from glitz to grits

I’m obsessed with the South. Moved by it. The "what’s that got to do with the price of butter" sayings, roadkill baked goods, dove hunt dinners, the ironic formality found in such a slow-paced, porch-drunk, June bug of a place. So it stood to reason that once I moved to Texas, I’d need a proper subscription to the ladymag Southern Living (among other How To Be a Proper Anything magazines). Said subscription has lead to my current state of derangement. The May 2010 issue of Southern Living features French hydrangeas and a promise of potato salad picnic pleasure. From glitz to grits, girls, I now know that "mulch" is a verb.

Did you know in order to change the color of your hydrangeas you simply change what you put in the soil? I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks didn’t. Acidic soil makes flowers turn blue, whereas alkaline should be credited for all those pink blushing blooms. I have a hard enough time remembering what alkaline even is, never mind how much to add a few shots to my soil. I’ve even watched Southern Living’s Grumpy Gardener’s Guide to Hydrangeas, hoping they’d show how to go about planing these suckers. No luck, though now I’m deeper in the obsession. 

hydrangea pink
Southern Living Hydrangeas

Why am I so consumed? Quite simply, a generous sweep of hydrangeas bring me that "I’ve just showered, had my hair blown, toes painted" feeling, all without doing any of it. They remind me of childhood (my parents home had them), of the Hamptons, of everything I adore about summer. They’re my favorite statement. They make life feel like the 4th of July. They bring to mind crisp white wine, linen napkins, grilled corn, lobsters and hurricane lamps. I have to imagine they’re worth all the trouble, and I’d love to trim my driveway with them, the entrance way of our home, plant them out back near our outdoor living room.

That’s another thing I love that about Texas: outdoor living spaces. We have a living room outside, complete with sectional sofas, throw pillows, a cozy blanket, coffee table, area rug, television, lights, bug zapper, heat lamps (when needed), and a built in stereo system… all beside a dining table, wrap around porch, grill, mini-fridge stocked with wine + beer, and of course, a porch swing. I love it. That is, when it doesn’t feel as if I’m walking in a parking lot, directly behind a bus.

It seems simple enough, right? My question is, how do I go about finding a crafty gardener to help me get started? Because the truth is, I kill everything. I strongly believe, though, that I set myself up to fail. Basil has no chance of living if I don’t know how to properly prune it, keeping it from blooming. I know I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to clip exactly. Whenever I try, my basil leaves start turning pale and grow in small (and I know yellowing is to do with too much water or sometimes too much sun). They never turn into fat vibrant green leaves as big as a hat. That’s another one who needs to be well-drained, not drown.

Directions: clip regularly to force new leaves to grow and prevent flowering. Cut about one-third of the stem at a time, making each cut at a leaf node.

What, in all that is blooming, does that even mean? I need someone to come over and teach me. Show me where to plant things and how to go about doing it, put me on a watering schedule. I want to learn but don’t know where to begin. Books don’t help with this kind of thing. I literally need a person to come to my home, analyze my soil, who can say, "Plant this here." I will pay them handsomely in alcoholic beverages with muddled berries and fresh mint. Primrose and promise.



  1. I adore hydrangeas! Had them at my summer wedding. Reminds me of my summers in Maine.

    As for mags–take it from a native Southerner–ditch Southern Living. Get Garden & Gun instead.

  2. I absolutely need someone to come to my house and show me where to plant things, how to trim things, where to put flowers and how to cut them for inside vases once the blooms come! I have a hydrangea that won’t grow – it wants to, but no blooms for the last two years and it isn’t getting bigger than a soccer ball – just some green leaves. I have peonies that are so top heavy they fall over the minute the bloom opens and they’re gorgeous – have no idea how to keep them upright…tried fishing line last year and it destroyed them. How do I trim back a huge a** rhodedendrum without destroying it? Weeds – they are the bain of my existence! I cut back a bunch of irises this past weekend and put them in a vase on Sunday in my foyer and they shriveled up and were beginning to die come Monday! What am I doing wrong?!? Anybody reading this with a green thumb living in Northern Virginia? HELP!

    1. From a Suzanne to a Susan… THe peony problem is easily fixed: buy peony rings. THey are metal and come on stands that you plunk into the soil next to the plant. Easy peasy. Any hardware store or garden centre carries them. Yeah, fishing line would slice right through the stems. Stick with the peony rings.

      As for your hydrangeas–I’m no expert, but I have unruly hydrangea bushes up to my ying yang. Does it have adequate sun? Don’t know what else to tell you–hydrangeas can be finnicky. I have one on one side of my front walkway that grows 50% larger each year, and then one on the other side of the walk that grows maybe 2% each year. Same soil, same light. One of life’s mysteries, I guess.

      Again, I’m far from an expert, so I can’t advise you on your rhododendrum, though I do know one should never prune a bush or plant by more than 1/3 at a time. My neighbour told me that just the other day.

      Not sure you’re doing anything wrong with your cut irises. Cut flowers just don’t last very long. Especially ones from your garden (as opposed to hardy, grown-to-cut flowers from your florist). Wildflowers are the same. Cut, they last barely 24 hours. Although, a teeny drop of bleach mixed into your vase water should help. Never tried it myself, but that’s what they say.

      Hope this helps a bit.

      1. Thank you Suzanne for the advice and ideas! I’m definitely going to look into the peony stands. One third at a time…wow, that will take forever! I didn’t realize there was a difference between the cut flowers you get in the store and the ones from your own garden. That makes me feel alot better. Will try the bleach idea – can’t hurt them anymore than already have…

        Appreciate the help – have a good day!

