Archives for August 2013

Designing With Hydrangeas

hydrangeas-hedge.jpgThe last two posts focused on the cultivation of hydrangeas.  In short, what hydrangeas are available, and under what circumstances do they perform.  Most of them are easy to grow, and willing.  Some are marginally hardy.  Some are not at all hardy in my zone.  Some represent better than others.  Growing hydrangeas is a much different and much easier topic to discuss than designing with hydrangeas.  One could grow no end of them-as I do.  I have 50 in my front yard.  Putting them together in a coherent and satisfying way-this would be garden design.  A garden or landscape design implies an idea, a scheme, or a plan.  The purchase of a hydrangea is easy.  Designing a place for it in a landscape-not so easy.  Any plant that I have a mind to include in a landscape gets a thorough vetting.  By this I mean-what does this plant require?  How much space does it take?  Where will it thrive? How can this plant be integrated into the whole?  Once I have an idea for a space, is a hydrangea the best plant to express that idea?  The picture above depicts a planting of limelight hydrangeas, before the bloom.  This is the perfect moment to think over their addition to your landscape.  Flowers can be very seductive, and distracting.   A big growing coarse leaved shrub that needs plenty of space-that would be a hydrangea. A hydrangea planted in too small a space is like being occupied by an army-beautiful flowers notwithstanding. This is the simple and working description, not the romantic one.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgFlowers are just but one aspect to consider.  There are the green times.  The winter times. The fall color.  The early spring. Make it a point to be intimately acquainted with anything you plan to introduce into the garden, should the overall design be important to you. This planting of hydrangeas works well with certain other elements in the landscape.  The yews are dense, and clipped.  The boxwood is denser, and more closely clipped.  The peonies have big leaves.  The lady’s mantle blooms at ground level in a sumptuous way.  The hydrangeas?  They preside over all-given their height and exuberance.  Hydrangeas have a density and bulky aspect that makes them ideal for garden situations where they cannot overwhelm their neighbors.  Small leaved or delicate perennials can be visually and physically overrun by a neighboring hydrangea.  Stout evergreen hedges can give a crisp look to a blowsy growing shrub.  Yews can help support the lax stems of hydrangeas.

Annabelle-hydrangeas.jpgAnnabelle hydrangeas will flop over in an instant.  If you plan to make them part of a landscape design scheme, stake them early.  This client loved the big growing rangy shrubs with their giant flower heads-but he equally loved the design of his landscape.  These Annabelles were staked first thing, in the spring.  The boxwood provides an orderly edge to the space.  They also provide some green interest in the winter months.

grass-border.jpgHydrangeas are big growing.  They need lots of space.  This planting of Annabelles has a grass border.  The slender simply textured blades of grass contrast and highlight the big leaves and rangy growth of the hydrangeas.  The ivy was part of an existing bed when we renovated the space-I did not see any reason to get rid of it. The texture of the grass with the hydrangeas is more pleasing than the texture of baltic ivy.

Annabelles-in-bloom.jpgThe flowers of hydrangeas are overwhelmingly beautiful. And overwhelming.  They need a big space to be.  They are a perfect match with massive architectural features, as a stone wall or flight of stairs.  Their sheer bulk, strong presence and white flowers makes them ideal for expressing a long sweep, or directional line in a landscape.  The white flowers make a great backdrop for other flowers, either perennial or annual.  Their height, which can be somewhat controlled by pruning, makes them ideal for facing down other larger landscape elements, like trees.

hydrangeas.jpgA hedge of Limelight hydrangeas is a soft way of defining a space.  You need the room to let them grow up to be what they are destined to be.  A long run of them can enclose a space, in a friendly way.

hydrangeas.jpgA landscape dominated by evergreens, and deciduous trees at a distance, can be leavened, brightened, by hydrangeas.  The leaf is a medium green, and the white flowers can be seen from blocks away.

hydrangea-border.jpgHydrangeas develop woody legs, over time.  Face them down with shorter growing ornamental grasses-or in this case, Honorine Jobert anemones.  Your design may ask for layering.  A design is not about this plant, or that plant.  It is about a community of plants, the interaction of all with the weather and the seasons.

hydrangeas-and-yews.jpgGreat design is intimately associated with the relationship a designer assigns from one plant to another.  The relationship of the plants to the space.  What defines that relationship?  Color, mass, texture, line, volume, weather-all of these design elements figure into the design of a landscape.  A design that accommodates, makes use of, and features the habits of the plants involved is design that is visually sensitive.


The most important element in design?  The gardener in charge.  It is easy to grow hydrangeas.  It is much harder to design successfully with them.  But when the design plan is well done, a beautiful shrub goes on to help create a breathtakingly beautiful space.

