Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas are a most beautiful and rewarding group of garden plants. Their ease of care, adaptability to a wide range of climates, and the long season of beauty of their flowers, from May through November has endeared them to gardeners worldwide. Most widely known are the cultivated varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla. These include the mopheads with their broad domed clusters of large florets, and their wild parents, the lacecaps with flat flower heads, formed of an outer ring of large florets and a mass of tiny inner blossoms, often in a contrasting color. Hydrangea macrophylla, the ‘big-leaf hydrangea’ is a plant native to Japan. Its relative, Hydrangea serrata, the ‘woodland hydrangea’ is considered by many botanists to be a subspecies of H. macrophylla.

Hydrangeas are found growing in the Americas as well as in Asia, and include a wide range of growth habits from the ivy-like climbers of Mexico and Korea to the nearly herbaceous and very cold-hardy North-American Hydrangea arborescens, which can survive extreme stem damage and rebound from the soil with new stems that terminate in flowers. Among the most popular types are the Oak-leaved hydrangeas, H. quercifolia, native to the American south. Their flowers are carried in drooping, cone-shaped clusters, scented of honey, and their striking, lobed foliage turns brilliant crimson and scarlet in the autumn, remaining persistent on the plants longer than the leaves of most fall-colored shrubs. Equally popular, and also fragrant are the tree-like hydrangeas of the mountains of Japan, Hydrangea paniculata. Ubiquitous in the North-East US, they are widely known under the common name ‘PeeGee Hydrangeas.’

Light

Hydrangeas can be grown in zones 2 through 8, though success depends on the variety and the local climate.

Partial shade is ideal, but they can take full sun as long as they have some protection from hot afternoon sun that can toast leaf edges. By the same token, too much shade can result in poor flowering.

An Eastern exposure next to a building or fence provides early morning sun that is vital to flower production, but allows afternoon shade that prevents stressing the plant and frying the foliage.

Water

Water often. If your hydrangea is looking wilted, it's very thirsty. If it doesn't get enough water in the spring when flower heads are forming, you'll have fewer and smaller blooms later.

Install a drip irrigation system for your hydrangeas. With regular watering they will reward you with lush growth and beautiful flowers.

Soil

One of the coolest aspects of hydrangea is the way soil affects the blooms. In acid soil the blooms are blue. When it's more limey, the flowers are pink. You can literally change the color by adding lime to make blue flowers turn pink or aluminum sulfate to make them turn blue.

Because hydrangeas thrive in rich, moist soils, adequate water and composting are a must. With good soil, annual additions of compost, and a good water retaining mulch, little more needs to be added to have healthy attractive plants.

However, if your climate or soil poses challenges, then it may be necessary to more aggressively amend your soil, and feed them, especially in the spring, with a high quality all-purpose (10-10-10) plant food. Use a single application of time-release fertilizer.

Drainage is important. As with most other plants, moist doesn't mean wet. Poor drainage can lead to sickly plants and eventual death.

Plant new plants in the spring after the last frost. Work the soil well and enrich with enriched with plenty of compost. Water thoroughly after planting.

Drying Hydrangeas

Dried hydrangeas make pretty arrangements in the fall. Leave flowers on the plants until September or October, then cut and arrange. Leave them to dry naturally.

For a more realistic result, silica gel can also be used. Put a shallow layer of silica in a large container. Place the bloom upside down in the sand. Sift silica gently to cover the bloom completely. Put a lid on the container and let it sit for four days. When dry, pour silica out of container and gently lift flower out. Use floral wire and tape to lengthen stems for arrangements and wreaths.

Cornmeal and borax mixed in a 60/40 ratio is much less expensive and equally effective though the duration for drying is two weeks.

Winter care

Winter protection is important in all but the most temperate climates. Check with your local nursery for methods that are most successful in your area.

Pruning and propogating

As long as they get enough water, hydrangeas are pretty hardy plants and tolerate a fair amount of neglect and untimely pruning. As such, it's a wonderful plant for the novice gardener. Be forewarned though: If you prune incorrectly at the wrong time or take the wrong cuts, you may easily end up with few flowers next year.

Hydrangeas, especially the macrophyllas, don't require pruning unless they get really big. Remove dead wood and spent blooms any time to maintain a tidy plant. Different varieties bloom on old wood (last year's growth) or new wood from the current season. It's important to check the plant tag or identify your variety before you start whacking away. If, for example, yours blooms on the tips of spring growth, do your pruning in the summer after blooming has occurred.

Prune or cut back spent blooms to force development of next year's buds. Thin canes on your plant to develop larger flower heads.

Hydrangeas are easy to root from stem or tip cuttings in late spring or early summer (May – June). Just take a 6-inch cutting of the plant, remove the leaves on the lower 3 inches and put it in a glass of water on a bright window sill. You can also dip the cut end into a rooting hormone. Place your cutting in damp vermiculite in a bright spot (like an Eastern exposure) to allow root formation. Once the cutting is rooted, you can keep it in a pot until ready to transplant outside.

When you plant your hydrangea starts depends on where you live. In areas where winters are temperate and the ground never really freezes you can plant your hydrangeas anytime, though fall and winter are best for fostering a strong root system to support the next seasons flowering. If your climate is colder, you'll need to plant in the spring ... for obvious reasons. Keep your young plant in out of the wind. Mulch it well to protect it through the winter.

Pests and Disease
While the list of diseases (wilt, blight, leafspot, rust) and pests (rose chafer, scale, mites and nematodes) seems daunting, I would tell you I have never actually seen any of these, and don’t expect to. I have seen powdery mildew, but this is easily controlled with benomyl, oil or lime sulfur (the latter two will discolor blossoms). Generally the biggest problems with this plant are siting and culture, so find a sheltered, partly shaded spot, water regularly, and soon your summer and fall will be filled with hydrangeas.


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