  3. i associate hyrdrangeas with the north east and with my summers with you in the hamps. bulbs (tulips, paper whites, daffodils, hyacinth), lilacs, peonies, i associate with the north and with my mother. when i think of texas, it’s the wildflowers on the side of the highways (bluebonnets, indian paintbrush, primrose)…but those only happen for a short time every spring. for texas, i also think of azaleas and crape myrtles and impatiens for a longer season of beauty. those were in my yard growing up in texas…though it was houston, not austin, so maybe the drier climate would not be as good to them.

    1. Author

      Ugh, you’re right. I took a walk in the ‘hood to see what types of flowers my neighbors have. Not a single one has hydrangeas. I have to believe there’s a reason, right? Though it’s hard where we live because we have so many deer. There are, without question, a remarkable amount of Magnolia trees, though. That kinda makes me happy. No substitute for hydrangea, mind you.

      Or for you, my sweet loverly chicita.

      1. If you collect the hair from your hair brush and put it in the garden it will keep the deer away. Kind of gross but it works.

  4. Stephanie,

    Hire a landscape architecture student from UT Austin! They are all looking to build their portfolios, and they will help you not only with the above questions, but also with bigger questions of whether your yard/soil is even appropriate to grow those finicky hydrangeas, and what you need to do to change/amend your yard if it’s not. They also are designers and not just horticulturists, but they won’t be as expensive as hiring a pro LA who specializes in doing entire yards.

    I’m a grad landscape architecture student in SoCal and I have people approaching me for this kind of thing quite often. UT Austin’s program is very highly regarded and I bet you could find an amazing up and coming LA that you could stick with over the years.

  5. Hydrangeas remind me so much of the Hamptons. They are always so blue! I had white ones at my wedding. They are absolutely my favorite flower. I’m a native New Yorker living in Charlotte, NC. I guess you could consider that the South, but it’s not super Southern.

    I would need a gardener to help me too. I usually end up killing anything we plant.

  6. If you are looking to garden some veggies, herbs and the like, I can highly recommend Bohemian Bounty. They can plan it and give you instructions to build/plant it yourself, they can do all of the work for you and they will even involve your kiddos in the process. Here’s a link to their website. They will however require payment in American currency and not alcohol, but you get what you pay for.

  7. Oh, Stephanie, this isn’t the South. Austin is in the South West where it’s dry and hot and clay soil. Hydrangeas love moisture: in the air and the soil. They can’t stand direct western sun so you are going to have a very frustrating time with them. Also you can forget about fuschia, most gardenias and camillias and peonys. I’ve tried them all. I’ve subscribed to several garden magazines, but none of them are about our poor conditions except an occaisional article about cacti, etc. and it breaks my heart to see those lush eastern gardens in full color photos.

    Go to a local nursery like The Great Outdoors, Big Red Sun, The Natural Gardener and see what they sell. The staff are great and will tell you your best bet with hydrangas or a good substiture like Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla).

    Good luck and enjoy our unique, rugged gardens.

  8. Also maybe check out these classes hosted by Travis County Master Gardener Association. :)

    It looks like at least a few of those might be useful – and they’ll be specific to the area around here. And they’re free and at Zilker! Plus the Master Gardener program is a pretty neat program and will absolutely introduce you to people who could answer the hydrangea question (I think you could probably grow them for a season here, but our temprature extremes would kill them one way or another)

    And thanks for making me look that info up – I think I could probably use a few of those classes myself.

  9. I m soo in love with your writing.
    My blog is the result of the power you have on me…

  10. Wish I had a green thumb! I am so bad with plants. I had a peace plant someone had sent to me that lasted a year and died!

    I too love hydrangea! So beautiful! And I never knew that about how they are different colors.

    I live in NY and our neighbor has a magnolia tree in the yard which is so dam pretty when it blooms but that lasts about 2 days! The poor thing probably longs for the south! (where it belongs) Not sure what it is doing up here in the northeast…

  11. My parents have a huge blue Hydrangea bush at their house. It is in a corner and near a brick wall, so it is not getting direct sunlight at all times. I wish I could post a picure here to show you.. Not much upkeep from my mom and yet always comes back in the spring/summer looking beautiful.. It’s strange really as others have a hell of a time trying to get theirs to grow right. I think it’s just a really finicky plant in general.

    I am in the south too and really miss all the flowers from up north.. All the flowers I associate with spring, we can’t get down here.. Especially peonies. I sure miss those!

    And speaking of things that make us feel pretty – Can you PLEASE post which shampoo and conditioner you use? Your hair is so gorgeous.

  12. I live in Austin and in my yard at my last house I had pink and purple hydrangeas. They did very well and I didn’t do much to them at all, just regular watering. At 360 and Bee Cave, there’s Pots and Plants (pink flamingos) and they can give you great advice.

  13. You can totally grow hydrangeas in Texas. My mother and grandmother both had them when I was growing up and I now have them in my yard. You just have to water them more in July and August when the temperature really cranks up.

    Also, opt for the Endless Summer hybrid so that you will get more blooms. The Endless Summer blooms on both old and new growth, while the more traditional varieties only bloom on last year’s growth.

    Any good nursery should have someone that would be happy to give you planting advice for a fee.

  14. Hydrangeas need a cool-ish spot. If you have a semi shady area in your lawn, you can fix the soil to mimic the eastern loam where they succeed more naturally. Organic material (poo or some kind of mushroom stuff) and rich dark topsoil mixed into your planting hole, and then if you have access to any pine needles to achieve acidity. Pine needles are also wonderful mulch for acid loving plants… azaleas come to mind.

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