Make a statement with these big-blooming beauties.
By Margene Whitler Hucek, Keswick, Virginia
Nothing announces summer like hydrangeas. With their large, softball-sized flowers, hydrangeas are bold enough to brighten any landscape. They offer hope for gardens that can look a little tired after the initial flush of spring-blooming dogwoods, azaleas, lilacs, tulips and daffodils has faded.
Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) are easy-to-grow shrubs that start flowering in early summer. The flowers are either pink or blue, depending on whether the soil is alkaline (resulting in pink blooms) or acidic (blue). Leaves can be as big as your hand and heart-shaped.
I have two of these large specimens near our back porch about a foot from our air-conditioning unit. I planted them there to hide the unit and perk up the side yard. They did just that! Now in spring and summer,
I see a sea of blue instead of an old, grey
After I had such good luck with those hydrangeas, I knew I had to grow more. This time, I tried a smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) for the opposite side of our porch.
This smooth cultivar, Annabelle, quickly became one of my favorites. By spring, it was 2 feet by 2 feet. Then in summer, it was full of apple-green flowers that matured to pure white.
By the next year, it doubled in size and had several side shoots that we dug up in fall to line the rest of the area. Now, 5 years later, we have a bed of Annabelles that's 20 feet long and 6 feet wide. They truly are a spectacular sight and have even grown large enough to peek into my kitchen window and the adjoining screened porch.
No Flowers? Here's Why
If your bigleaf hydrangeas don't bloom, it's usually because either cold weather killed the emerging buds, or the plant was pruned at the wrong time.
After flowering in summer, prune stems that bore flowers to just above an outward facing bud. Prune old branches to the base in winter. Don't cut new stems, as they will bear next year's flowers.
Many gardeners don't like the fact the bigleaf hydrangeas look unkempt after the first hard frost. Their large, black leaves hang despondently, begging for you to cut them. Resist the urge! Their appearance will improve with leaf drop.
Annabelle hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so you don't have the same problems of pruning that you do with the bigleaf ones. Their dried heads look attractive all winter and add interest to the landscape. I also find that finches like to dart about their branches, pecking at the dried flowers.
Worth the Effort
Prune these rapid bloomers in early spring to keep them under control and encourage large blooms. And, since the blooms form on new spring growth, you don't have to worry about winter kill.
In fact, we always have an abundance of cloud-like blooms on our Annabelles. But some years, our bigleaf hydrangeas produce only a few blooms due to harsh winters.
Don't let that discourage you from growing bigleaf hydrangeas, though. They are more temperamental, but their brilliant blue color makes them worth growing.
It's those captivating blooms that caught the eyes of plant collectors in the 1800s, when they were found growing wild along the rivers of Japan and China. The plants were taken to Europe, where Victorian gardeners used them as both a fresh flower and for dried bouquets.
Blooms Keep Going
When planting hydrangeas, dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the shrub's rootball. Set the base of the hydrangea at ground level. Fill with soil, water thoroughly and mulch to help the plant conserve moisture.
Never plant hydrangeas in the heat of summer. Instead, plant immediately in spring or wait until fall after the plants have lost their leaves. Fertilize in spring, if needed, with a balanced slow-release fertilizer.
Hydrangeas are carefree with few insect problems. Mildew can be a concern, though I haven't had much trouble with it here in Virginia, despite our hot and humid summers.
If you see white powder on the leaves, remove the infected foliage. If needed, you can also treat the plant with a fungicide.
Hydrangeas are long-lived. At my brother's home, he grows hydrangeas that were planted more than 100 years ago. They are still profusely blooming, pleased with their site on the shady side of his porch.
I hope mine will last that long, brightening up summer days with blooms of blue and white for future gardeners.