Hydrangeas: What Grandma didn’t tell you (2022)

Gardeners love hydrangeas (hi-DRAIN-jah), those big blue and pink mophead (snowball-size) blooms that we all remember from our childhood at Grandma's house. When we try to create this memory in our own gardens we find that Grandma's mopheads are unreliable at best.

What happened? Did Grandma have two green thumbs or do we just have a romanticized childhood? Probably neither...weather plays a huge part in our mophead success. When untimely cold snaps (like Dogwood Winter) happen after a warm spell, the buds of mophead hydrangeas are frozen. Since mopheads, or hydrangea macrophylla, bloom on old wood, the bud is already set and just waiting to get toasted at the first night the temperature drops below freezing.

Weather patterns seem to cycle so we might get a couple or more years in a row when spring is mild and the macrophyllas of Grandmas day thrive and thrill us with their romantic blooms. In the past five years those varieties of mopheads in my garden have only produced one bloom. (One!)

Michael A. Dirr from UGA (University of Georgia, Athens) an expert on hydrangeas says basically all macrophyllas sooner or later will have a meltdown due to late spring frosts. Pick up a copy of his book Hydrangeas for American Gardens.

So, what is a gardener to do? I'm going to what Grandma would do... replace the older varieties with more dependable hydrangeas. I want plants that work as hard as me in the garden and I'm tired of making excuses for them. Besides I'm not getting any younger and if they aren't producing - they're history!

Diane Meucci of Gardens Oy Vey near Memphis grows and sells all types of plants including many varieties of hydrangeas. She says, "I love hydrangeas. I adore them. They tolerate our heat, our clay soil and with good drainage they tolerate our wet winters. They come in different shapes and sizes and they fill various niches in space and bloom time. They are opulent. They are show offs."

I had an opportunity to stop by her nursery this week and was astounded to learn there are more to hydrangeas then I previously thought! As a professional gardener and designer Diane has had the opportunity to evaluate the performance of hydrangeas and makes the following recommendations:

The heartiest are the hydrangea paniculata -' P. G'. and 'Tardiva' are two to look for. The paniculata can take hot sun, and is woody, making it an easy choice to train into a standard (hydrangea tree). Paniculatas can reach 10-15 feet in height. Sun to part shade.

Since it blooms on new wood you can't over prune and don't have to worry about late frosts. Prune hard in late winter or early spring. I have three 'PG's that get hot afternoon sun and are doing well...real workhorses that don't require a lot of fuss. Other varieties; 'Angel's Blush', 'Chantilly Lace', 'Kyusu', 'Pink Diamond', 'The Swan' and 'Limelight.' I have a limelight in full sun and it is incredible.

Next, hydrangea quercifolia - Oakleaf, An architectural charmer with shaggy bark and large foliage that turns brilliant dark red in fall. This plant has large conical shaped blooms that start out white then turn pink to brown. Like all hydrangeas, good drainage is a must. Native to the South, they prefer partial shade (five or six hours of morning sun).

There are many new varieties to choose from. 'Snow Queen' holds her flowers upright. For a cascading look try 'Snowflake.'

Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood (from previous year) so prune right after the flowers start to fade or not at all (no later then the first part of August). I like to leave the old flowers on for winter interest in my garden (besides, I don't feel much like pruning anything in August). Other varieties to check out; 'Alice,' 'Amethyst,' 'Ellen Huff,' 'Harmony,' 'Little Honey' and 'Pee Wee'.

Hydrangea aboresiens - Annabelle, a 5'x5' native woodland beauty that is so reliable! Big white blooms that age to a chartreuse green. A favorite in my garden and especially now when the 'Annabelles' in my garden are full of flower buds after the hard freeze we had last month! These girls like some morning sun and afternoon shade (don't we all?)

Aboresiens do well with north or east exposure. These wonders bloom on new wood. Prune in half in late winter or early spring. For giant blooms cut to the ground in late winter...although I have found if you do this they might need some support so they won't flop over. If you have a lot of shade, try "Smooth Hydrangea." This plant is found on shady north slopes and is drought tolerant. Lace cap flowers adorn this 3' x 3' gal.

"Hayes Starburst' and 'Withe Dome' are two more varieties to consider.

Closely following the 'Annabelles' are Hydrangea seratta - Japanese Mountain Hydrangeas, relatively new on the market (5 - 10 years) here in the States, these hydrangeas are proving to be real winners in our Southern gardens. Touted as bud hardy, low maintenance, yet feminine in nature by Diane Meucci who tells me in 10 years they have never failed to bloom. The serattas remain dormant longer thus avoiding late frosts.

These hydrangeas have unique forms with mophead and lace cap blooms in blue, purple, pink and white making them a designers dream in the garden. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Blooms best in morning sun but will tolerate and bloom in full shade with good drainage. These girls will adapt well to container gardening too. Give them acidity (sulpher) for better blues and alkalinity, (lime) for more pinks. No need to prune - just cut bouquets to enjoy. I just bought a 'Little Geisha.' She has small pink mophead (2") blooms with limey green foliage and only gets 3' tall. There are so many Serattas ...Muecci of Gardens Oy Vey lists her top favorites: "Kurenai,' 'Little Geisha,' 'Blue Billow' and 'Tiara'.

Last but not least hydrangea Macrophylla - Grandma's Mopheads, the 'French Hydrangeas.' These well-loved hydrangeas are picture perfect with their big showy blue and pink blooms...as we have discussed earlier are beautiful but are often fooled by warm days February and March and start budding out flower (on old wood from previous year) only to be burned by a typical late spring cold snap. If you are growing hydrangeas just for the lovely foliage then these girls are a positive feature in the garden! This family of hydrangeas enjoys morning sun or dappled light and shade in the afternoon. Prune only if needed and right after bloom. 'Nikko Blue' is a great mophead variety.

Now, there are some new varieties to try such as 'Endless Summer,' 'All Summer Beauty,' 'Penny Mac,' 'Pia' and the like that promise not only to be a repeat bloomer but bloom on new wood making them the better choice if you like Macrophylla (mophead) varieties. The others still need afternoon protection from hot sun.

All hydrangeas need good drainage and like lots of organic matter mixed into the soil. Go easy on the fertilizer as too much nitrogen will give you nice leaves but few flowers.

For blue flowers add aluminum sulfate or better yet Iron sulfate...I talked to one fellow who dug in rusty nails and old plow parts under his hydrangea to give him blue flowers.

Creative...a sort of hydrangea time capsule! For pink blooms scratch granular agricultural lime in around plant at drip line.

To grow hydrangeas in pots, use a mix of six parts soil conditioner to one part sand and be sure to water well in hot summer months.

With all the varieties of hydrangeas these days, we can all grow hydrangeas that even Grandma would be proud of!

Until next time, make gardening fun or it will become work!

A great source for hydrangeas: www.gardensoyvey.com 888-617-7390 call first for nursery hours and directions. This beautiful place is well worth the trip!

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