The Great Wild Ride our Hydrangeas Took

We give the plants in our yard three simple rules to follow, and one option. They should not die. They should make every effort to grow. They should do their best to look healthy and attractive—most of the time. The one option they have is to bloom. However, if they choose not to take that option, they do so at their own peril.

Our native Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ brightens shady nooks

As it happens, our hydrangeas seem to accept and follow these rules with a minimum of rebellion. That is why we grow them. We grow all kinds of hydrangeas. Some of them are pictured here. Each one has its particular charms, and each has its particular preferences.

We never understood until it was too late that we had the perfect conditions for growing hydrangeas. Generally speaking, hydrangeas are woodland plants. They grow best in dappled shade, rich, humusy soil that holds moisture, with a welcome gift of mulch from the forest each fall.

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pink Diamond’ reaches for the sky

Well, they were missing the good-soil part in our yard, except for those happy few planted in the remains of an old compost pile. But we worked hard to please the rest. We mixed good potting soil in with the slabs of clay and we planted them in wide but shallow  mounds to facilitate drainage. The less fortunate who found themselves in second-class soil seemed most grateful for this first-class treatment.

Even the sticks I bought one mid-November grew and bloomed the following spring. That’s the way hydrangeas look in winter, I said to Bob, when he asked me why I bought dead plants. (They really were sub-par plants but I wouldn’t admit that. Mislabeled, too, but I wouldn’t figure that out for a couple of years. They seemed like a good deal at the time.)

Anyway, we were proud of our hydrangeas.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Pia,’ a diminutive mophead to about three feet, maintains its bright red color over time

Pride goeth before a fall.

What fell were the trees that shaded those first hydrangeas, more than a hundred during Hurricane Isabel.

No more shade. Soggy boggy suck-a-muck soil because tree roots were no longer taking excess water up. Our perfect conditions for growing hydrangeas had sunk in mud during one wild day.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii’ was one of the first lacecaps we acquired

We didn’t know these consequences at the time. At first the plants seemed pretty perky, considering the roughhousing they had taken. It took some regrettable losses before we figured out what was going wrong. Then time and muscle-power to lift and pot about three dozen large plants. More time for the plants to recover while we searched for suitable places for them.

It took even longer for the plants to adapt to their new locations, many of which

Three Hydrangea serrata ‘Grayswood’ make a splash along our path with their lacecap blooms

had too much afternoon sun, too little moisture, too much moisture, competition from trees, and poor soil. Our tough-love rules still applied, but we lavished patient TLC on them: regular pruning, mulching, fertilizing, and watering. As the soil improved and they settled in—it took five or six years–they came around. There are some recalcitrants still hanging on because our bark is louder than our bite, but today, most of them give us quite a show.

Native to southeastern woodlands, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Alice’ is a dependable bloomer in the right site

Our discussion of hydrangeas is a work in progress. As we go along, we’ll talk about the varieties of hydrangeas we have in our garden, how we care for them, how to pick and dry blooms, and what companion plants we use.   

Our Hydrangea Garden Today

Check out  our sidebar articles under the heading The Romantic Hydrangeas for a discussion of all the kinds of hydrangeas you can grow and for tips on getting the most out of your plants.

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