The 2020 Hydrangeas

The hydrangeas in bloom this year have been beyond gorgeous. I have never seen them better, and I have been growing hydrangeas for a long time. The object of my affection and admiration are white flowering varieties that bloom on new wood. Blue and pink hydrangeas that bloom on old wood – this would be the bigleaf hydrangeas, or hydrangea macrophylla –  are not truly bud hardy in my zone. Unless they have a mild winter, whilst mulched from the soil level to the tops of the branches, the flowering will be sporadic and disappointing. If yours bloom profusely and reliably in Michigan, then count your blessings. The whole point of hydrangeas in bloom is the sheer splendor that comes from abundance. A happy hydrangea is so loaded with blooms the slender stems of the shrub will bend over from the sheer weight and volume of them. If you must have blue hydrangeas in all of their splendor,  then pack your bags for Nantucket, and read no further. The Bobo hydrangeas pictured above have astonishingly good care. The entire bed is on drip irrigation – essential when hydrangeas are in full sun – and that irrigation is monitored and updated frequently. I am quite sure they are fertilizing in late winter/early spring. Some apply Hollytone, by Espoma, or a slow release balanced fertilizer. The reward is an ocean’s worth of greenish white flowers.

That is not all. Later in the season those blooms will turn towards pink, and then rose pink. The fall display is every bit as beautiful as that in late summer. Add the yellow fall color on the leaves, and you have a visual treat that is quite spectacular. A good shrub provides interest in the garden over a long period of time. Hydrangeas are particularly generous with a long period of bloom. I leave the flower heads intact over the winter – why not? That cinnamon brown color is strikingly beautiful. Of course there will be those blooms that break off and blow around, but that cleanup is manageable.

This hedge of Limelight hydrangeas was planted for a client at their restaurant many years ago. I want to say at least 10 years ago, probably more. I am quite sure that they get watered; my clients takes great care of all of their plants.The soil is that typical Oakland County Michigan airless and non-draining clay-we planted them well above grade for exactly that reason. I have no idea what pruning and feeding care they get, but I can say their maintenance company was not permitted to work this year until May. So the spring care was fast and loose. Behind me in this picture is Woodward Avenue – a main road with 3 lanes going both north and south. It is packed with automobile traffic around the clock, in the 45-50 mph range. I would say the hedge is 25 feet off the road, and endures plenty of exhaust in the summer, and an equal amount of road salt in the winter. This commercial planting is stunning.

hydrangea Little LimeThis hedge of Little Lime hydrangeas is relatively new-it was planted 4 years ago. The flowers are at that fresh green stage, as they are just beginning to bloom. This exposure is westerly, which is a great location for hydrangeas. They need at least 6 hours of sun a day to bloom profusely. I am astonished at how many articles I read that suggest that hydrangeas do well planted in the shade. I have seen plantings in shady areas that range from sporadically blooming to passable, but I have yet to see a hydrangea thrive in shade. Of all the hydrangeas, the oak leaf is the most shade tolerant. Tolerant is the key concept here. No flowering plants, with a few exceptions, love shady conditions. They tolerate them. Find a sunny spot for your hydrangeas. These Little Limes get occasional supplemental water.

I get no end of questions about spacing. I have seen spacing recommended anywhere from 3′ to 8′. This hedge was spaced at 3 feet on center, with 2 rows of plants in staggered positions. The bed is 9′ in depth, and the Little Limes have filled that right up. An 8′ spacing on a Limelight hedge will produce a series of shaggy ball shapes. A closer spacing will produce a more uniform look to the hedge. I think spacing is primarily a matter of personal taste. If you are willing to wait a few years for a group of hydrangeas to grow together, then space them out. If you are after a densely growing hedge then space them closer. If there is a specific space to fill, then space to fit that particular space. Do I think one spacing is superior and produces more healthy plants than another – sun and water being comparable – ? No.

I have 2 blocks of Limelights at home that have been in the ground for close to 20 years. They were spaced at 30″. They have been healthy and heavy blooming every year. I have had Japanese beetle damage to the leaves, and scorch when I didn’t water enough, but they perform the same as a group spaced at 4 feet apart. I can vary the style and extent of my pruning every year, and not be able to see any difference in the blooming plants.  A good friend has planted and maintained miles of blocks of Limelights in the median on a major north/south road in my area.  They are the best blooming hydrangeas I have ever seen, in a year of great blooming hydrangeas.  I asked her about the care. They routinely feed with Hollytone, and they do water. The only difference this year was that they did not prune as hard as usual. Do I think this made the difference in the performance?  Maybe, or maybe not. Do I think the weather conditions were perfect?  Our season has been very hot and dry. Would I expect this to be great for hydrangeas? Not really.

