If you’re new to gardening and don’t know what to plant, consider a hydrangea. I’ve been thinking about them as mine are in bloom now in late summer. They’re graceful in form, not difficult to grow, and decorate the garden with profuse, showy flowers. Here are five reasons I love them.
They’re easy-to-grow in most U.S. gardens
Unlike some shrubs that need just-the-right conditions, hydrangeas are versatile. They’re hardy from zones 2-9 so almost any gardener in the U.S. or even Canada can grow them. They tolerate heavy or sandy soil. And they bloom every year without fertilizer or major pruning, though those two bits of attention enhance their structure and blooms. If you live in the northern U.S., you’ll want to plant them somewhere where they’re protected from hot afternoon sun and if you live in the South, you’ll want to plant them in mostly shade. Other than that, they require only some supplemental water the first year and not much attention after that.
Their structure is graceful
Hydrangea shrubs grow in a loose ball shape. They rarely shoot branches out in odd, unhealthy crossing directions. They simply add a few inches every year, leafing out in opposite patterns with stems that are sometimes stiff and sometimes a bit floppy. Regardless, they never do what I call splaying. Some shrubs like certain viburnums or callicarpas will branch out in all directions. This creates odd messy forms that are hard to prune. But the hydrangea never has a messy form, its branch structures are mostly tidy and definitely lovely. They even peel a bit as they age.
Hydrangeas are easy to prune
Generally speaking, very little pruning is required of hydrangeas. If you have a hydrangea in deep shade and it gets leggy, that’s a different story. If you have hydrangea aspera, that’s also a different story. But overall, mophead and panicle hydrangeas don’t need much pruning.
When pruning a hydrangea, look for old thick canes that cross other branches and remove those. Remove dead canes too. But the only other pruning needed from year to year is deadheading. I’ve known gardeners who don’t even do that, instead allowing the delicate blooms to simply dry over winter and disintegrate in the wind. I like to tidy mine up, bringing in the blooms for table bouquets and such.
One thing to note: because many hydrangeas bloom on older stems, you’ll want to only prune back to the next lower crotch of leaves. Otherwise, you’ll accidentally remove forming buds. There’s detailed hydrangea pruning instructions all over the internet, but just remember this simple rule and you’ll be fine.
You can play with the flowers’ colors
Hydrangeas are famous for changing their flower colors based on a soil’s pH. The more acidic the soil is around a hydrangea, the bluer the flowers will be. The more alkaline, the pinker the flowers. It’s rare to grow a hydrangea whose flowers look exactly like the catalog’s color. But that’s the fun part. You can add lime or acidic fertilizer to create a soft lavender or smoky pink. With certain cultivars, you can amend the soil to create a deep purple color.
What I love most about hydrangea flowers is they bloom for a long time and fade gently as they dry, thus creating changing color in the garden and antique-looking bouquets.
A variety of flower shapes
The most recognizable hydrangea flower is the mophead (top photo). It’s the circular pom-pom most folks know and some associate with old fashioned shrubs. For this reason, some gardeners don’t care for hydrangeas. But! There are other species that offer more interesting flower heads.
The lacecap hydrangea has a flat corymb for a bloom with tiny fertile flowers that look like little buds surrounded by sterile flowers with big sepals. Lacecaps are quite alluring as they often have a two-tone effect, the interior blooms are lighter, the exteriors, darker.
Also, the panicle-shaped hydrangeas are fun. The inflorescences are tall and pointed like a lilac blossom and offer a bold, spiky presence. Also, their colors don’t change due to soil pH so the color is more reliable. Cultivars range from white to lime green to pink and deeper red.
Online, you’ll find lots of detailed instruction on how to grow hydrangea. Try not to get overwhelmed. And instead of shopping via catalogs, I recommend perusing your local nursery. I like to buy with my eyes: see the plant’s form (and possibly blooms), check out its health, etc. Plus, nursery workers can answer questions and offer advice.
Overall remember, you can begin creating the lovely structure of a mixed border with one hydrangea. Then build around that anchor. As the seasons progress, I’m sure you’ll find more fun plants with which to decorate the garden. If you want ideas, you can always check out my gardening archive site. Happy planting!