Designing With Hydrangeas

Lots of gardeners in my zone has a love affair going on with hydrangeas. As well they should. They are rangy growing shrubs that deliver a heart stopping show of big luscious blooms from early to late summer, provided they get some regular water, and a decent amount of sun. It is that easy to have a spectacular show of flowers in the landscape in late summer. Even the fall color on the blooms is good.The Annabelles start blooming in June, and are followed up on into August with cultivars big and small –  too numerous to list or review. Every season seems to bring a new collection of hydrangea cultivars to market. It is easy to understand why. They give a lot, and do not ask for much. The oak leaf hydrangeas are equally stunning both in leaf and in bloom, and are incredibly shade tolerant. Our hydrangea season is late this year. Think back to that April we had that was snowy and cold the entire month – you get the picture.  My overgrown Limelight hydrangeas needed a strong pruning this spring. I could not tell now that they had been pruned down to 14″ above grade. They are blooming lavishly. They make me look like an expert gardener. In spite of what I do or do not do, they thrive.

Hydrangeas are easy to grow, but they can be difficult to site in the landscape. They are big growing show offs that don’t naturally play well with neighboring plants. A single Limelight hydrangea can grow easily to 7 feet tall, and 7 feet wide. Even the smaller growing cultivars have giant flowers. They can easily become the elephant in the room-impossible to ignore.  It takes some thought to integrate them into a garden, or a landscape. I am not so much a fan of their woody legs, so I try to place them where that bottom third of the plant is not so much a part of the overall view. I also favor planting blocks of them, meaning I like lots of them as opposed to planting a single plant. They want to be the star of the summer garden, so why not let them show off?  Masses of summer blooming hydrangeas speak to summer in the Michigan garden in a way that no other plant does.

My limelight hydrangeas at home have a long bank of planter boxes placed in front of them. Those boxes are planted with nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis. The boxes hide those long woody hydrangea stems coming out of the ground. The delicate airy mass of nicotiana flowers interact in a contrasting way with those giant hydrangea blooms. The hydrangea flower backdrop makes it easier to see the nicotiana from a distance.

The foliage of the nicotiana repeats the big leaves of the hydrangea. The large leaves are a good foil for the diminutive boxwood foliage. The simple mass of boxwood sets the stage for a late summer.  Nothing can rival the excitement generated in the spring as the landscape roars back to life, but I look forward to this late summer display. On a 90 degree August day, this looks fresh and inviting. The hydrangeas are part of a story.

As a designer, I have a concern about about how spaces come together, and read. Shrubs, perennials,annual plants, and containers have their contribution to make. The design issue is making sure all the various voices work together in some way. The green leaves of the Persian Lime in the center of the pot helps to balance the green of the hydrangea foliage. The big growing hydrangeas need some equally strong minded company.  I did face down my limelight hydrangeas with an outside row of Little Limes. Was that a good idea?  It is too soon to tell, as the Limelights were very hard pruned this spring, so they have fewer and larger flowers this year. This is only the second season for the Little Limes, so they are not yet full sized. They are actually quite different in coloration than Limelight.

This landscape project from last year features a long sweeping curve of upright yews. All that is visible from the street of the Incrediball hydrangeas are the flowers. An annual planting at the base of the yews provides another layer of interest.

Inside the Incrediball hydrangea hedge is a mass of Bobo hydrangea, also faced down with flowers. All those woody stems and leaves are sandwiched in between plants that reveal the best part of these big growing plants, and obscures the least interesting. Hydrangea Bobo is the smallest growing of this series, which means it is the easiest of the three to place. It is perfectly scaled at 3′-5′ tall for smaller gardens. Small spaces can easily be overwhelmed by big growing hydrangeas.

We planted several large masses of these on either side of a pool. The creamy green color of the flowers contrasts dramatically with the color of the water. This hydrangea grows large enough to just obscure the fact that the bed was originally terraced into two levels with large informally placed slabs of stone.

Though the grade does drop considerably and quickly from the pool to the water, the mass of low growing hydrangeas helps to soften the descent. The transition from the pool level to the lake level happens fast.  The hydrangeas provide a reason to slow down, and linger.

The view of these hydrangeas, filtered with tall later blooming perennials and annuals, is a soft and informal look. Hydrangeas are stiff and static growing, and benefit from some airy companionship. Phlox have that same stiff habit of growth. In this arrangement, the phlox looks so much more relaxed, given a static growing plant that is so much larger growing.

There are those places where a single hydrangea can make a statement. This tree hydrangea, one of a pair, spends the winter in my landscape building, in a big plastic pot.  In the spring, it is pruned, both on the top, and the roots, and planted back into this large box. A second pruning a month or six weeks later helps to provide a network of strong branches which will help support the blooms. The box is large enough to permit an under planting of euphorbia, petunias and variegated licorice. Seeing it yesterday for the first time since it was potted up in May was a treat. Part formal and part exuberant, it is everything a well grown hydrangea can be.

