Hydrangeas for All

My White Moth hydrangea

I haven’t always liked hydrangeas. As a child living in the Bronx, I saw a number of houses on our street wirh tiny yards that held a blue hydrangea or two. In spite of the interesting color and flower heads that everyone called ‘snowballs’ I did not like them.  Who can explain dislikes? And the things a child takes against are even more mysterious.

Though I rarely saw hydrangeas in gardens as a new gardener,  over the past years they have become very popular. Decorating magazines started showing hydrangea blossoms in summerl bouquets and dried  flower arrangements. Hybridizers became very busy creating new varieties. I started paying attention.

Years ago, on a garden tour, I saw a huge oakleaf hydrangea. It was enormous, resting and spreading itself in a fence corner reminding me of a granny with a generous lap. The flowers were not snowball mopheads, but had a tall conical shape I found very attractive. The oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has a lot of advantages. It is native to the United States and so supports the local food web for birds, butterflies and insects. It is very hardy, to zone 3, and it tolerates drier and sunnier conditions than mophead varieties. In the fall the foliage turns beautiful rich colors.

New Oakleaf hydrangea

Last summer I bought an oakleaf hydrangea from Nasami Farm Nasami Farm in Whately. It serves several purposes for me. First, it is a native shrub. Second, it will grow very large and spready so that I can mulch underneath it and eliminate some lawn. Third, I will have large conical flowers for a long season that I like much more than the mopheads. Like most white hydrangeas these flowers will become tinged with pink in the fall. There are smaller oakleaf hydrangea hybrids like Pee Wee for those who limited space. Pee Wee will only grow about four feet tall and as wide, instead of having a six foot spread.


Having planted the oakleaf variety I thought that a hydrangea hedge would do away with more lawn  than a single shrub so I planted Limelight, a hybrid that I bought on sale. Limelight (H. paniculata) can easily get more than six feet tall and have an equal spread. Just what I need for reducing lawn. Limelight is very hardy and has chartreuse flowers from summer into fall when they will become paler and then shade to pink.  Soil pH which changes some mopheads blue or pink depending on soil acidity, has no effect on this variety with its elongated blossoms. Like the oakleaf, it is tolerant of drier conditions and should be pruned in the fall or very early spring because it blooms on new wood.

Pinky Winky

By the time I planted Limelight my plant account was empty, but I need one more hydrangea to complete my hedge. Pinky Winky is a very popular hydrangea because of its large flowers which can be as much as 16 inches tall. They are pink at the bottom but keep opening white at the top. These are large hardy shrubs like Limelight, with equal tolerance for sun and dry soil. I should emphasize that any new tree or shrub should be kept well watered during its first year while it is becoming firmly established.

If you’d like a rich red flower early in the season,  Quick Fire is for you. It blooms earlier and the flowers turn red quickly – as suggested by the name.  The flowers are airier and less dense than mopheads.

Last summer I attended my cousin’s wedding held in a friend’s garden that was planted with masses of white Annabelle hydrangeas. The bride even carried a single hydrangea for a bouquet. I found these mopheads more appealing than I had before. Annabelle has been a hardy standard for a number of years, and for those who do like mopheads, a new variety is being introduced this spring. Incrediball (H. arborscens) has creamy white flower heads that can be 12 inches across. It is similar to Annabelle which has been such a favorite, but Incrediball has sturdier stems making it less floppy. It makes a good cut flower.

The surest way to succeed with any shrub or tree, is to plant it carefully. Begin by digging a generous hole.  Hydrangeas like a rich loose soil so take this opportunity to mix in a bucketful or more of compost. Check the roots when you take the shrub out of the container and if they seem compacted at all, loosen them, by raking through with your fingers or garden cultivator. Make sure that you don’t plant too high or too deeply. You can use a yardstick across the top of the dug hole to check placement.  Water the plant and hole generously when you have replaced half the soil, and again when all the soil is replaced and firmly tamped down. Keep all new plantings well watered for the first season, even those that are drought tolerant. Many plants will need less fussing in future years if they are well and healthily established.  Mulching will help prevent the soil from drying out rapidly.

