Q&A with Master Gardener Betty Montgomery
By Jamie Haas
Join us in welcoming our 2020 Spencer Lecturer, master gardener Betty Montgomery! No stranger to the hydrangea, Betty has been collecting the flowers for more than twenty years, discovering the most successful methods of growing them through trial and error along the way. Her latest book, Hydrangeas: How to Grow, Cultivate, and Enjoy, was written for the beginner gardener and walks readers through different kinds of hydrangeas and how to take care of them, as well as suggestions on how to use them in arrangements. Read on to learn more about Betty's history with the art of gardening!
Q: How did your love affair with hydrangeas begin?
A: I have always loved the outdoors. As a child, I would stay outside until dark playing. Then I started gardening some in our yard, doing little things. When I married and moved to our first little duplex apartment, my aunt sent me some daffodil bulbs. I planted them and was thrilled when they came up and flowered. My father-in-law encouraged me and made me think that I had the prettiest garden in the world—and I believed it! His praise meant so much.
Hydrangeas came later. A friend and mentor gave me my first hydrangeas, and he helped me plant them. When we acquired a summer house in the mountains, in about 1997, I started collecting hydrangeas because they bloomed when we were there in the summer. I collected hydrangeas from every place possible: West Coast, East Coast, any different ones I could find. I became acquainted with Michael Dirr, an expert on hydrangeas, and he gifted me some when I visited him at UGA. We became friends and I was able to go with him on a trip to visit nurseries on several occasions. He taught me a lot about them. Almost all of the ones I planted were very small, about 5 or 6 inches in size, so I was able to watch them grow. I acquired about 150 different cultivars over time.
Q: What is your background? When did you become a master gardener?
A: I took the first master gardener course offered in my area—that was about 1985. At the time, I had small children and could not garden as I did after they were older. Once they were all off at school, I really started gardening and created a woodland garden that is about 5 acres; it is my pride and joy.
Q: When raising hydrangeas, is there a secret to success?
A: Some species of hydrangeas are easier to root than others. Macrophylla (bigleaf, the most grown kind) are the easiest. I take cuttings in July when the new growth gets a little firmer. I mix up half vermiculite, a soil amendment used to improve aeration and drainage, and half peat moss to use as my potting medium. After I pot them up, I put them in a shady place next to a water source so that I can mist them daily for the first two weeks. It’s humid where I live, so I don’t have to cover them to hold in moisture as in dryer areas.
Q: Are there particular varieties that would work best in Birmingham gardens?
A: I would think most do well, certainly the macrophylla (bigleaf). The first oakleaf was found in Georgia, and they can withstand the heat of the South. Arborescens (such as ‘Annabelle’) and paniculata (such as “Limelight’) might need to be positioned in the coolest spot in the garden. ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas will take some shade, but ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas need more sun to develop flowers. These are two that like nights that are a little cooler. Our problem in the South for growing some plants is that we don’t cool off enough at night to let the plants rest. New York gets as hot as we do some days but cools off at night. That makes a big difference.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your passion for gardening?
A: I love trees and shrubs best. I have a woodland garden that is mainly trees and shrubs, which take less care in my opinion. I also love perennials and annuals—and grow a few—but the majority of my garden plants are trees and shrubs. I work to make it a fall, winter, and spring garden.
To hear Betty's hydrangea-growing tips in person, attend our 2020 Spencer Lecture on Thursday, March 5! Admission is free, but registration is required. Sign up to join below!