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.


  1. The little limes are looking great in the pots.

  2. Hi Deborah,

    I enjoy reading your blog. I also love hydrangeas but have trouble with the ‘Annabelles’ flopping. You mentioned that your client stakes them early. Do you stake each stem and bloom? I have tried hoop type of supports but the weight of the bloom often breaks the stem at the hoop.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge about landscape design and gardening.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Priscilla, you need tomato hoops that are very sturdy-and tall. There is a company that makes really good ones-I would search on the internet. Or you can insert stout bamboo stakes all around the crown of the plant-in April, and use vinyl tie like a corset. the tie has to be tied at every stake, not just wrapped around. Black vinyl tie can be purchased on line from AM Leonard in Piqua Ohio. Peony hoops are too short! good luck, Deborah

      • Hi Deborah,
        Thanks for the ideas. I did stake some blooms with 4′ bamboo stakes securing the bloom to the stake with a pinch style hair clip. It worked pretty well except I didn’t have enough stakes to support them all.

        I will look for some heavy duty tomato hoops for next year. Do you recommend pruning short (6″) or minimal pruning. Some gardeners say that a woodier stem helps support the blooms but I garden in heavy shade and my Annabelles put out 3 to 4′ of new growth each year.

        Thanks for your ideas.

        • Deborah Silver says

          Dear Pricilla, try everything until you find what works for you. That said, I would never prune Annabelles within 6 inches of the ground. This promotes fewer blooms, and bigger blooms that are heavier and more likely to flop. I would prune in the spring to 30″ to 42″ tall off grade. This should result in many flowers that are smaller. But no one gardens in exactly the same conditions that you have. Experiment. Take note of the results, and proceed. Being a great grower has a lot to do with patience, and observation. Deborah

  3. It’s wonderful to view pictures of these plants when they are blooming. How about using some pictures showing the same plants throughout each of the seasons? Love your website, have just begun visiting it. Love your explanations about design. Thank you so much.

  4. Great post Deborah. I’m a Limelight fan and have several across the front of my home. I’d love to incorporate masses of them in my 1.5 acre backyard, but with no irrigation system, I’m afraid I would be watering non-stop. 🙁

    • Deborah Silver says

      Mario, I have my hydrangeas on drip irrigation. They do fine with that. I would not want to have to water them with a hose either. Deborah

  5. Thank you again and again Deborah, for sharing so generously all these images of your beautiful gardens, and the thoughts and planning that go into them. I am a landscaper from Massachusetts, and I look forward to every entry and the inspiration it brings. Julie

    • Deborah Silver says

      Many thanks for your letter, Julie. I like that there are lots of landscape design people out there, sincere and serious about what they do. Thoughtfully designed landscapes makes every place a little bit better. Deborah

  6. Ann Taylor says

    We look forward every fall to the beautiful rosy tinged limelights and how beautiful they look with aster October Skies, solidago Fireworks, the swallowtail and monarch magnet Eupatorium Little Joe, New York ironweed and callicarpa. So wonderful to watch as limelights change from their early summer green to their summer white to the finale of fall color. And the dried bouquets for the long winter months! A bonus!

  7. thanks for info!

  8. “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. ”

    I agree. I am a private gardener, but I read your blog and love it! I do not have the desire or discipline to plant a lot of the same plant. Like a lot of gardeners, I like to go for variety since it is cheaper if a specific plant is diseased or damaged. Also, I plant for pollinators and native insects, and I think variety may be good for these guys.

    Having said this, I am going to share a couple of hydrangeas which I like in an informal setting. Oakleaf hydrangeas! These like acidic soil. The flowers turn from white to pinkish depending on the cultivar, but turn brown (ew) in late summer. The big payoff is when the leaves turn red in fall. I have alice and ruby slippers.

    NOID Hydrangea serrata. How cool are these? I got cuttings from a fellow gardener. The blooms on one go from blue or pink…to RED in late summer. Nice. I think “ok at least 3 seasons of interest.” One of them just dries to a lighter color in late summer. Not bad.

    The not-annabelle. I have a smooth hydrangea which is either the straight species or white dome. It was mislabeled. The flowers are lace cap, so they don’t flop like annabelle. They’re beautiful in full shade. In an understated way. Plus the big leaves change color in fall. As a plus, these transplant and propagate easily and seem to enjoy alkaline soil.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Guest, Thanks so much for your letter. I have an oakleaf hydrangea which was on my property when I bought it 20 years ago. It is in a spot not readily seen. It is every bit of 15 feet tall. Lovely in leaf and flower, I have never once done anything to it. I will check out your other suggestions. Deborah

  9. Marie Tulin says

    The gardener who helped me with some designs showed me how to cut back Annabelles in the spring to about 2-2.5 feet. They re-grew during the season and rarely flopped. We’re zone 5b-6 six, and they do fine.

  10. marie tulin says

    It appears I didn’t follow up on my original post or your question, Deborah. Maybe someone else who comes across this post will benefit from my late response
    My Annabells are in a western exposure and get about 3 hours of direct light in the afternoon. However the site is “bright” the rest of the time, not dark. I never water Annabell. It gets what water comes from the sky and some seasons that is not much. I have never fertilized them and rarely remember to mulch.
    I still swear by cutting them back to about 2.5 feet. In two or three weeks they will shoot up 2 feet and bloom in 4 or 5 weeks. They do not flop! I think I remember them flopping after a deluge when they were in full bloom. They mostly popped back up but were perfectly presentable even with some of the bottommost blossoms on the ground.

  11. Nataliya says

    Dear Deborah,
    I know it’s a very old post but I desperately need your advise. Can Annabelle hydrengeas be in full sun? I found very contradictory information online. We planted a hedge of boxwoods and now consider Annabell between them and the wall. We are in Pittsburgh, PA, I believe it’s 7a zone. I will very appreciate if you will be able to give me your so valuable advise. Thank you !

  12. Wow what a great few posts about my absolute favourites, limelights!
    Greetings from the UK and thanks for the inspiration, these posts are invaluable now that I am planning some new hydrangea filled beds

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