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.

Limelight Hydrangeas In Bloom

August 29 2014 (29)I know this is the mid westerner in me talking, but is there any shrub more widely hybridized and marketed and eventually disappointing than the hydrangea? I can barely keep up with the new cultivars. Some are blue.  Some are blue and pink.  Some are red. Some claim to bloom all summer.  A list of  of all the names would take better than a paragraph.  All Summer Beauty, Nikko Blue, Endless Summer, Pinky Winky, Vanilla Strawberry, Invinciball – the list is long. The promises made for these new introductions are big. The performance of various cultivars of hydrangeas in the mid west-a mixed report. I drive by big plantings of hydrangeas every day that are all about the leaves with precious little in the way of flowers. Some are planted in much too much shade.  But others just are not great bloomers. If you are a gardener in my area, and have a big love for hydrangeas that bloom reliably, consider the paniculata hybrids, especially the Lime lights.

August 29 2014 (26)We did have a terrible winter-no gardener would dispute this.  But the hydrangeas I see everywhere with one bloom or so is a usual thing.  Some cultivars bloom on old wood.  In a hard winter, the bloom shoots freeze.  Though the plant may come back and thrive, there are little to no blooms.  Some cultivars rely on more temperate zones than ours.  Some cultivars seem to bloom with abandon for growers, but fail to deliver with gardeners.  The Limelight hydrangeas pictured above are on a very busy street in my area, in full sun. They are blooming their hearts out.  I have no idea what the gardener in charge does for these plants, but they are gorgeous. It could very well that this gardener leaves well enough alone.  This brick wall would be lonely indeed without the hydrangeas.

August 23 2014 (14) I plant professionally, meaning plants that cannot or do not perform are discouraging.  I hope that every landscape I design and install encourages my clients to become involved, take over, and become interested in gardening when I am finished.  This means I favor plants that have some success features built in. I like plants that thrive. Hydrangeas in full bloom are breathtakingly beautiful. Hydrangeas are by nature lusty growing and just about fool proof, given a proper placement.  If you are keen for the flowers, and lots of them, Limelight delivers.

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I have read so many articles claiming that hydrangeas thrive in the shade.  Hmm.  The shrubs may tolerate part shade, but good blooming on hydrangeas in my area asks for a fair amount of sun.  Do  not plant hydrangeas in shade, if you have a love for their flowers. They like regular moisture – the leaves are large, and thin.  Those leaves will crisp if the plant goes dry.  I have my hydrangeas at home on a drip zone, so when they need a drink, I can provide it right to the roots.  I do not recommend overhead watering except when it comes from the sky.

DSC_4001The old Annabelle hydrangea is as charming and as floppy as ever. They bloom early, usually in June.  I like them placed on top of a wall, where their cascading habit looks graceful and deliberate.  The Oakleaf hydrangea is just as beautiful in leaf as in flower – maybe more so.  This bony structured, open growing hydrangea with its loosely arranged blooms-gorgeous.  Climbing hydrangea does tolerate a lot of shade.  It sits for a long time after planting.  Once it gets going, it can engulf a wall.

DSC_3982Pink and blue hydrangeas perform sporadically in my area.  There are neighborhoods where they are lush and floriferous.  I only have one client whose Nikko blue hydrangeas bloom heavily every year.  They are grown in full sun, in a fairly protected location.  The idea of using chemicals to alter the Ph of the soil is not my idea of gardening. Their is a hydrangea cultivar hydrangea macrophylla “Nantucket Blue”, for those gardeners with blue hydrangea envy.  I have never grown it, but I have seen it for sale with the caveat “acidify the soil with sulfur for a deeper blue color”. There are those times when I am envious of what gardeners in other parts of the country are able to grow that I cannot, but that feeling is not that deep seated.

DSC_4046Lime lights are very big growing plants.  Mine at home are over 8 feet tall this year.  They have loved all of the rain.  If your space is smaller, plant a smaller growing version.  Little Lime tops out at 4-5 feet. Little Lamb is another smaller growing panicle hydrangea.

hydrangea-Bombshell.jpgI am trying a new cultivar this year. “Bombshell’ is a dwarf cultivar that typically grows in a rounded mound to only 2-3′ tall and to 3-4′ wide. It was discovered growing in Boskoop, The Netherlands, in May of 2003 as a naturally occurring branch mutation on Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’. It is particularly noted for its dwarf/compact shape, abundant star-shaped sterile flowers with elliptic sepals, dense nearly round flower panicles, and free blooming habit. It blooms earlier and longer than most other panicle hydrangeas.” – this description is from the Missouri Botanical Garden. I recently planted them with a collection of perennials that mature to about the same height.  Big growing shrubs that are pruned to fit small space always have that uncomfortable and anxious feeling about them.  A hydrangea planted with all the room it needs to grow is not only less maintenance, it looks good.

DSC_3983The Lime Lights are putting on a particularly good show this year.

DSC_4000It wouldn’t be late summer in Michigan without them.

 

Limelight Time

You have heard plenty from me over the past few years about hydrangeas.  OK, I am crazy about them.  I am reluctant to address the topic once again-but the summit of my summer is all about the coming of the hydrangeas.  Hydrangeas figure prominently in any American garden.  I do not plant Annabelle hydrangeas anymore.  Their ball shaped flower heads flop to the ground, unless they are rigorously staked.   Love the Annabelles?  Plant them on top of a wall-their drooping stalks and flower heads will soften that space.     