It’s easy to see why you will find many hydrangeas marketed in the familiar green Proven Winners containers at garden centers. They are hardy, dependable, and give a long season of bloom. Just what we all desire in a plant. Photos of Limelight and Pinky Winky courtesy of Proven Winners.

Between the Rows   February 13, 2010

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Cyndy

    I have learned to love the hydrangeas as well. The variegated kind hardly ever flowers for me, but has fresh white edged foliage that is almost the last to go in the fall. Haven’t been to Nasami Farm, definitely sounds worth a visit!

  2. Lisa at Greenbow

    Isn’t it funny how we come to our likes and dislikes? I love hydrangeas since as a child our neighbor had a long row of them and I could hide from my parents in them. It was like a world that grownups couldn’t penetrate. I have translated that feel into my garden now. I have way too many hydrangeas for my small lot. Ha… I don’t really care I enjoy them so. Good luck with yours. I think you will enjoy them to the max. The oakleaf has such beautiful exfoliating quality when it matures and adds interest to the winter garden.

  3. JP

    I purchased 2 Peegee hydrangeas before I really understood the concept of planning and digging before you do the buying. Strangely enough, they are both still alive in containers, even though I’ve neglected them for the past 3 seasons! I really should put them in the ground since they seem so hard to kill…

  4. Pat

    Cyndy, I am not too familiar with the variegated hydrangeas, but I highly recommend Nasami. I don’t think we need grown only native plants, but we do need to be aware of how important they are to the food web, and plant some. They have so many excellent choices for the garden.
    Lisa – I love to think about all the associations we have with plants. Your garden must be beautiful.
    JP – It does sound like you have proved the hardiness of your hydrangeas. Just think what they’ll do in the ground!

  5. Rose

    Pat,I never met a hydrangea I didn’t like! Actually, my first real forays into gardening began because of hydrangeas. I saw some “Endless Summer” in a magazine and fell in love with those big blue blooms. That was the beginning of my first shade garden. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about hydrangeas and realize the mopheads don’t often look as perfect as they do in magazines:) The “Limelight” I planted a year ago last fall has not disappointed me, though, and I now have others like “Pinky Winky” on my wish list. I just saw another “must-have” advertised–it’s called strawberry-vanilla, or something like that, with gorgeous red and white blooms that look just like a strawberry sundae! I’d have a whole area just filled with hydrangeas if the bank account allowed:)

  6. Flaneur

    I used to despise hydrangeas and perhaps with good reason: the ones I saw were neglected, badly chosen and poorly utilized or placed. I thought they looked like the floral equivalent of a gaggle of lumpy dowagers at a garden party, all wearing unattractive floral print dresses and enormous flowered hats as if entered in a competition for Queen Mother look-alikes. And then one day (Yikes! 40 years ago?) I saw houses along the beach at Rehoboth, Delaware with hedges of lovely hydrangeas selected to flatter the wonderful seaside colors of the buildings. Suddenly the flamboyant whites, pinks and blues not only made sense but seemed inevitable and, who knew?, perfect. I always felt it was a weakness of mine to always want a lilac bush, and to that short list of must-haves I have added the hydrangea. If Hermes or Ferragamo ever issue a necktie in a hydrangea print silk, I’d happily wear it, in homage to the Queen Mother’s hats and to those glorious summers at the beach! If hydrangea were a medical condition, I’d try to catch it.

  7. Pat, I love hydrangeas, too. I got ‘Pinky Winky’ last year and can’t wait to see how it does this year after settling in. Also got an oak leaf a couple of years ago and it looks so beautiful in the fall!
    This is a really great post with so much wonderful information about hydrangeas. Thanks for posting it!

  8. carolyngail

    I see you’ve discovered hydrangeas, Pat! They really look great. I’ve written many a blog post about the spectacular ‘limelight’ and I love the dwarf oakleaf as well. They are also the top sellers at the tree and shrub lot where I work.

  9. I love oak leaf hydrangeas…. they look interesting even when not in bloom… and look really cool when cascading down from a small retaining wall or something.

  10. Pat

    carolyngail – I’m hoping my oakleaf will not remain dwarf. Part of the function of the hydrangea hedge is to catch the snow.
    DGG – Now you’ve made me wish for a small retaining wall. Grrrrrr.

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