Other Hydrangeas

Dutch-blue-hydrangea.jpgThere  are lots of other hydrangea cultivars available besides Limelight and Little Lime.  I would have no problem growing this electric blue Dutch hydrangea, but it is only available to me as a cut flower.  My zone is noted for its unspeakably cold winters.  Hydrangeas that would prosper in California or Virginia would sooner or later succumb to the cold.  I routinely see landscapes that have what I call “florist’s hydrangeas”-presumably purchased from a greenhouse at Easter time-planted in ground.  These hydrangeas rarely bloom again once planted in the ground here.  The plants can survive the winters, but the flower buds are killed by the cold.

pink-hydrangea.jpgThere has been a lot of interest and a lot of hybridizing of hydrangeas going on in recent years-especially in the area of hydrangeas other than white.   It is no mystery why.  People buy shrubs that have showy flowers, leaves or fruit.  The sales of rhododendrons in my zone must be considerable.  In the spring, I see newly planted shrubs in full bloom in plenty of yards.  But few gardeners in my area have success with them.  They like acid well drained soil, and regular moisture.  They like sun, but protection from winter winds.  A case in point? I have tried, on more occasions than I care to admit to, added to the established rhododendrons on the north side of my house without success. Where am I going with this?  People are more likely to buy showy blooming shrubs that come with the promise that they are easy to grow.  It is hard to argue with success.  This pink hydrangea recently photographed in a client’s yard-I have no idea the name.  I have to admit it looked great.

Nikko-blue-hydrangeas.jpgI have planted lots of Nikko blue hydrangeas.  The places where they thrive and bloom heavily-just a handful.  This property-I have not one clue why they do so well, year after year.  Just down the street-big green shrubs with a few flowers here and there.  Sparsely representing is not a good look for a summer blooming hydrangea.

Nikko-blue-hydrangea.jpgA community on Lake Saint Clair, where I do a fair amount of work, those hydrangeas other than white are summer swell.  This is one old Nikko blue hydrangea, blooming to beat the band.  What it is about this environment that favors this hydrangea-I have no idea.  I do have clients who faithfully acidify their hydrangeas in hopes of those prized blue blooms.  Has this shrub had that level of care, or does it succeed on the strength of its location and the composition of the soil?  I wonder.

pink-hydrangea.jpgThe same neighborhood is all abloom with pink hydrangeas.  This is a pair of shrubs.  I have no idea of the cultivar.  It cannot be a new variety, as these shrubs are old.  On my side of town, the west side, I never see pink hydrangeas that perform like this.  There are lots of new cultivars.  All Summer Beauty, Endless Summer-and so on.  I will admit I shy away from them.  Any plant material I design into a landscape needs to have a reasonable chance of success.  A client who has success may decide to move on to being a passionate gardener.  Part of my my pleasure in my job is to see this happen.  Sometimes I install a landscape, and I have to persuade a client to take ownership.  When there are successes, they brush me off, and move on.  I like this.

annabelle-hydrangea.jpgThis discussion takes me back to the white hydrangeas.  Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle”  is an old stand by.  Plagued by giant flower heads, and weak stems, this cultivar weeps.  It is not unusual to see them hang over to the ground.  I rarely plant them anymore-I much prefer the Limelights.  They are so easy, in every regard.  But Annabelle planted on top of a wall is a really great look.  Those flowers soften an elevated garden space.


The white hydrangeas- Limelight, Little Lime, hydrangea paniculata, Annabelle-and the strikingly foliaged oak leaf hydrangea- they prosper in my zone.  Pictured above, a framed herbaria from a gardener,  and her artist husband in Italy.  Rob bought a series of framed hydrangea herbaria from them. It is a good thing to have a big love for the garden.  The design, the planting, the care, the years-magical.  I only grow Limelight hydrangeas.  It is enough for me-how willing they are to grow and bloom profusely in my garden.  This framed herbaria captures what I could not write in words about hydrangeas in summer.  Beautiful.

Limelight Hydrangea

limelight hedge 2The photograph above has been repinned from my pinterest page, 10 times more than any other image I have ever posted.  I understand the sentiment behind that.  This cultivar of hydrangea paniculata, Limelight,  bred by a Dutch breeder whose name is little known, and marketed solely by the patent holder, Spring Meadow Farms, is is gem of a summer blooming shrub. This ever willing and easy to grow shrub begins blooming at the end of July in my zone, and represents well into the fall.

