Henry Homer | Notes from the Garden: Hydrangeas always win | in the fresh air

Henry Homer |  Notes from the Garden: Hydrangeas always win |  in the fresh air

Unlike games of chance at our local fair, you always win when you buy a hydrangea. They generally bloom their foolish heads every year, even if you have poor soil and a poor track record in the garden. When I was a boy, I noticed that every cemetery had hydrangeas, so I called them cemetery bushes (my father knew a few names for the plants). It's their blooming time, so it's time to go to your local family-owned garden center and buy one – or more.

If you want a tall plant with instant appeal, buy so-called “standard” hydrangeas. The standard is a shrub that has been grafted onto a long stem, usually about five feet tall. Hydrangeas start low and are often wide, but if you get a standard, you'll have something that looks a little like a lollipop – or an instant mini tree.

I have six different hydrangeas, each varying in bloom time, colour, flower size and flower shape. My two are standard and about 25 years old. Each is 15 to 20 feet tall and wide.

The first standard I planted was the so-called “PeeGee” hydrangea. PeeGee is an abbreviation of the Latin name Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora (which means large flower head). This is the classic graveyard plant, one that has been around since it was imported from Japan in 1862.

My PeeGee hydrangea has flowers of various sizes, from 5 inches wide to 8 inches or more. Most flowers are roughly spherical, but some are slightly elongated, especially toward the top of the plant. The flower clusters are a mixture of fertile, showy and infertile flowers. The flowers start out white with green tinges, then turn white, then pink, and finally brown after frost. If you pick the flowers before frost and place them in a dry vase, they will remain looking pink all winter and beyond.

I love my 'Pink Diamond' hydrangea. It's also H. Paniculata grandiflora, and it lives up to its name even better than PeeGee. The top flower clusters can be up to 12 inches long and 8 inches wide. The woody stems are thicker and stronger than most hydrangeas, so they don't flop around like some others do when they get wet from rain. The pink clusters are a joy to behold.

There is one native hydrangea called the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). It remains small, measuring only 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. It does well in partial shade but does not tolerate dry soil. It will only tolerate full sun if the soil remains moist. 'Annabelle' is commonly sold in the nursery trade, but I can't imagine why. Yes, they have huge clusters, but they have flimsy stems, so the flower clusters droop or flop to the ground.

According to the Cuba Mountain Research Station, the best hydrangea for pollinators is the smooth hydrangea called “Has Halo,” which is the native hydrangea. I planted several for a client one fall, and the deer consumed them immediately. But they came back the next spring, and I surrounded them with a wire fence to keep the deer out. In the third year, they bloom well. The center of each flat flower head is filled with small, fertile flowers surrounded by large, flat, white, unfertilized flowers.

My other favorite is “Quick Fire”. Now, in the fifth year, for me, it has become a shrub about four feet tall and wide; They are loaded with 4- to 5-inch flower heads. It opens greenish-white, then turns white, then pink. Pink comes on earlier than most other colors, hence the name. What I like about it is that it maintains a nice mix of white and pink clusters. I now prune it annually to keep it at its current size. It blooms on new wood, so I won't lose any flowers if I prune it now – or even in early spring.

Many New England gardeners wish they could grow blue hydrangeas, so they buy them and find that they perform well for only one year. A variety called “Endless Summer” appeared in the 1990s with great fanfare, claiming that it would do as well here as it does in the mid-Atlantic region. But it didn't work well. Most of the buds are set the previous year, and winter tends to kill them.

Readers often write to me asking how to get the many blue clusters in years two, three and beyond. I tell them to treat them as expensive annuals. Dig them up and throw them in the compost if they don't work. Instead of endless summer, I call them endless disappointment. Other blue hydrangeas are now being sold, some of which may be suitable for our climate.

My favorite hydrangea is the climbing hydrangea, H. anomola subspecies petularis. Climbing hydrangea is usually sold as a small vine in a one-gallon pot. It takes a long time to reach bloom size – often five or six years. Then, it takes off and grows quickly.

The great thing about this vine is that it will thrive in full shade – I keep it on the north side of my barn. It will attach to stone or brick surfaces but not wood, although it can climb trees. When I started growing my barn, I tied it to the barn with a special plastic string designed to secure young trees. Then, later, it grew through the cracks in the boards and now needs no support – it usually thrives inside my coop! Like all hydrangeas, its flowers remain constant and look interesting most of the winter.

So, if you like the look of hydrangeas, get one. I think most of them are great.

    (Signs for translation) Outdoors

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