A Second Look At Hydrangeas

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.    

Welcome to gardening.


  1. dave bockman says

    Absolutely lovely Deborah, I love my own Limelights and look forward to calling for them in future designs. May I ask, is the columnar evergreen pictured a Degroot’s Spire?

    Years ago Michael Dirr ran an excellent website, nobleplants.com. In it he published several excellent articles on Hydrangea; the website is long gone (sadly) but is still accessible through the ‘Wayback Machine’ website– here is the link (it might take a few moments to load): http://web.archive.org/web/20040402160808/nobleplants.com/articles/articles.htm

    Thanks again for such consistent & inspiring excellence!

  2. Sheila H says

    Deborah – have you tried the new Incrediball or the Invinciball Spirit hydrangea that are now at the nurseries this year? They are supposed to be improved variety of Annabelle, stronger stems and more flowerheads. The other hydrangea that I’ve been wanting to try is Quickfire. It looks spectacular at the nursery that I go to but just don’t know about the hardiness.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sheila, Quickfire is supposedly hardy in Zone 3-as it has PeeGee (paniculata grandiflora) heritgae, it should be fine. Invinciball Spirit I have not heard of; the name addresses what a nuisance of a grower the Annabelle is. Deborah

  3. Dear Sheila H.
    Incrediball and Invincibelle Spirit look sickly at the nurseries and scraggly when planted. Relying upon Proven Winner hydrangeas, such as these two varieties, is proving not to be a winning situation.

  4. Absolutely loved this post. I am a lover of Annabelle and use them as you show with Limelight. I liked the idea of the raised bed, too. Never thought to do that. I also never speced Limelight. I will now that I see it perform. And your comments on the catalogs, I thoroughly agree, about time someone mentioned that experience with a plant is most important, because you can be taken in with the catalogs use of pretty pictures.

  5. Karen Koerth says

    I think I’m in love! I just happened upon this wonderful website (“googling” hydrangeas!), but I will check in frequently now that I’ve found such a knowledgeable, artistic practitioner of garden art! I’m a landscape designer across the Lake in Evanston, IL, and I loved your comments about Annabelles v. Limelight. I’ve been a devotee of the latter for several years now; I’m recently curious about ‘Little Lime,’ which promises to top out at 3 to 5 feet. Your photographs and text are beautiful, informative, and inspiring!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Karen, many thanks for reading-let me know if you try Little Lime-I am curious too. Deborah

  6. I set up three new limelight hydrangea bushes last spring. They already had blooms on them when I planted them but they continue to blame throughout the summer and we’re quite beautiful! This year they’ve grown probably doubled in height. The problem is here it is almost the end of June and I can’t find a bloom on any of them. I did not prune them back. Does anyone know why they’re not blooming?

  7. I have 2 little lime lights that I planted last year. I did not prune them,so this year they are kind of tall and scraggly. They still have beautiful blooms, but the plants ate not very shapely. Can you clarify how far back to cut them and when so they will look better next year?

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