Limelight-hydrangeas.jpgHydrangea is another word for summer in the garden.  They grow fast, and bloom profusely.   Small plants gain size and stature just a short time after planting.  Given how fast they grow, if you buy Limelights in pots, be prepared to water those root balls frequently after you plant, until they get established.  I water mine via drip irrigation; hydrangeas appreciate regular moisture.  Once they are established, this is about all the care they require.  They deliver so much, and ask for so little.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgI get emails almost every day about them.  Will the Limelights grow in Atlanta, or Montreal, or upstate New York, or Houston, Arkansas,  or Canada?  Will they thrive in shade?  I have no knowledge of the performance of this shrub outside of my own zone.  Should you have an interest in growing this shrub, contact your local nursery.  See what they say.  In my zone, this hydrangea is happy in full sun with adequate water, and it will bloom, although not as well, in part sun.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgA Limelight hydrangea is just about the most easy going and tolerant shrub it has ever been my pleasure to plant.  The big coarse leaves provide lots of texture.  They can endure the coldest winter.  They do not require any staking.  Flower heads that are cut will dry and be beautiful in a vase indoors-almost indefinitely. Once they begin to bloom, every garden featuring them gets gorgeous.

hydrangeas.jpgI have planted plenty of Limelight hydrangeas over the course of the past 9 years.  They are easy to grow.  They are happy in no end of environments.  I would want for all of my clients to experience the pleasure they provide in late summer.  How do I maintain them?  I prune in late March, or early April.  If I have a mind to keep them short, I prune them in late March or early April-when the buds swell.

Limelights-in-a-pot.jpgI do feed them once a year with a balanced fertilizer, although I suspect they would be fine without in good compost enriched soil.  They are happy in containers, as long as they are able to spend the winter in the ground.  Tree form/topiary Limelights can be maintained in this fashion for a number of years.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgI usually prune them in the same manner as a shag haircut.  I prune the top branches short.  I leave the lower branches long.  If you need the Limelights under 5 feet tall at maturity, trim to 30 inches tall in early spring.  Trim again in early June.  the second trimming is crucial to produce a shorter display.  Plan for a late July bloom.  If you like your Limelights really tall, trim off the previous years flower heads.  Leave them tall.  Plan to eventually under plant them with another shrub that will disguise those long bare legs.   Deciduous shrubs ask for a serious yearly dressing down-should you want foliage to the ground. If you need your hydrangeas to be tall, go easy on the pruning phase-and deal with the bare legs. The other option is to plant hydrangea “Little Lime”.  The flowers and habit are the same as Limelight, but it matures at 4 to 5 feet.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgThe Limelight hydrangea is a garden friend without so many demands.  Prune, or do not prune so much.  They are happy with whatever water you can provide.  If they need water, the leaves will droop in a dramatic way-you can’t miss it.  It is just about the most gardener friendly shrub it has ever been my pleasure to meet.  This has not been the best gardening season for me.  I have plenty of plants not doing so well with the cold and the relentless rain.  But my hydrangeas are breathtaking-as usual.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgI truly appreciate the work that has been done by the breeder and the distributor to make this shrub available to me.  It is easy to grow, beautiful in leaf, and spectacular in bloom. I planted lots of them in my garden, and today I am really happy I did. The Limelight hydrangeas are illuminating my late summer garden.   Consider planting some Lime lights.  You won’t be sorry.  I promise you will be charmed. What says summer better than the hydrangeas in bloom?


At A Glance: Looking At The Landscape

My life revolves around designing the landscape.   Designing a landscape asks for 10 parts skill, and 110 parts observation, and 1100 parts intuition.  I would go so far as to say a great landscape design requires 110,000 parts history and memory.  It may require an additional 1,100,000 parts, contributed by nature.  My interest has been sustained, and challenged by nature.

weekend-visit.jpgI met my brother Pete where we spent our childhood vacations this past week. Pete, Tine, Buck and I spent a few days just looking at the landscape.

rain-storm.jpgCreating an landscape involves lots of work, lots of talk, lots more work-and much more of all of the aforementioned.  My recent visit to the upper peninsula of Michigan was not at all about creating.  It was about observation.  Being there.  The landscape there is very different than those I make.  There are no gardens to speak of.  Dead trees are left standing. Spaces occupied by people are mowed.  Wild spaces-they are as nature engineers them.  The docks that connect the land to the water-simple and serviceable.


My brief trip made a few things clear.  The natural world is spectacular-from the rivers to the lakes to the stars.  From the Sand hill cranes to the hummingbirds to the ducks. My place in all of this- midway, and small.

mossy-rocks.jpgThe upper peninsula of Michigan is beautiful, in its own spare and remote way.  There is not much in the way of soil.  Just little rocks, medium rocks, and big rocks.

Plenty of plants thrive in this.  The landscape is thick with spruce and cedars.  The moss forms a soft carpet over the the rocks.

The end of Beavertail Point-my Mom’s most favorite place in the world. I understand her feeling about this landscape.








sandhill-cranes.jpgSand hill cranes in the yard, no kidding.

Pete-Markey.jpgI loved the time I spent over the past few days with my brother Pete. We talked over the landscape from 50 years ago-over and over.  We share a landscape, a part of which is this place.  My take?  The landscape is is so much more than a plot of land, and a collection of plants.  A landscape is first and foremost a story.  Are you thinking to create a landscape?  Tell your story.  This post?  Part of my story.