Dr. Jerry Bolduan, retired from his medical practice in San Francisco, and now cares for and harvest from over 20,000 plants at Green Valley Growers in Graton. Here the varied colors of Hydrangea Amy Pasqual engulf the grower who has appeared on Martha Stewart's show 18 times.

A head for hydrangeas

When Martha Stewart walked through the San Francisco Flower Mart at 3 a.m. one morning in 1991 and spotted the beauty at the Green Valley Growers booth, it would indelibly change the fortunes of a flower that had all but wilted out of fashion.

At the time, owner/grower and floral arranger Jerry Bolduan had no idea who the blonde, early-bird shopper was. But his employee at the time gave him the heads-up that he'd be wise to pay special attention to this customer.

A year later, Stewart published a lengthy and gorgeous spread on Bolduan's vast collection of hydrangeas, which can be delicate lacecaps or puffy balls of pinks, deep blues, purples, lavenders, greens and creams.

Readers were enchanted. The piece drew national attention to Bolduan's shady green oasis near Graton in Green Valley. At the time, few growers emphasized this old-fashioned shrub, seen by many as a bit of a grandma plant. But Stewart's spotlight on Green Valley spurred a hydrangea revival. No longer regarded as frumpy, hydrangeas are back in favor, a flower to lust for in gardens and arrangements.

Bolduan, a former family physician and pioneer in AIDS treatment until health issues of his own drew him from San Francisco to Green Valley in the 1980s, went on to appear in 50 Martha Stewart magazines, including the May 2011 issue, as well as a number of books. He designed and assembled most of the wreaths featured in her book on American wreaths. Stewart's 70th birthday celebration Aug. 3 is being graced with fresh blooms from Green Valley.

"One hundred percent, you get touched by gold with Martha," says Bolduan, who stays at her various homes whenever he appears on her show or TV specials. "She's the smartest woman I've ever met."

Celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Barbra Streisand have ordered from Green Valley Growers. Oprah Winfrey had Bolduan make a special tree for her own home with natural ornaments he made himself.

For someone who grows for the high-end cut-flower trade, Bolduan doesn't make his own job easy. He doesn't grow in fields or rows. His boutique farm is really a series of informal gardens artfully spreading out in bursts of color and nuances of texture around his own home. His studio for making flower arrangements is his garage.

"Everything has to be done by hand. It's the way Martha would do her own garden," he said. "Business-wise, it's not smart at all."

It was just a driveway and apple trees when Bolduan and his late partner, Peter Cerda, a landscaper, bought the property and began collaborating on an informal garden in 1986. Cerda died 21 years ago, but Bolduan continued to develop what they started.

He yearned for hydrangeas because of fond memories of his grandmother, who loved them. But Cerda cautioned that they need shade. So they planted trees galore to protect the 175 varieties of shade-craving varieties of hydrangea that have put Green Valley on the horticultural map. The trees serve the dual purpose of providing branches and blossoms of their own for arrangements.

"We planted 50 of a certain maple called Autumn Revelation. In August it starts turning and the leaves are a brilliant flame red and orange," Bolduan said.

He covers those plants that are more exposed with 75 percent shade cloth to keep them from burning.

Interestingly, it's the fallen apples from old orchards that created a perfect soil environment for Bolduan's blues of breathtaking clarity.

Hydrangeas are bred for color. But color can also be dependent on the soil. To bloom blue, big-leaf hydrangea must have aluminum in the soil. And yet the aluminum in most soils won't be available to the plant if the soil pH is high. For most big-leaf hydrangea, blue flowers will be produced in acidic soil with low pH. Neutral to alkaline soils will usually produce pink flowers. A mid-range pH will produce purple flowers or a mixture of blue and pink.

Gardeners can change the color of a hydrangea by raising or lowering the pH of the soil. It can be raised by adding lime or lowered by adding bluing agents of aluminum sulphate or acidic organic matter.

Bolduan doesn't engage in chemistry, however. Most of his signature intense blues come naturally from the acidity created by all those years of apples, and the apples he adds.

"When you buy apples, you don't eat them all. They'll rot in your basket or bowl. I tell people to just chop them up and throw them under your plant and they'll turn naturally to vinegar, lowering the pH and you'll end up with more blue and more purple naturally, without adding chemicals," he said.

A tour of his garden shows some of his favorites. Many people are familiar with the big mopheads. But the world of hydrangeas is so much more. Bolduan points out the white paniculatas, like the towering "Mt. Everest," which produce a pyramid-shaped flower and which will take full sun.

He points to a wall of oakleaf hydrangeas, a massive display of huge, beautiful flowers that will turn a brilliant red in December just in time for wreaths and Christmas arrangements.

And then there is the "Incrediball," enormous white heads of up to 12 inches on straight stems.

But it's not just the fresh summer blooms. Hydrangeas are so giving, because they also are stunning when dried.

"When these turn apple green they hold and will dry exactly like that and you will have these spectacular dried green flowers," he says. "You can use them for months in an arrangement."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

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