Hydrangeas will tell you when they need water. Those big thin leaves clinging to the stems-as in the above picture of a hydrangea on standard – is a clear SOS. I do err on the side of water generosity, as I believe that plants stressed from being too dry perform at a less than optimal level. Newly planted hydrangeas need very careful monitoring for water. They grow so fast that most potted plants available for sale are root bound. If that root ball goes dry soon after planting, it is of no consequence how wet the soil is a foot away. The hose needs to be aimed directly at the crown of the plant.

This is all by way of saying that insofar as gardening with hydrangeas is concerned, various approaches to their cultivation can produce healthy and beautiful plants. They are so versatile in the landscape, as this pair of pots planted with Limelights can attest. Most and best of all, they are forgiving of neglect, and respond strongly to attention and care.

I have been enjoying them for weeks now.

Comments

  1. I live in upstate New York and have only one hydra new. I believe it is a limelight and blooms every year magnificently. My only complaint is the first strong summer rain causes everything to droop over and then stays that way for the rest of the season. What can be done to help hold the branches upright? A special kind of pruning perhzaps?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Carol, see what I wrote to Karen. And look it up on line. See what lots of people have to say, and then do what seems reasonable for your situation. best regards, Deborah

  2. Dear Deborah, Thank you for the great tip about moving hydrangeas from pots to the ground for the winter. My question – in spring, can you then move them back into pots and still have good blooms? (I’m in zone 5, NW Michigan.)

  3. I have a long wall of Endless Summer hydrangeas. They are in partial shade and bloom magnificently.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Martha, I have a few clients that have beautiful blooming stands of them too. I am envious of their success! When they do well, they are lovely. best regards, Deborah

  4. My hydrangea did not bloom this year. It’s not in the shade. I water them regularly and give miracle grow fertilizer. They are very healthy and the leaves are very green. There are year that it bloom. What should I do. I would say I planted them ,6 years ago.

  5. Cheryl Radabaugh says

    Dozens of great paniculata hydrangeas out there and the article is only on a few .what about firelight ,strawberry vanilla , strawberry sundae ,zinfin doll.and magical candles , little lamb ,fire and ice to list a few more

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Cheryl, my essay is by no means a comprehensive listing of available paniculata hybrids. There are plenty of places on line to get that information. I was more interested in discussing what conditions favor good growth and flowering on my favorite hydrangeas. best, Deborah

  6. Matthew C Brand says

    i disagree RE not blooming in the shade. My paniculata ‘unique’ blooms nicely and gets only a couple hours’ direct sun. Not as big or showy, but still a solid bloom

  7. Susie Farrell says

    Love the photos & sharing! Keep them coming!
    Happy gardening!
    Keep making the world a better place!

  8. I grow the panicle hydrangeas. While I absolutely love their beauty, the weight of the huge panicles cause them to flop over and sometimes break. Any suggestions on staking, etc. to alleviate this problem. I love seeing your photos of the huge round mounds of blooms versus everything flopped over and maybe a couple stems left standing upright. Thanks!!!

    • Try Quickfire or Little Quickfire. The flower heads are less dense

    • Barbara Ottolino says

      I staked blooms a few weeks ago, at client request, for clients hosting a back yard wedding for their son. I had never done this before, but it went surprisingly well, and fast!I used 6′ fiberglass rods, the type used for marking snowplow routes along driveways. I inserted the stake into the soil so its trajectory paralleled where the stem SHOULD be if not bowing down, then tied near the head of the bloom and further down along the stem. I wrapped twine several times around the stake and stem before knotting it. Stakes were invisible and clients were able to pose wedding party on lawn in front of long hedge of blooms which were backed by tall evergreens. I suggest 4′ rods as well for shorter stems.
      We’d had terrific storms which blew down plants and soaked ground and flower heads causing them to arch downward. I strongly suggest soaking the ground so you can run the stakes to considerable depth. You will be pushing stakes in at various angles to parallel the branches, not pushing them in vertically. As in a floral arrangement, you want the mechanics to be invisible. If you can see them, you really would be better off pruning away a few branches to relieve the weight. I found while staking that supporting one branch would lift the branches originating from the same “trunk”, so you will find you have to support far fewer branches than you might expect.

