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In Good Thyme

"A few weeks ago, a friend and I were driving through an older suburban neighborhood, looking for the signs that would lead us to our next stop on the garden tour. Most of the homes dated from the '40s and '50s, and featured tidy lawns, established trees and neatly-trimmed foundation plantings. It was a homey kind of neighborhood. I almost expected to see Donna Reed step onto a front porch in a crisp shirtwaist dress and apron, or observe Wally and Beaver ride by on their Schwinns. Many of the streetside plantings included mounds of mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)just coming into bloom. My friend commented, Look at these hydrangeas. They're so all-American. It's true that H. macrophylla thrives in most areas of the U.S. Your grandmother probably had one of these voluptuous shrubs in her garden, whether she lived in Poughkeepsie, Indianapolis, St. Louis or Walla Walla. But, actually, H. macrophylla traveled to the New World from Europe. And centuries before Europeans took a liking to it, the hydrangea was popular in Asia.But what's not to like about the deciduous hydrangea? It's well behaved and undemanding, and is rarely bothered by insects or disease. It adapts well to a wide range of climates, and isn't difficult to propagate from cuttings. It produces big, blowsy blooms in sunset colors. The flowers dry easily and can be used in impressive everlasting arrangements and wreaths.All it asks is to be planted in nice, humus-y soil in a spot protected from hot midday and afternoon sun. Give it enough water to live up to its botanical name, which in Greek, means roughly, water cup.The mophead can grow to a rounded five or more feet. If you want to keep it smaller, prune it soon after flowering, as it blooms on the previous year's wood. Don't prune a hydrangea down to the ground, or you won't see any flowers next year. In the spring, cut out any dead wood and remove a few of the thicker branches to encourage new growth.Remember playing with litmus paper in science class? Well, the mophead hydrangea is the botanical equivalent of litmus. Most will produce blue blooms in our acidic northwest soil. Add a couple cupfuls of garden lime in early spring and the blossoms will be pink. You can also purchase naturally red or pink hybrids. If you like the blue, you can increase its intensity somewhat by working a handful or two of Epsom salts into the soil. I've also heard of people burying nails or pennies beneath a hydrangea, but I can't say for certain that this activates a color change. Try it and let me know the results!Another attractive hydrangea is the lacecap, which resembles just that. A delicate halo of pale blue sterile blossoms surrounds an intensely blue cluster of fertile flowers. Those unfamiliar with this variety may think there's a problem, since the tight center cluster resembles unopened buds. But that's the unusual beauty of this flower.Hydrangea has a climbing cousin, too. H. anomala is a vigorous, woody vine that bears lacy white clusters of flowers. It can cover the side of a house or clamber up a tree, and doesn't require trellising. It is, however, a slow starter. I planted mine four years ago. Last year was the first time it flowered. This summer it's doubled in size and is covered with buds. It should put on quite a show in about two weeks.Other hydrangeas worth considering include the pretty oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), and the voluminous ITALH. paniculata. Native to the U.S. southeast, the oakleaf is even more carefree than its easy-going relatives. It can take more sun and drier soil than other hydrangeas, but will also do well in shade. Its attractive foliage can stand on its own; the clustered white blooms are a midsummer bonus. If you've got the room, H. paniculata is a graceful, woody shrub that can become the focal point of your summer garden. Often shaped and grown as a small tree, it produces giant white flower panicles, which gradually turn pale pink, then lavender, then parchment gold. It's the most vigorous of the genus, and generally requires annual pruning.There are other attractive hydrangea species and intriguing new hybrids being developed all the time. Topping my garden wish list is a new, golden-leaved mophead named Sun Goddess. But no matter which variety you choose, it's hard to go wrong with the happy-go-lucky hydrangea.---------------July garden tipPlan now for fall color spots. Shop for the chrysanthemums and asters that will beautify your late summer and fall garden.----------------Garden CalendarCoupeville Garden Club: Annual potluck picnic, Thursday, Aug. 3, at noon, Admiral's Cove shelter. Bring your own table service. Call 678-3043. Master Gardeners available: Every Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Master Gardeners answer gardening questions. Call 679-7327. Or go by WSU Extension Office, 501 NE Haller, Coupeville. E-mail questions to: wsumg@co.island.was.us-------------------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net. "

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