The Hydrangeas

Little Lime hydrangeasSometime between mid July and mid August, the Limelight hydrangeas come in to bloom. It is a moment worth waiting for. The fast growing large leaved plants bloom profusely on the current year’s growth. They are easy to cultivate, asking for not much more that some decent light and some regular water. The spectacularly large flowers are a gorgeous mixture of lime green and white. Limelight hydrangeas are known for their sturdy stems, which keep those flowers aloft in all but the stormiest weather. They do need a lot of room. A single well grown shrub can grow 8′ tall by 8′ wide. Hydrangea “Little Lime”, pictured above, is a hybrid of Limelight that only grows 4-5 feet tall, and as wide. They make themselves right at home in an informal or cottage style garden. But its relaxed habit of growth can look just as interesting in an alternative universe –  a more formal planting.

Little Lime hydrangeasThis mature size is not only friendly to smaller gardens, it looks great in a mass planting. This landscape is situated on a very steep slope, so these Little Limes are responding to the force of gravity. Some gardeners may find their sprawling habit unruly and irritating. Others will find them charming, even beautiful. They certainly endow the late summer garden with their willingness to bloom. All of the pictures in this post but one were taken on days with temperatures above 90 degrees.

hydrangea LimelightMy Limelights are 12 years old, or more.  Some years I prune them down to between 24″ and 30″ inches.  Some years I only remove the old flower heads and 6″ of stem. I always prune them in the spring, when the leaf buds begin to swell. The final result in terms of the flowering and height is fairly uniform, year to year, no matter how I prune. This illustrates the important of choosing shrubs whose mature size will fit the space that is available. I have been watering them twice a week for the past several months, as we have had very little rain.  The group to the far right in this picture get the least water, as they are difficult to reach.  They are shorter than usual, but they have plenty of flowers. How reliable they are to grow and bloom is a very good reason to plant them.

after the rainYesterday morning, after an exceptionally heavy and blustery rain, the water soaked flowers had fallen over in to the path. We’ll see what happens once they dry out. There is no staking hydrangeas at this stage.  If you are bound and determined to keep them upright, very stout and tall tomato cages need to be put in place in the spring. If the flower heads do not spring back up, I will cut some, put them in water, and let them dry indoors.

limelight hydrangeaLimelight hydrangeas can provide an easy going and breezy sense of enclosure. My hydrangeas are planted in a block, not in a single row.  Though the shrubs are very open growing, multiple staggered rows provide a dense green screen which makes my front yard garden quite private.

hedge of limelight hydrangeasGiven enough room, a generous sweep of Limelight hydrangeas can be quite architectural in feeling. Once these hydrangeas are pruned in the spring, they are not pruned again until the following spring.  Few deciduous shrubs can tolerate or perform well having been sheared. Hydrangeas are no exception. Prune to the best of your ability in the spring, and then turn loose of them. Looking for a rule?  The plants will tell you a very detailed story. Very few things bother hydrangeas.  They will bloom in part shade, but not as profusely. The flowers will be smaller, and the leaves will singe on the edges if they get too dry. I mulch them with bark fines in the spring after I prune. I water infrequently, but regularly. Outside of that, I just enjoy them.

limelight hydrangea Limelight is a hybrid of hydrangea paniculata.  Paniculata refers to the fact that the flower heads of these hydrangeas are comprised of hundreds of individual flowers arranged in a cluster around the flower stalk-this flower form is called a panicle. The individual florets will acquire a pink tinge as they age. When the temperatures cool down in the fall, the flowers will age to rose pink. I water the plants more in the early fall than I do in late summer. Truly?  The sure sign of a plant that has gone too dry are flowers that brown before their time. I do everything I can to extend the hydrangea season. I do leave the flower heads on all winter – why not?  Most of them stick tight throughout the winter for me.

August 10,2016 (64)I do not grow hydrangea Little Lime at home, but I have planted plenty of them elsewhere. Their shorter stature means there are flowers at eye level, on top of this retaining wall.  Had I planted the much bigger Limelight in this location, I would be looking in to the stems from the lower level. I recently planted a row of Little Limes in front of an old hedge of Limelights.  This will insure flowers from top to bottom.

August 10,2016 (71)The Little Limes smaller size makes them quite companionable to a host of other perennial and annual plants.

hydrangea BoboHydrangea Bobo is not related to either Limelight or Little Lime, but it is a panicle hydrangea.  Hybridized by Johan Van Huylenbroeck, the same breeder that developed the Pinky Winky hydrangea,  was patented and introduced by Proven Winners. Topping out at 3′ tall by up to 4′ wide, it is beautiful in a mass. Though this group has only been in the ground for 2 inhospitably hot and dry months, they are blooming.  By next year, the chances are good they will completely cover this large sunny area. I can cross this group of Bobo’s off my list of plantings to worry about. They’ll be back.

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