Good to Grow: How to go picture-perfect hydrangeas

Purple, pink and blue hydrangeas grow tall in a garden bed.
JANE POWELL | Courtesy photo

This week as I pondered ideas to write about, three friends on three separate occasions sent me pictures of hydrangeas from their gardens and gardens they pass in their travels around town. It seems like the universe, or at least good friends, were pointing me in the direction of this native Asian plant and its globe-sized flowers.

So, let’s talk about hydrangeas. We have all seen them — big pink and blue poofs of blooms are the most commonly seen, but there are actually 75 species and 600 named cultivars.

Bigleaf (Hydrangea marcrophylla) is what produces the colorful globes we love and associate with established gardens. They bloom in the spring and summer, even into the early fall is some areas. Speaking of fall, it is a good time to plant shrubs; it lets them establish a solid root system before producing blooms in the spring.

When planting almost any root ball, dig the hole much wider than the roots and just deep enough to cover. You want the plant to sit even with, or slightly higher, than the ground. This will help water drain away and prevent damage to the plant. Morning or late afternoon are the best times of day to plant — this helps protect the plant from heat damage that may happen in the afternoon sun.

Because hydrangeas love organic matter, mulching around the shrub will keep the soil moist now, and then as it breaks down, the matter will improve the soil. Where I have mulched my beds at the little house on a big hill over the years, the soil is much richer and the plants are much happier, rewarding me with healthy leaves and blooms.

Hydrangeas grow fast and begin the blooming process for next year in late summer, so there is no need to prune. I should clarify, the bigleaf does not need pruned, but other varieties may benefit from it — be sure to double-check for your plants.

The caretaker of a garden I often drive by pruned the heck out of their oakleaf last fall and I gasped at the dramatic pruning, but it worked — they look beautiful this spring.

Deadheading the blooms will keep them blooming all season, but it’s a good idea to leave the fall blooms on the stems. You don’t want the plant producing new growth late in the season near the first frost date.

Fun fact about the bigleaf hydrangea — you can influence the color of the blooms. It is all about the acidity and pH level of the soil. I should have paid more attention in science class, but here is the gist. A low soil pH allows the soil to absorb aluminum, which will turn the flower blue. You can add sulfur or peat moss to increase the intensity of the blue color. To bring out the pink, add ground limestone to the soil, it will raise the pH level. Phew, that is a lot of chemistry.

Back to the fun stuff. Although the bigleaf is what we think of when talking about hydrangeas, other popular varieties include the oakleaf, which thrives in warmer climates and can handle the heat of summer; the panicle, which can grow as high as 15 feet; and the smooth or snowball (my favorite), which is known for its large white clusters.

Regardless of the variety you choose, hydrangea blooms are perfect for cut flower designs. Because of the large flower head, they will dry out quickly. I have used these flowers in wreaths and container arrangements and, once dry, they will last for several seasons. If you’re interested in making a wreath, find my notes by visiting

Hydrangeas will add delight to your landscape. The foliage and the large blooms are scene-stealers, so place them accordingly. They will grow in containers, but make sure you choose the right size (read big) container to anchor the plant.

Another idea — I really love seeing hydrangea in baskets. There’s something about the wicker and the blooms I find so quaint and charming. If doing this, consider a dwarf variety. It will be more manageable setting on your porch or patio and when moving the container to another location.

Tried and true, common and spectacular, hydrangeas are easy to grow, offer easy bouquets and give you months of color. Protect them from the deer, and you will have a shrub that is photo-worthy and keeps giving throughout the years.