Limelight hydrangeas are a hybrid of white blooming hydrangeas that require much less of your time and effort.  They stand up straight, they bloom in August in my zone for what seems like months.  The blooms acquire a pink tinge as they begin to age; they may deepen to rose pink in the late stage.  Here, they happily fill in the space between the densiformis yews, and the tall evergreens. This entrance is very inviting on a summer day.   

Limelight hydrangeas are strongly growing shrubs.  They soften the evergreen structure of a landscape.   They adapt to almost any pruning style.  I have pruned them to within 14 inches of the ground, and had good flowering, and shorter height.  All they need is a good set of buds above ground to develop.    

Lots of hydrangeas available now in nurseries local to me are shy bloomers.  Pink or blue hydrangeas in my zone-sometimes they oblige, and sometimes not.  I so love hydrangeas blooming in the summer, and I favor those varieties that perform.   Should you be looking for a considerable summer show, look no further.  The greenish white blooms compliment any color scheme you might have in mind.    

The Limelight hydrangea panicles are tall, and cone shaped. They make a big statement, planted in blocks, or rows.   

This hedge of Limelights is three staggered rows, planted 30 inches apart; it has been pruned lightly.  Most of the pruning is done on the top branches, so the side branches still get enough light to flower.  I so love those plants that ask for so little, and deliver so much.  Not interested in a garden extravaganza such as this?  One Limelight is equally as effective.     


It is high summer in my zone.  I have 2 big blocks of Limelight hydrangeas on my small property.  Those blocks are making a very big statement today.  They grow so fast-buy little ones.  Plan and plant them wherever you need a plant 5- 7 feet tall.  Plant them wherever you need some summer romance.  I can promise you this-Limelight hydrangeas will endow your garden with a little late summer magic.

Heavenly Hydrangeas

What is it about hydrangeas that makes them such a magnet for gardeners?  No doubt they are one of the showiest shrubs hardy in my zone.  They are fairly easy to care for, providing you stay away from marginally hardy varieties.  They grow fast, have big, clean, and very green foliage.  The massive flower heads speak to summer.  What could be better?  The plant hybridizing industry has focused on producing more reliably blooming “other than white” hydrangeas for the nursery trade geared to produce in cooler climates.  This “All Summer Beauty” hydrangea is more reliably blooming than its predecessors.   

The Annabelle hydrangea has been the mainstay of the summer shrub garden as long as I can remember, though I no longer plant it. Weak stems and overly large flower heads make the shrub a challenge to keep off the ground.  Given heavy rains and mid summer stormy weather, you are likely to wake up with those flowering spheres face down in the mud.  Should you have them, cage or otherwise securely stake at least 40″ tall out of the ground-in the spring.  Othereise, you will be chasing some stop the flopping solution that looks awkward and unnatural.   

This garden no doubt is the one place for 100 miles perfectly suited for Nikko Blue hydrangeas.  Once out of the nursery pot, and in the ground, they are generally known to be stingy with the flowers.  Blue hydrangeas-what midwestern gardener does not long for this plant to perform for them?  I am sure many more get sold, than deliver and please.  As no one grows hydrangeas for their shape and foliage, choose a cultivar known to reliably produce flowers in abundance in your zone. 

Flowers in abundance-perhaps this is what makes hydrangeas so attractive in a landscape.  I favor the Dutch hybrid-known as Limelight.  They are sturdy growers-there is never any need for staking.  Their hydrangea paniculata parentage is responsible for the cone shaped flowers that open green, mature white, and pink with age. The straight species hydrangea paniculata is a very wide and very tall grower.  The flowers are many, but modest, open and subtle in appearance. A hedge of panuiculata 8 feet wide by 40 feet long might make a show.  Limelight produces densely showy flower heads from a vigorous and adaptable shrub-the best of all worlds, should you be talking hydrangeas. 

Densely blooming and showy-see what I mean?  They do not ask for much-this part I am especially fond of.  They handle full sun, given sufficient water, with aplomb.  They will willingly survive part shade, and bloom better than most hydrangeas starved for sun. They grow fast.  They are fine with a serious spring pruning.  I have Limelights I prune down to within 14″ of grade-where it is my idea to keep them in the 4′-5′ tall range.   

Given a space of sufficient size, a hedge of hydrangeas provide no end of a robust visual reference to summer, lots of flowers for bouquets, screening, material for dried arrangements.  What garden shrub do you know of that delivers on this scale, and to this extent?   

Should you be thinking you might plant some limelights, I would make the following suggestions.  Locate them in as much sun as you can muster.  Do not space them any closer than 30″ on center-36″-42″ on center will fill in in no time.  They like regular moisture.  Whatever you have done to enrich your soil with compost, the hydrangeas will appreciate.  Given how fast they grow, a 3 gallon plant will catch up to a five gallon plant in no time at all.  If you plant smaller plants, be sure they get regular water to the rootball.  Potted hydrangeas become rootbound in the blink of an eye.  Lacking the water they need, the foliage will burn and drop-this is not a good look.


My landscape features 2 large blocks of Limelight hydrangeas-25 plants in each block. They are about 7 feet tall, and just coming into bloom.  In full bloom, they are glorious. In late bloom, they are beautifully moody-green, white, and white speckled with rose pink.  The show goes on for a number of months.  The limelights are just now coming on-I am ready.