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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Despite poor showing, hydrangeas still hold promise

Not fans of full sun, hydrangeas perform best

Not fans of full sun, hydrangeas perform best in shade. Credit: Michael Galvin

DEAR READERS: Many of you have been asking why your hydrangeas performed poorly this summer. Some are concerned they will never bloom again.

If your plants leafed out and grew this year, with no other issues aside from a lack of blossoms, they will be fine.

As I reported in June, hydrangeas (as well as butterfly bushes, fig trees and some others) were slow to break dormancy this year due to the effects of the extremely cold winter of 2013-14. With few exceptions, the most popular hydrangea species -- hydrangea macrophylla -- bloom on old wood, which is the prior season's growth. If yours did not bloom this year, but were otherwise fine, you can be fairly certain the deep freeze inhibited this year's buds.

This summer, your plants were busy preparing for next year's show. If all goes well during winter, all should be back to normal come spring. Just don't give in to the temptation to prune them.

If plants died back to the ground last winter but had new growth this year, give them another year or two to rebound fully.

DEAR JESSICA: I have a mature magnolia tree with rows of small holes all around the trunk. I don't know if this is a sign of disease or damage from insects, none of which I've seen. Your thoughts? -- Don Rector, Melville

DEAR DON: Although it sounds like an insult John Wayne would have uttered before swaggering over to duel with his nemesis, a yellow-bellied sap sucker is to blame for the neat row of shallow holes around your tree's trunk. The bird is a woodpecker that drills the holes and then licks the sap (and insects) that leak out. The next time you hear jackhammer-type stuttered drumming coming from the yard, sneak a peek at your tree. Chances are you'll catch the bird in the act.

It is possible the woodpecker is trying to reach insects inside your tree, so there may be some sort of infestation. An arborist should be able to help if you suspect that to be the case.

The damage doesn't appear to be severe yet, but you should take steps to prevent further damage and complications. Treat the damaged area with a fungicide, which will help thwart infection and facilitate healing. To discourage future drilling, wrap the trunk with hardware cloth or use an auditory (wind chimes) or visual (mirrors) deterrent. The birds are not stupid, however, and will soon realize the deterrents aren't a threat, so it's advisable to switch them around regularly. Avoid applications of sticky products, as they can seriously harm the birds.

DEAR JESSICA: My garden did very well this year and produced a nice crop. I have seeds from cucumbers, jalapeño peppers, tomatoes, etc. I was wondering if you could tell me the proper way to store seeds from this year's crop of veggies, as I'd love to use them next year. -- Linda Curro, Jericho

DEAR LINDA: When saving seeds, it's important to know that if hybrid plants were grown, the seeds you plant next year will not produce the same tomatoes or peppers you grew this year. Hybrids are created by plant breeders who aim to produce a plant that will retain certain desirable attributes of two or more different varieties. The seeds they produce, however, have not been bred, and so will not produce the same quality crop. In fact, it's not possible to determine which ancestral positive and negative traits will pass into the new generation of seeds. It could be a fun experiment, as long as you aren't expecting the same results you had this year. If your plants are heirloom, their seeds produce plants that are the same as their parent.

Cucumbers (as well as melons and squash) often are cross-pollinated by insects during the growing season. This isn't obvious to growers because it doesn't affect the fruit produced in the current crop. However, if planted, their seeds often yield inferior plants and less-than-desirable fruit.

Tomatoes and peppers are among the easiest seeds to save. There are folks who will advise you to boil, ferment or otherwise pre-treat seeds, but I don't have a lot of time and have done very well without doing that.

For tomatoes:

• Select the best-looking tomatoes from your strongest, healthiest plants and slice them in half. You'll see the seeds are encased in a gelatinous liquid. Don't worry about separating them out. Just scoop out the gel and spread it in a thin layer on a paper plate. Use several plates if you have a lot of seeds.

• Allow to air dry completely. The liquid will evaporate and the seeds will adhere to the plate. Scrape seeds off and store them in a paper envelope. Or, if you're as lazy as I am, put the whole plate in a paper bag and worry about scraping them off next year (Martha Stewart isn't watching, I promise).

• Store in a cool, dry place. If you choose the refrigerator, as I do, keep them away from fruit (ethylene gas released as fruit ripens may adversely affect germination).

Peppers are even easier:

• Leave some ripe ones on your plants until they begin to wrinkle. Cut them open, remove seeds and spread them out to dry.

• Store in a cool, dry place in a paper envelope.

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