    • Kristi White says

      They make Hydrangea cages,.. maybe look into that

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Karen, you might try pruning lighting in March, and then pruning lightly again in late April. Pruning hard results in fewer but larger blooms. A denser network of stems may help. Staking helps quite a bit-but I recommend staking early in the season. best, Deborah

    • In our nursery we have started using a garden netting with about 5 inch squares that we lay over top of the shrub when the blooms are just starting to appear, the plant then grows through the netting and more or less hides it. This has eliminated the need to use bamboo stakes. Hope this helps.

  9. Barbara Ottolino says

    Deborah, I recently found your blog – absolutely the most informative and visually stunning information available anywhere. Your creativity is breathtaking. Your generous sharing of information on plant combinations, maintenance, and installation tips is incredibly helpful – I feel so fortunate to have found your site (still working through it) and hope to make a pilgrimage to Detroit eventually.
    I am blissfully immersed in a landscaping career after a long career in teaching visual arts, which is such an easy segue into this field that it feels like cheating. I am SO enjoying your writing and the aesthetic you bring to your landscaping and container projects. I count you among a handful of gifted instructors from whom I have been privileged to learn during a long lifetime. You are a passionate, born teacher – you cannot help but enthusiastically pass on your lifetime of accumulated wisdom to others. Lucky us!

  10. Carol Cheney says

    Hoping you might give me direction on how to promote my “twist and shout” hydrangeas to bloom. This is the 3rd summer and after two successful years of gorgeous blooms, this year I had none. Lovely full (3) plants and nothing. In the spring I spread sheep manure around the base, watered well. Pruned in the spring after growth started. I did spread some bone meal mid summer. Can you help. Many thanks.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Carol, the hydrangea Twist and Shout is a hydrangea macrophylla hybrid. This hydrangea grows all season, and then sets its buds for the following year. If the winter is very cold, the buds can freeze, and blast, meaning no flowers the following season. Pruning this hybrid in the spring means you are pruning off the flower buds for the current year that were set the previous year. Prune this hydrangea only after it finishes blooming. best, Deborah

  11. Karen A McBride says

    I’m in Toronto, zone 5, a mile north of Lake Ontario’s sandy beach so our soil is sandy. My small city yard has a frenemy, an old Norway maple trimmed ++ (sun available between certain times) with stubborn thirsty roots. Previously, in another yard nearby, I had Annabelles that flourished in spite of my lack of gardening skills.
    So I planted them in my current yard under the Norway maple about 8 years ago. With moderate success. This year they weren’t happy at all (they weren’t alone, you should see my clematis). The sun they got was burning hot when present but as the day progressed, full shade. Nothing dappled.
    I have a sprinkler system and am told that the water falling on the leaves may not be the best. But isn’t that like rain? Confusing! So now I’m using a soaker hose and see some appreciation. They each got a layer of manure in the spring and in August when they looked so small and sad.
    Love your pictures, it’s what I had in my head but maybe I have to face reality.

  12. Dear Deborah, Your Limelight hydrangeas are spectacular. And what are those brilliant pink flowers at the far end of that bed? They are also a spectacular sight.

  13. My message is don’t give up…..I’m in zone 6 & pruned my limelight in early April along with a butterfly bush and Montauk daisy. They are stunning. A Niko Blue purchased at Lowe’s in 2016 for $6.00, finally had two blooms. It took four years but worth the wait. Deborah, thank you for sharing your inspiring photos.

  14. Robinson Cathy says

    With those summer conditions , and great bloom, I’d have to say That the gardening angel has been at work.
    Is that an irrigation system in front of theHydrangea, Allium bed? What kind?

    Thank you , I do a lot of vicarious gardening through you and your crews,

    Cathy

  15. Susan Iseman says

    Indeed it was a great year- my blue Hydrangeas were so full of blooms – I am in SW CT and we had a mild wet winter. But then we had a horrible hot summer- 4-6 weeks of 90’s hazy hot humid. My blooms, despite watering a lot turned a horrible deep fried brown. I know I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I pruned the burnt blooms. What say you, Deborah?

