It’s quite an experience visiting hydrangea expert Mary Spies on her farm Stormsvlei – she has over 3 000 of these plants!
Mary has been cultivating hydrangeas since 1990. “After retiring as a hairdresser, my late husband, Willem, who was a farmer, saw the potential of the thriving hydrangeas in our garden, and suggested we expand them into a business. He then set about constructing a shade cloth system for the plants to grow under and I cultivated each and every cutting myself to make sure I got the varieties I wanted. That’s why I know I have 3 000 plants!” she says.
The farming operation is largely organic; to fertilise the plants, Mary uses kraal manure which she gets from twin sons Werner and Dieter’s sheep and cattle farm. A colony of earthworms helps to keep the soil fertile and it is regularly analysed by an agriculturist in Swellendam to make sure it has sufficient nutrients for the plants. She sprays against red spider mites and fungi to prevent any infestations that might develop as a result of the plants being grown so close together.
Mary and her team of six women pick up to 15 000 fresh and preserved hydrangeas every year; the fresh flowers are harvested from mid- January to the end of June. “We have an extended season because we pick flowers often and the plants are grown under shade cloth,” she explains.
Apart from supplying fresh flowers to florists, Mary also sells preserved flowers to exporters which she first tints. Her daughter-in-law, Jacobie, uses the surplus flowers for confetti.
“Jacobie’s confetti is very popular. It is dried so it can be purchased quite a while before the wedding and stored, ready for the big day.”
Mary's expert advice
After all these years of growing hydrangeas, Mary knows exactly what these plants need and how to nurture them.
- Hydrangeas should not receive direct sunlight from 11:00 to 15:00.
- Although hydrangeas should be kept moist at all times, we only apply 10 minutes of water a day. I believe that the good quality compost we add to the soil annually after pruning the plants contributes to them needing less water.
- In September, when the shrubs start to bud, we give them half a cup of 3:1:5 each.
- The flowers do best in soil with a pH of 5-6. If you have acidic soil, your flowers will be blue, while in more alkaline soil they’ll be pink. If you want to know in advance what colour your hydrangeas will be, test your soil with a kit available from garden centres.
- The pruning of hydrangeas is important. We prune in the first week of July in a very specific way: a third of the plant is cut back, leaving just two eyes per stem, then another third is cut a little longer to facilitate an early flowering and the final third is cut away completely to encourage new growth.
- We only pick early in the morning, and the inner flower (anther) must already be open by one-third – the inner flower is the tiny bloom in the middle of the petals. If you pick the flowers too soon, you’ll have to discard them the next day.
- Once it has been picked, a further 1cm of the stem must be cut off. Immerse the flower stalk immediately in hot water and leave it for 2-3minutes. Then we immerse it in deep, cold water up to the neck of the bloom and spray the flower head with water. Leave the flowers for at least two hours, but preferably overnight, in cold water. The next day the flower will feel stiff and brittle; it can now be placed in a vase and will stay beautiful for up to two weeks.
- Add 1 teaspoon of Milton Sterilising Fluid to 2 litres of water. This will keep the water in your vase clean. Remember to replenish the water in the vase every day.