A reader left a comment yesterday about my post about Limelight hydrangeas. Nursery catalogues did not have that much information about hydrangeas. The gardener’s lament-we all know that tune. Though I spent my late twenties falling asleep with the White Flower Farm catalogue under my nose, nurseries who sell plant material by mail do not trial plants. They decide what they want to sell, and they make much of the good characteristics of those plants, and perhaps ignore or gloss over the problems with those plants. Books record the one day that is a perfect moment-this bears no resemblance to what it is to grow a real garden. Perfect moments do not come along all that often.
I do not blame nursery catalogues one bit. They are in the business of generating excitement about their plant offerings, and selling them. Gardeners are naturally interested in new plant introductions-so many nurseries feature them. Other nurseries have invested acres of growing space to a variety; they are not so keen to move on to something new when they have fields of last year’s cultivar yet unsold. A nursery catalogue is a list of available plants-nothing more, nothing less.
Hybridizing and bringing a plant to market is a costly and very time consuming endeavor. Growers routinely put their time and money on the line, believing the plants they have to offer will deliver what gardeners want. Make no mistake-I planted more than my fair share of Annabelle hydrangeas. I fretted and fumed about the weak stems-I caged, tied up, and otherwise tried to remedy what is a fundamental fault in the growth habit of the shrub. The most beautiful planting of Annabelles I have ever seen was in a bed raised 4 feet off the ground. The cascading flowers at eye level was enchanting. The unknown designer knew this plant, and planted accordingly.
I no longer plant Annabelle hydrangeas-the maintenance is considerable. I find the Limelights to be the most reliable, easiest of culture, and most adaptable of any of the white hydrangeas. They make beginners look good. They deliver under difficult circumstances. One is good, 30 are spectacular. I was able to convince one forward thinking client to replace her Annabelles with Limelights. I admire gardeners that are able to cut their losses, and move on.
Pruning hydrangeas is a very important business. Once you have provided them with a compost enriched soil, regular water, and a fair amount of sun, you have options that influence how they perform. Hydrangeas pruned short on top, whose side branches are left long, will bloom from top to bottom. Hydrangeas that bloom on top of woody legs have not been pruned, or not pruned properly. If you like your hydrangeas 4′-5′ tall come the end of July, prune them in the spring down to 18″-24″. Don’t be shy-they grow like mad. If you like them tall and bushy, prune lightly. Prune only in the spring-when you see the buds swelling. I see landscape companies saw hydrangeas down to ground level-this is much too hard. Do not count on basal growth-leave buds above ground to grow.
No nursery catalogue will go into this detail-why should they? I only have detail to report, as I have grown lots of plants in lots of different gardens, for many years. There is no substitute for trying plants out yourself-unless you have trial gardens near you. Universities with gardens often trial, or test plants. You can visit, see what goes on, and make your own assessment. When Alan Armitage favors a plant, I take a good look. His trial gardens, and his writings, are known nation wide.
Limelight hydrangeas have cone shaped flowers with a decidedly lime tinge. As I am more enchanted with profusion than color or shape in hydrangeas, I side with the plant that delivers beautifully wherever I might plant it. Should I have a burning need for pink or blue hydrangeas, I would plant the best hybrid available to me, in the best possible spot, and keep my grimy fingers crossed. I would try more than once, before I gave up.
Every gardener needs to sort out what matters to them. I like plants that willingly reward my eye. They need not be rare or new. I like plants that grow enthusiastically-that enthusiasm I find beautiful. How does any gardener assess what might grow beautifully for them? Try things. One person who works on my crew bought two incredibly expensive orange echinacea on a trip he took to a nursery to get plants for a job for me. I can tell looking at them-they will not be hardy. Maybe 6 generations down the line there will be hardy orange echinacea. Do I fault him for his hope-absolutely not. Gardeners need to try whatever moves them, and not be discouraged when all does not go as planned. Fall down, get up, go on-gardeners know how to do this.