High time for heavenly hydrangeas

I have a confession to make. I used to hate hydrangeas. Top-heavy things on skinny stems that showed up in corner stores around Easter. The giant blue and pink blooms reminded me of cotton candy on sticks. No, thanks.

Then I discovered something called a lacecap hydrangea, a thing of delicate beauty like a piece of Versailles lace with leaves. I started seeing hydrangeas growing normally, in real people’s gardens, and
I’ve been hooked ever since.

The basics
Hydrangea geeks can go on and on about things like macrophyllas, quercifolias and arborescens – oh, and don’t forget paniculatas – all of which are good terms to know. But my head starts to spin with them after a while. A cheat sheet for gardeners who like the flowers but
don’t want to turn into hydrangeaheads:

Arborescens = the typical shrubby hydrangeas, usually white, that show up around a lot of old houses. They’re hard to kill, easy to root from cuttings and tend to expand. The flowers dry into parchment-coloured heads that are good for dried arrangements, fantastic in wreaths and pretty tucked into Christmas trees. Whack them
back every spring to about 30 cm.

Macrophyllas = the pink- and blue-flowered florist-type hydrangeas. (Stay with me, here.) The blooms can be either mopheads (the puffy round ones) or lacecaps. Macrophyllas are a lot more delicate than tough old arborescens, and can use some extra protection in winter in our area. They won’t even survive much farther north than Toronto. Don’t cut back older varieties, except to take out dead stems. Newer types are a different story (see below).

Paniculatas = the good old ‘Peegee’ hydrangeas that make ice cream-cone flowers in late summer – pointy, white-and-pink blooms on plants that can be as tall as small trees. All paniculatas make pointy flowers (remember that) and need pruning only to keep their shape. Winter protection is a good idea,
and again, Toronto is about their northern limit.

Quercifolias = ‘oakleaf’ hydrangeas, grown as much for their beautiful leaves (especially in autumn) as for their flowers. The
creamy-white blooms tend to be more pointy than rounded and appear
later in the season. Winter protection is wise; trim only dead wood in spring.

How to grow
That’s your basic training in hydrangea-world. Now, some info about growing them.

Most hydrangeas like shade – hooray, something for shady Beach gardens. Paniculatas are the exception, and even they won’t mind some shade.

The bad news for Beachers: Hydrangeas want water. They’re the only plants I coddle in summer with regular watering. I also mulch them to conserve moisture. If I were planting a new one, I’d line the hole with a nice padding of old oak leaves to help hold water in. The acid in the leaves may even help make mopheads turn blue, though I wouldn’t bet on it.

And speaking of blue… The big question about hydrangeas is always “How do you make the flowers blue?” One answer: spray paint them. Another excellent gardener I know says, “Don’t bother with blue, stay with the pink or white ones.” The classic answer is to add aluminum
sulphate to the soil, but that can harm other plants. Plus, many folks say you need iron, too. (Bury a bunch of old nails?) Acid soil supposedly produces blue flowers, but I have pink on one plant and blue on the same kind of plant just a couple metres away. However, my dog regularly pees on the fence near the blue one—draw your own conclusions.

Not your granny’s plant
Plant breeders having been messing around with hydrangeas in recent years. That means you have to check magazines, catalogues and the web for the newest info and varieties of plants.

The biggest news is that hydrangeas used to bloom just once, late in the summer. Now, you can find lots of repeat blooming types. The best-known are a bunch of macrophyllas trademarked Endless Summer. I have a few and, I confess, I’m not sure if our summers are long enough for them to rebloom after cutting. But they flower fantastically in my shady backyard. I babied them with lots of winter protection for the first few years; now they survive pretty much on their own. Available in blue, blush pink/white and a white lacecap.

Also notable are some of the trademarked Proven Winners hydrangeas: Quick Fire, a reddish-pink paniculata that starts flowering in spring; Little Lamb, a white paniculata that won’t outgrow small gardens; and Invincibelle Spirit, a hot pink arborescens with added value –
part of the purchase price goes to breast cancer research.

If your late-summer garden is a drag, give it some hype with
hydrangeas.


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