Hydrangeas are Crazy Cool
By Paige Patterson
So, recently I was at a gardening talk where a guest in the audience pooh-poohed the Hampton Hydrangea look and asked why no one could come up with a better substitute for them in the garden. The speaker laughed and said that she could think of a million better substitutes for hydrangeas, as she was not a big fan, and proceeded to rattle off a list of all sorts of plants. I listened and nodded along, knowing all the plants she was listing were beautiful. And that some were subtle, some were floriferous and some were bold, but none of them would be flowering almost all summer long. And sure she was naming plants with interesting textures, great leaf colors and shapes, and mentioning masses of perennials that when combined together could make up magnificent palettes, but nothing that was mentioned was as easy, or as long lasting and impactful as a mad cluster of hydrangeas.
Now granted, the speaker was English born, so she, like so many other Brits I have met, had no great love for hydrangeas, and why should they? The British are right when they accuse hydrangeas of being awkward, big, aggressively showy plants that don’t mix with other flowers, or integrate into gardens, all that well. But that’s kind of the whole point of hydrangeas, and one of the biggest reasons they’ve become as popular out here as they are. Let’s be frank, we’re a community with a gardening clientele that doesn’t really want to garden.
Now let’s be honest, if we lived in England (where in July we’d still need a lovely cardigan in the evenings and the afternoons would be clear and sunny and a little like our Junes) we might be tempted to spend the entire day puttering around our gardens, staking our dianthus, wheeling our barrows filled with weeds to our compost piles, comparing the size of all our different umbels, deadheading and training our various rambling roses, and collecting nicotiana seed to spread them throughout our newly created perennial borders — but for most people, it’s just too damn hot. I spent a morning the other day pulling weeds and I almost threw up from the humidity. If I’d had a pool, I promise you I’d have been in it instead.
And sure we all want our gardens to have a lot of color in them, but to achieve that in July, means there’s been either going to be a whole lot of very careful planning and an immense amount of maintenance work, or there’s going to be a butt load of hydrangeas. Guess what most of us lean towards?
I get it. I really do. I think I have over 200 hydrangeas scattered throughout my property, and even though I’m sometimes out there dripping wet with sweat as I dead head rose after rose after rose, the only other time I was in my garden last week (after vomiting from heat stroke) was after I got home from the beach, and thanks to my hydrangeas, my garden still looks really good (even if I’ve ignored almost every single desiccated, dead, brown, mummified old rose flower that’s sitting there — demanding to be snipped off — and that’s saying a lot). Now I’m not going to lie and say that July is not a difficult time for a lot of gardens. July is the time when a lot of people just want to throw up their hands and call it quits, when frustrated gardeners come into the nursery complaining that, “this whole gardening thing is a lot harder than anyone told me.”
And they’re right.
As we leave spring’s flowering bonanza and start heading for falls cacophony of color and foliage, there’s a big chunk of summer when plants just seem to need to pause and take a breath, almost as if they’re as overwhelmed by the heat as the rest of us are.
It’s for those gardeners that we have plants like Russian sage, rudbeckia, calaminta, agastache and Casablanca lilies. These are the people we introduce to abelia and stewartia, and explain the brilliance of hypericum to. We fill their cars with echinacea, lespedeza and gaura, and send them back out to dig more holes — and to be blunt — people who don’t have gaura yet don’t know what they’re missing, but if it weren’t for hydrangeas, gardening in July would be, for me, the most challenging of all months.
However, allow hydrangeas into your life and with just three species of these plants I can almost guarantee you’ll have flowers all summer long — as long as you pay attention to where and how you plant them. You notice I said ALMOST right? Got deer? Well then all bets are off. Deer love hydrangeas, and although we give a lecture twice a year on how to work hydrangeas into every yard, the deer are a huge challenge. Charlie Marder once hypothesized to me that the entire reason tree hydrangeas exist was that the deer had first created them. For all I know he might be on to something there, since that’s really the only way you can get hydrangeas onto your property if you share your land with the four legged creatures. You have to grow them out of reach.
So yes, start with the species of hydrangea known as hydrangea arborescens or Smooth hydrangea. The most popular cultivar is called Annabel and it has a big white flower head that flops around because it’s too heavy for it’s stems. And yes, when it rains, or when the flowers get heavy with water from your irrigation system, they will droop. And yes, this plant needs staking with a corset of bamboo poles and twine, but it buds up chartreuse, opens white and ages back to green so it’s the perfect flower for all those green and white gardens everyone wants. Plus it starts blooming in June and occasionally, if deadheaded, will still be throwing up random flowers into September unlike almost any other flowering shrub out there. I, of course, don’t deadhead mine; but I love the aged green of the flower heads and use them in tons of floral arrangements. These hydrangeas are happy in full sun, but can take a surprising amount of shade and can be whacked back each year almost to the ground and they come back without fail.
Next come the hydrangeas macrophylla or Bigleaf hydrangeas. These are the hydrangeas that come in all the various colors, including the magnificent blue that is caused by the acidic nature of our soil. These are the most famous hydrangeas, the ones everyone thinks of when they talk about the Hamptons and hydrangeas, and they’re super easy plants as long as you pay attention to where they are planted. They want to be planted where they get sun in the morning and shade in the hottest part of the afternoon. Got it? Want me to say it again? For these plants to be really, truly happy, they want to be planted where they get sun in the morning when it’s not too hot, and shade in the afternoon when it is. Not in the full deep, dark shade, and not in the beating down hot sun. Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t try and grow them in the full sun. People do it all the time; but your plants won’t be as happy as they would be in the previously mentioned locations. So I don’t recommend putting hydrangeas into pots around the pool. However, the growers that grow hydrangeas for us are growing them in the full sun all the time, so how do they make it work? The answer is with a lot of water. The Hydra in hydrangeas means they are heavy water drinkers, so if you cook them in the full sun, and they don’t have enough water, they’re going to wilt and collapse until the day cools off again. And if the plant does this enough times while in flower, the flowers will blacken and die. Oh, and guess what? Too much water can cause problems too, so why not leave these plants in the conditions that make them happier and go to our third species of hydrangea for big blooms around the pool and in the baking heat of the sun. Psst? A bad winter can also damage buds, and if you prune these plants there’s a good chance you’re cutting off next year’s flowers, so only dead head them, okay? Promise?
Finally we have the hydrangea paniculata, or Panicle hydrangea, probably one of my favorite plants on the planet. Yes they really only come in one color, white, but the flower ages to pink, and purplish maroon and green, and there’s really nothing you can throw at these plants that they can’t handle. Bad winter? Pruned to manage their size and shape? With the blue and pink hydrangeas this can mean a summer with no blooms, but the panicle hydrangea doesn’t even flinch — they’ll still give you plenty of flowers. And they come in a ton of sizes with flowers that range from being twice the size of your head to as small as the size of your fist. Flowers that all sort of resemble Carvel soft ice cream cones and are just as sweet. I’m partial to the ones called Limelight that open with the same chartreuse color as the Annabels and a newer one called Bobo, that promises to only get to be about 4’ tall at its mature height and is covered with so many blooms it sort of looks like a sheep on a stick (in a good way.)
So yes, they’re bombastic and huge and dominating. And yes, they’re sort of awkward and not so subtle or elegant; but no one has ever accused a hydrangea of not putting on a good show if it’s happy, or of not giving you a lot of bloom for the buck. And frankly, if we’re judging our garden from how they look as we sit sipping sweet iced drinks in our pools, or after a long hard day playing in the surf, there’s nothing better in the garden than a mass of classic Hamptons Hydrangeas.