Plant Talk when Bloggers Meet Up


That’s what a bloggers’ meet-up is good for. Not too many people here in Buffalo really want to hear my pet plant peeves—for very long anyway—but during last weekend’s Buffa10 meet-up, I was able to freely vent with such equally outspoken gardeners/garden writers as Susan Cohen, Michele Owens, and many others about interesting topics like:

Hydrangeas that can’t make up their minds

I like these to pick a color and stick with it. Two things make me crazy: 1., the sickly bluish-pinky-gray hydrangeas that I see everywhere; and 2., the people who look at my unfashionably strong pink ones and say “Oh, you must add x or y to get that color.”  I don’t add anything to my acidic soil except compost, but I do buy varieties such as “Alpenglow” and “Forever Pink” (not “Forever and Ever”) that are supposed to be the color they stay. The  problem is that hydrangea fads dictate that you can never find certain varieties in nurseries from year to year. These days I simply recommend that people buy arborescens or the cool paniculata and quercifolia varieties. You can find macrophyllas with good color via mail order, but the small ones take a long time to mature in a climate like this—or
never make it at all.

Architectural context

This came up a lot over the weekend. Susan C. wondered if the aggressive color choices that you see—not only on typical painted lady clapboard houses, but also the painted brick Italianates—helped provide relief from winter grayness. Now, that is an interesting question. I’m not sure. Winter interest here tends to be built around sports, cultural pursuits, and staying inside by the fire. 

No, I think the creativity with the houses comes from the sheer chutzpah of many of the resolute urbanites who live and garden here. We do it because we can and because it’s fun. When warm weather comes, the streets explode with color from flowers and the structures they surround. But without the gardens, I don’t think I’d care about the houses as much.

Speaking of explosions

An on-going discussion is structure and formality in the garden. We have magazines in and out of here all summer long and expect some big names to be featuring Bflo gardens this year. But many of the gardens they gravitate to—all of them are cool, of course—focus more on hardscaping than others. I totally see why this happens—it is more interesting to explain how these structures interact and why they work so well. Plants are not the
important thing. I still like lush though, and my favorite gardens are ones like Ellie’s in the Cottage District, where I am surrounded by texture and color. 

It’s all good because it’s fun to talk about. And disagreement only adds spice.


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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. No, I don’t think I’d say anything about he colour of those hydrangea. Mainly because I’d be struck dumb! They’re so gorgeous, they simply call out to my tropical soul.
    I can grow orchids and anthuriums and anything tropical but hydrangeas are a total mystery to me. Not because they don’t grow here in India (my mom grows and blooms them) but they refuse to bloom for me (even the sickly blue-pink-gray ones).

  2. Nerd question. Is it more correct to use ‘varieties’ as you did or ‘cultivars’? Does it matter? Clematis……….tomato…….

    HORRIFIED!!! You don’t care about the house without the garden. My entire

    Vanishing Threshold

    is about landscape & house.

    For the typical homeowner, in the landscape, the biggest focal point is the house.

    Paint colors, shutters, roofing, gutters, doors, views into windows, & etc. are everything I include in landscape design.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Hi Tara, I meant macrophylla cultivars Forever Pink and Alpenglow. I do use varieties informally, but I see what you are saying.

    Actually, I did not say I don’t care about the houses. I have lived in an Italianate Victorian about which I care DEEPLY for 10 years! My question was if I would like these houses as much without their exuberant gardens. There was also an implied comment about winter interest, which we were discussing over the weekend.

  4. Our discussion on the pink H. macrophylla cultivars inspired a bit of research. Flower color in the macrophylla species is pH and aluminum sensitive. In the book ‘Hydrangeas’ by Michael Dirr, both ‘Alpengluhen’ and ‘Forever Pink’ are listed with a color range based not on pH but the aluminum content of the soil. More aluminum results in more blue in the flower so ‘Alpengluhen’, in the presence of high AL, will result in blue-purple flowers while ‘Forever Pink’ will turn blue. Aluminum sulfate is available in a small bag and can be used as a soil additive resulting in deeper blue/purple coloration on H. macrophylla for those wanting to ‘play’ with color. I love it when discussion results in inspired education and clarification. It was a great weekend. Many thanks.

  5. You can see that profusion of house paint colors in Chuck B’s walking tours of San Francisco all the time. I tend to think of it as a historical recreation run amuk or modernized. It works in the urban core because of the dizzing array of stimuli calling for your attention. All that color fits in. In suburbia or out in the country with more natural greenery that kind of color might be consider to be shouting.

  6. That’s a seriously spectacular streetfront garden in that photo! Wow! Love the blue…spikey…damn, I wish I could see that what one plant is…

    For hydrangeas, I’ve actually fallen in love with the native oakleafs. Beautiful foliage, tough as nails, no coddling required (which is good, because I am very bad at coddling.) Only problem is that the deer think they’re candy, so I’m limited to using them in the backyard, alas.

  7. The issue about hardscaping is one I have been thinking about lately. Clearly hardscaping can really take a garden to the next level. BUT… it is not cheap or easy to install. And I have been really frustrated by so-called gardening shows that are all about installing fire pits and don’t have much to say about the plants used.

  8. Having just paid for a bit of hardscaping, I can attest that is not cheap. But without the plants that I will plant around it, it is cold, stark, and not terribly inviting. Plants are still the important thing to me.

  9. The blue,spikey thing looks like Russian Sage to me.I grow them because not only do they look spectacular,they are tough.Regular watering for the first year in the ground only.Cut back to the woody part of the stem early in spring,then just watch it go.And the last for years, plant in full sun.

  10. Hardscaping is nice for designers because it is as close to instant gratification as one can get in gardening, and it’s the part of the landscape the owners are least likely to mess with later. It will stay as intended. It’s also the part owners are least likely to do themselves. It’s why they hire designers in the first place.
    Hardscaping and exuberance are not mutually exclusive. Jekyll planted her voluptuous schemes in formally shaped beds. If it’s good enough for Gertrude, it’s good enough for me.
    As for house colors, I think people should pick colors that work with the style of the house. Artificial dyes had just been invented, and Victorians loved the bright colors available for the first time. On the other hand, Craftsman houses like mine are supposed to blend in to the landscape. They should stay subdued (which hasn’t stopped me from picking the color of black cherries for my trim. It works with the red/purple leaved plants in my garden). When planting it is a good idea to keep the house colors in mind or vice versa. A neutral house gives you the freedom to do anything in the garden.

  11. Thanks for the kind words and shout out Elizabeth! I definitely have an opinion about everything and was grateful to be able to speak so freely with everyone without stepping on toes…or weeds…or in the proverbial compost. Buffalo was a revelation of how a simple idea–opening a private garden for view can ultimately transform a city’s idea of itself. I hope that garden lovers of all stripes will take time to visit–it’s worth it.

  12. I do love the pink of your hydrangeas so. I’m emailing you a photo of my Endless Summer hydrangea now so you can see it really is blue like I insisted on Sunday. Of course, we put tons of coffee grounds around it each spring, so that probably helps.

  13. Yes Heather, the words “like I insisted,” sum up the fun of our discussions over the weekend.

    I have heard that the coffee grounds help. But I have also heard that they should not help unless they have been composted first.

    The mystery of hydrangeas. Please do send me the pictures.


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