Tuesday, June 15, 2010

(Largely) Let It Be

Frequently Mars and I are unsure as to the identity of many of the perennial flowers we grow on our property.

It is not because we are ignorant of floriculture. In general we know what the plant is when we put it into the ground, and roughly what it can be expected to do. We apparently just don't consider it vital enough information to store it in our long-term memory neurons.

Nor is it because our gardens are unplanned. They are - to a degree. Then inevitably a friend gifts us with a new shrub. Or an abandoned plant begs to become a member of our forever family. And we find a place for them.

But this time we know exactly what we are talking about. It is a "mophead" type, "Endless Summer" hydrangea. It is the plant that's confused. Actually it knows that it's a hydrangea. It just can't decide what color it wants its flowers to be.
"Flower color in hydrangeas is influenced by the presence of aluminum, as well as soil pH. For blue flowers, the plant must have access to aluminum. If the soil naturally contains aluminum, the pH must be slightly acidic for the plants to access it. A range of 5.1 to 5.5 is ideal. To get the bluest hydrangeas possible, a solution of 1 tablespoon of aluminum sulfate per gallon of water can be applied to plants throughout the growing season. To avoid burning the roots, water plants well before applying solution.

"When the pH is 6.0 to 6.2, hydrangeas will turn pink. Adding dolomitic lime to soil several times a year will raise the soil pH. However, take care not to raise the soil pH above 6.4, as an iron deficiency may turn the plant's leaves yellow." (Hartford Courant 6/11/2010)

Our bush is getting pretty well stocked in flower heads. But the hues of the individual ones vary from Al-loving blue to dolomite-absorbing pink - with some solidly in one camp or the other, several attempting to accommodate both (either half and half, or all purple) and a few white ones.

When we planted the shrub we put it into a well-turned plot of native dirt, topsoil, compost, and peat moss. But we've never done anything "Chemical" to influence the results.

Last year Mars saw something in the paper about using coffee to lower the pH level. I looked on the Internet and, not surprisingly, found some websites touting the breakfast beverage as an acidifier, and others equally convinced it was an acid neutralizer. Neither the newspaper article nor the web pieces explained whether it was the caffeine or some other ingredient that caused the effect - whatever that effect turned out to be. All we have is decaf anyway so - with really steady nerves - we gave it a try. Why not?

Every morning, for a couple of months beginning in early spring, I faithfully scattered the wet grounds from our cone shaped little Braun basket around the base of the plant. The squirrels and ground feeding birds looked quizzically at the dark brown pile that was accumulating adjacent to their feeding area. A couple of them gave it a sniff. But none of them paid any more attention than that.

In June blue flower heads began to appear. Mars and I were quite pleased. And we probably would have been even happier if we had been able to remember whether the new hues were more vivid, or the same as, or duller than those of the preceding year.

Whatever it was - and we never did decide - it was good enough for us.

So this annum, in the end (without the aid of coffee), I suspect the hydrangea will once again choose to adorn itself in azure. But whatever color choice it makes will be just fine with Mars and me.

We have become quasi-laissez-faire gardeners. "Quasi" because we still weed, and maintain favorable social distances between our shrubs by pruning the intruders back and sequestering them behind wire barriers. Laissez-faire because we trust the plants to take care of the rest.

This type of gardening is easy when the flora grow in good soil, get enough rainwater, have sufficient room to be themselves, and (most importantly) know exactly what they are supposed to do - year after year after year.

It is our version of intelligent design.

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