  16. Just stunning!

  17. Heather Thomas says

    Deborah, I have seen your commentary before on the difficulty of blue/pink hophead hydrangeas in your zone, but I’m curious if you have tried the newer varieties of the mopheads such as “Endless Summer” series which came out a few years ago? These bloom both on old AND new wood and may open up possibilities for you to enjoy blue or pink flowers in your zone. https://endlesssummerblooms.com/product/the-original-bigleaf-hydrangea/

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Heather, I have lots of clients who have Endless Summer hydrangeas that fail to bloom. The buds that set in the fall do not make it through our winters. As for the rebloom, I see a few, here and there. Maybe. And not reliably. I do have clients in the Grosse Pointe area-which is on Lake St Clair. The lake effect permits macrophylla hydrangeas to thrive, and bloom with some better regularity. It is hard to believe that a hydrangea that was introduced into commerce with such fan fare has proved to be so disappointing in the garden -in my area. best, Deborah

    • I have 4 Endless Summers that I’ve had for many years. If I am lucky, I might get 1, 2 or 3 blooms in total. I haven’t gotten rid of them because they are big and green and pad out the beds they are in. (I am not alone in that decision but all of us are horribly disappointed because we have all been to slightly warmer places at lower elevations that have gorgeous hydrangeas). I bought a Limelight last year and it was spectacular last year and even better this year! I just had a moment where I had to recognize that no matter what it says on those maps, I am not a Zone 4, I’m a 3.(western NY state)

  18. Stunning inspiration, as always!! And very timely – since I’m planning to do some Hydrangea plantings around a small patio for my parents at our centennial cherry farm near Traverse City. I’m personally “lobbying” for Limelights – but, my mom was hoping that we could work some kind of soil acidifying magic to eventually have blue ones. So, your enlightenment on certain varieties being at odds w/ Michigan winters may well be enough “ammunition” to help my Limelight cause. 🙂

    As an aside, in “normal times”, I live in Atlanta. And I certainly learned the hard way that Limelights and other Hydrangeas do, in fact, require enough daily sun. A couple years ago, I created a low boxwood hedge w/ Limelights behind. The boxwood hedge is the picture of health – but, the Limelights are – ahem – less than prolific. 🙂 So, unfortunately, the landscape reality has been far from the vision I had in my mind’s eye; live and learn, I suppose. 🙂

  19. heavenly Deborah! I got a mess down here Deborah, huge yard of sand, stickers, weeds, misc creepy stuff that attach to your pants, socks, you name it! Oh my, where to even start!

  20. Leonard Tymoszek says

    I simply purchase a new potted plant each year for spectacular blue blooms, although my Endless Summer from last season took off in amazing fashion!

  21. Little Lime and Bobo are always reliable for a spectacular show for me. Two years ago I planted Little Limette. The flowers brown out prematurely. They are sited in full sun. After reading this article I think perhaps they’re too dry? Or is it the cultivar?

  22. Roberta Angeli says

    How can I winter over a hydrangea planted in a pot for the winter?

    Bobby

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Bobby, I have plenty of clients who leave their hydrangeas in their pots for the winter-in my zone.If the pot is not frost proof, then plant the hydrangea in the ground, in a sheltered location, for the winter.

      • Dear Deborah, After planting the potted hydrangeas in the ground for the winter, can you then move them back into the pots when the weather warms up? I am growing Lace Cap hydrangeas (Tuff Stuff) in NW Michigan, Zone 5, mostly shade.
        And I too am confused by the distinction between old and new wood. It would be great if you could help us understand it better.

        • Barbara Ottolino says

          Ken Druse’s book “Making More Plants” has excellent photos of various stages of growth on a number of plants. One of the best books to add to your library whether experienced or novice. Do NOT pass it up.

        • Old wood is the stems that grew this summer, towards the end of the season they grow the flower buds that will open next summer, however if the winter (brrrr) is too cold the buds will be killed. Hence the promoting of shrubs that will flower on new wood, which is the growth that will occur next spring and summer. In my experience, never as heavy flowering on new growth.

  23. These photos break my heart. None of my hydrangeas bloom. I went to feeding. Or perhaps they get too dry – although I try to be sensitive to it. Then someone said they needed to be significantly mulched over winter….so I did that. And finally — something I just cannot understand is blooming from “old” or “new” stems….as if they were being cut down improperly by the garden vendor I use. I know!! I’ll just cut these photos out and staple them on mine. Thank you for your wonderful photos and info.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Joni, what is the name of your hydrangeas? And where do you garden? best, Deborah

    • Kristi Zakrzewski says

      Joni – I must live in your neighborhood! I’m lucky if I get one or two blooms and I am also perplexed about the old and new wood scenario. In Colorado, hydrangeas are marketed as a shade loving plants! I too will be cutting these pictures out and trying not to drool!

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