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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hydrangeas - Part I

I have no idea how many parts this will result in because I am writing this as I type. Anybody else still like writing in notebooks or filling up tablets - then transfer it to the computer? No? Just a quirk I have cornered on the market? *Edited to add: I got kinda wordy and this is a long post - if you're not interested in learning about hydrangeas, you might just want to check out the pretty pictures. (Click on any picture to enlarge.)

Anyway, I began my love affair with hydrangeas when Mr. Sassypants and I moved into our home 13 years ago. My Ma-Ma sent me one as a housewarming gift and it is the stunner I still have at the bottom of our front porch steps. Um, I'm going to try and not gush on and on about the beauty of this plant...
(Merritt's Supreme Hydrangea)
Since I have an obscene number of these gems (50 total - 18 varieties and three "unknowns") and because I think I've been so fortunate to learn from some of the best hydrangea "experts", I want to share the knowledge I've gained from others and from my own experiences. Please take into account I am gardening in Zone 7, so my info translates well if you are in the Southeast. Mophead hydrangeas are the pickiest about their climates (in my opinion) and will do best if grown in Zones 6-9. (Tiara Hydrangea)
Requirements for healthy hydrangeas:


First, I'd like to address the issue of sun versus shade for hydrangeas. While they are known as a "shade" plant, they really should have SUN until about 1:00 or 2:00 pm. (Some types will tolerate a full day of sun and I'll tell more about them later.) The further north you are, the more they can tolerate more sun. If their leaves begin to scorch, they may be getting too much sun. Too little sun and you will end up with a green shrub and very few, if any, blooms. Say you have a mix of sun and shade...provided they get about 4 hours of direct light, you can grow a hydrangea.
(Limelight, PeeGee Hydrangea)
Say you have not a stitch of shade to be found on your can still grow a hydrangea! Pick up a PeeGee hydrangea (known in hoighty-toighty garden circles as Hydrangea Paniculata). Best in zones 3-8. PeeGees are one of my VERY favorite varieties! They NEED full sun, can produce HUGE blooms (which dry exquisitely), are not affected by late frosts, can be pruned to tree form and bloom late in the summer when little else is happening in this southern garden! This is a picture from last summer. This was only it's second year in the ground and it reached about eight feet high. Be prepared to give this big girl some room! Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea Quercifolia, Zones 5-9) also will tolerate and do better with a little more sun.
(Oakleaf Hydrangea)
Here in Georgia I've learned the hard way that amending my soil before planting is a required step - a huge pain in the tush, too! Given the hard clay we naturally have means adding and mixing in some bagged soil and compost. If you have gorgeous, dark, rich soil, I'm SO happy for you. (Dig into some hard clay and heave around some bags of cow manure and you'll realize I'm not being overly dramatic here.) Once your hydrangeas have been in the ground for a year, lay on a couple of inches of manure around the base of your plant. (Around March for Atlanta.)
(Penny Mac Hydrangea)
Sounds like a lot of work? The incredible, late Penny McHenry did this every spring and had over 300 hydrangeas. Penny was the founder of the American Hydrangea Society and a premier stop on the annual Hydrangea Tour here in Atlanta. Her garden was breathtaking and she was generous with her knowledge. Her garden is the reason I introduced Annabelles (a type of Hydrangea Arborescens, Zones 4-8) to my garden. This is also a variety which likes some more sun. (young Annabelle Hydrangea)
If you feel you must fertilize your hydrangea, you need only sprinkle some 10-10-10 at the base after the last freeze and when new green growth has pushed out. You can do the same again in June, but only if you're NOT in the middle of a drought! I've never fertilized my hydrangeas and never really felt the need for this step.

Of course all plants need water, but your hydrangea may need a little more in the first two years of its life, especially if you plant them in the early summer. The ideal (for the plant) time of year to plant a hydrangea is in the fall. (October for Atlanta) There is very little stress through our winters for a hydrangea. However, I know all the nurseries will have these gorgeous plants out now - my Ma-Ma gave me this one (below) while she was visiting - this Matilda Gutges, we both thought belonged in my garden.
Even when your hydrangea has been in the ground a few years, don't be surprised to see it go "limp" around 3:00pm. They will all do it (in the south especially).Here is one which has been in my garden for eight years now. The heat tends to bother it, but it will wake up refreshed the next morning. Of course, if your area is suffering from a drought, hydrangeas will become very stressed. Just try to get them water in the early morning at the base of the plant if possible.

I'll be back in a couple of days to answer FAQ's, so if you have any questions of your own, feel free to leave them in the comment section!
Thanks for visiting and Happy Gardening!