Hydrangeas are queens of the shrub world. Fairly easy to grow their beautiful blooms are colorful and last throughout Summer and Fall when most plants have stopped flowering. These hardy perennials can produce blue, pink, white, rose, and lavender colored flowers, sometimes all on the same plant. There are a few different varieties of hydrangeas and proper pruning and care can guarantee the best and most beautiful bushes.
First off, Hydrangeas love nutrient-rich, porous, and somewhat moist soils. If the area you want to plant in is lacking nutrients, mix in some compost to enrich it. They love partial shade, tolerating up to 3 hours of full sun in the southern and warmer regions in the mornings. Further north they can tolerate up to full sun, though it’s important to keep them well watered. The leaves will start to wilt if it’s too dry.
Suitable for zones 3-9, they should be planted as deep as the root ball and two to three times as wide. Be sure to space plants out 3 to 10 feet apart. They can be planted in the Spring or in the Fall. Sandy or barren soil should be fertilized, though most recommend only using half the recommended amount or you’ll only encourage leafy growth and fewer flowers. If your soil is already rich, fertilizer will not be needed.
Initially, for the first couple of years of a new plants life, it should stay well watered and simply encouraged to grow. Later, in the fall, it is good to cover your plant 18” deep with mulch or straw. Tomato cages can be used to cover bigger plants, filling the cage with cover. This will protect it for the colder months and make it ready for blooming next Springs and Summer.
One of the most important parts of caring for a hydrangea and ensuring beautiful growth is knowing how to prune your plant properly. Firstly, you should know that there are two different groups of hydrangea plants. The first are the plants that bloom on new growth. The second are plants that bloom on old growth. It’s important to know which group your plant falls into so you know how and where to prune your plant each year.
For all plants, you can help the plant grow fuller by pruning back one to two of the oldest stems down to the base each year. You’ll lose flowers for that year, but this promotes branching and fullness for future years. If the plant is seriously neglected, trim all the branches back to the base. It may take a year or two of recovery before you get flowers, but once you do, they’ll be full and healthy. Always trim off the dead wood.
There are two varieties and multiple cultivars in group one. The Panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata) and the Smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens). Both will grow new stems each year and flower on that new growth. Both are hardy to zone 3 and require little special care. Panicle hydrangeas are recognized by their cone-shaped flower heads while Smooth hydrangeas are known as the “Snowballs.” Always be sure to trim out any dead wood in fall or very early spring and you can encourage more flower growth by deadheading the flowers later in the season. This means removing flowers that have wilted at their base to allow new flowers to grow.
It’s important to note that you should not prune these bushes to shape them. These should be pruned in late winter before bloom when the plant is dormant. This encourages the new growth come spring upon which the flowers will bloom.
Oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia), Bigleaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), and Climbing hydrangeas from group 2 require a bit more attention. Bigleaf hydrangeas are the most common variety of hydrangea and come in two types; Mophead and Lacecaps. Lacecaps have hanging flowers from a flat central bloom and are fine to deadhead. Mopheads have big snowball-type round blooms of flowers. These flowers should be left on the plant until the next spring when they can be cut back to the first healthy buds.
Overall, This goes for all hydrangea varieties in group 2. This is because the flowers bloom upon the last year’s growth, so you do not want to cut off that old growth. Once it starts to bud you can cut off the old flowers and trim any excess back to the healthy new buds. Again, dead wood can be trimmed back and a couple of branches can be cut back to the base to promote fullness.
Did you know that you can somewhat control what color your flowers will be? It’s true! It’s best to start with a Bigleaf (Hydrangea macrophylla) variety. The color of its flowers is determined by your soil’s pH. Test the pH of your soil to see where you start. A lower pH results in blue flowers while higher pH gives you pink flowers. You can lower your soil’s pH by adding sulpher or peat moss. Add limestone to raise the pH. Note that a pH above 7.5 will be too high and result in poor growth.
The changes in color are not instant and can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Plants younger than 2 years old are still recovering from the shock of its initial planting, so it is best to wait until the plant has matured to make drastic changes to the pH. At the end of the flowering cycle, all plants will fade, often to a pink and green color. This is normal and the plant will bloom in its appropriate color again the next year. If you notice your desired blue flowers turning pinkish, it may be due to hard water. Use rainwater and they should resume their blue coloring.
Growing Beautiful Hydrangeas
In short, Hydrangeas are fairly easy and hardy plants to take care of. They are also very versatile and incredibly beautiful when cared for properly. The key points to remember are:
- First, plant in rich, moist soil.
- Second, do not shape and prune according to your plant’s guidelines.
- Third, prune back a couple of branches each year to make the plant fuller.
- Fourth, adjust the pH of the soil to determine your flower’s color once the plant is established and healthy.
Follow these basic rules and you’ll have beautiful flowering bushes for year and years to come!
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