to be crushing a plant, you can use a broom to gently knock off as much loose snow as you can, but don’t try to break up any ice on the branches. Stop brushing if the snow resists gentle work on your part.

Trust in the plants and let the sun take care of the rest.

Oakleaf hydrangea advice

Germaine in Greenbelt also asked for advice about that oakleaf hydrangea that suffered a broken branch last year. She writes: “What can I do for it now? I didn’t prune it back in its entirety in the autumn. Is that something I should have done? I’ve never grown one before.”

Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood, Germaine — that’s wood that grew the previous season. So if you had “cut it back in its entirety” in the fall, you would have removed all of this year’s flower buds! (You might also have killed the poor thing entirely by stimulating new growth when it was trying to go dormant.)

One of the simplest rules of pruning — and maybe the most important — is that if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, don’t do it! And nothing should ever be pruned in the fall.

Fall pruning would remove the following year’s flower buds on some of your plants. It would stress all of them by interfering with their going dormant.

If you must prune a hydrangea ….

Don’t feel bad, Germaine; a lot of longtime gardeners don’t know how to prune their plants. Unfortunately, that doesn’t ever seem to stop them.

Your hydrangea — a magnificent bloomer whose flowers change color over the course of the season — doesn’t need pruning. (Dirty Little Secret: Very few plants require pruning; over-pruning is one of the biggest mistakes in gardening.)

You can clean it up and reduce its size a bit, but at the right time of year and with a double dose of patience. This advice, by the way, applies to all types of hydrangeas, whether they bloom on new wood or old:

  • Wait until your hydrangea starts growing again in the spring.
  • Wait two or three more weeks.
  • Then you can prune out any clearly dead or damaged wood, but don’t touch any healthy parts.
  • Then wait until all the flowers have opened. You can go in and remove any branches that are blocking the flowers, and if you MUST, prune it back a bit all around to keep it to a manageable size.

Oakleaf hydrangeas do the best without any pruning, and should only be pruned right after all the flowers have revealed their positions. Never prune after summer arrives.

Winter plant protection: No sheds for your shrubs

Germaine in Greenbelt — it was a long email — concludes: “Can you provide some advice in general on protecting plants during a blizzard like the one we just had? I’m not so concerned about the cold as I am about the weight of snow on my shrubs. I was going to ask a friend to build some protective wooden structures to keep the snow from falling right on top of them, but that idea went by the boards.”

Good thing it did, Germaine: Heavy snow would almost certainly collapse such structures and finish the plants underneath for good. As we said earlier, you can try to gently brush some of the loose snow off your shrubs when the storm is over, but mostly just trust their ability to bounce back.

More helpful would be to shovel clean snow — that’s snow that hasn’t been salted — around the base of your plants. A couple inches of snow cover provides great insulation for the roots. Freezing cold weather without snow on the ground does the worst winter damage.

Go gaze at orchids instead of old snow!

Looking for an antidote for the snow overdose? The National Capital Orchid Society will come to our rescue Sunday, Feb. 7, with their 38th annual orchid auction.

More than 300 rare and unusual orchids will be on display beginning at 10 a.m., and then they’ll go on the block one by one, beginning at 11, in what is traditionally some very fast-paced auction action.

Admission is free and you don’t have to bid; you can just immerse yourself in the orchids, many of which were grown out of private collections and are rarely seen, even by orchid experts!

That’s next Sunday, Feb. 7, at Behnke’s Nursery, in Beltsville. Details here.

Oh, and the auction just happens to be happening exactly one week before Valentine’s Day. Hint, hint.

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