Designing With Hydrangeas

Lots of gardeners in my zone has a love affair going on with hydrangeas. As well they should. They are rangy growing shrubs that deliver a heart stopping show of big luscious blooms from early to late summer, provided they get some regular water, and a decent amount of sun. It is that easy to have a spectacular show of flowers in the landscape in late summer. Even the fall color on the blooms is good.The Annabelles start blooming in June, and are followed up on into August with cultivars big and small –  too numerous to list or review. Every season seems to bring a new collection of hydrangea cultivars to market. It is easy to understand why. They give a lot, and do not ask for much. The oak leaf hydrangeas are equally stunning both in leaf and in bloom, and are incredibly shade tolerant. Our hydrangea season is late this year. Think back to that April we had that was snowy and cold the entire month – you get the picture.  My overgrown Limelight hydrangeas needed a strong pruning this spring. I could not tell now that they had been pruned down to 14″ above grade. They are blooming lavishly. They make me look like an expert gardener. In spite of what I do or do not do, they thrive.

Hydrangeas are easy to grow, but they can be difficult to site in the landscape. They are big growing show offs that don’t naturally play well with neighboring plants. A single Limelight hydrangea can grow easily to 7 feet tall, and 7 feet wide. Even the smaller growing cultivars have giant flowers. They can easily become the elephant in the room-impossible to ignore.  It takes some thought to integrate them into a garden, or a landscape. I am not so much a fan of their woody legs, so I try to place them where that bottom third of the plant is not so much a part of the overall view. I also favor planting blocks of them, meaning I like lots of them as opposed to planting a single plant. They want to be the star of the summer garden, so why not let them show off?  Masses of summer blooming hydrangeas speak to summer in the Michigan garden in a way that no other plant does.

My limelight hydrangeas at home have a long bank of planter boxes placed in front of them. Those boxes are planted with nicotiana alata lime, and nicotiana mutabilis. The boxes hide those long woody hydrangea stems coming out of the ground. The delicate airy mass of nicotiana flowers interact in a contrasting way with those giant hydrangea blooms. The hydrangea flower backdrop makes it easier to see the nicotiana from a distance.

The foliage of the nicotiana repeats the big leaves of the hydrangea. The large leaves are a good foil for the diminutive boxwood foliage. The simple mass of boxwood sets the stage for a late summer.  Nothing can rival the excitement generated in the spring as the landscape roars back to life, but I look forward to this late summer display. On a 90 degree August day, this looks fresh and inviting. The hydrangeas are part of a story.

As a designer, I have a concern about about how spaces come together, and read. Shrubs, perennials,annual plants, and containers have their contribution to make. The design issue is making sure all the various voices work together in some way. The green leaves of the Persian Lime in the center of the pot helps to balance the green of the hydrangea foliage. The big growing hydrangeas need some equally strong minded company.  I did face down my limelight hydrangeas with an outside row of Little Limes. Was that a good idea?  It is too soon to tell, as the Limelights were very hard pruned this spring, so they have fewer and larger flowers this year. This is only the second season for the Little Limes, so they are not yet full sized. They are actually quite different in coloration than Limelight.

This landscape project from last year features a long sweeping curve of upright yews. All that is visible from the street of the Incrediball hydrangeas are the flowers. An annual planting at the base of the yews provides another layer of interest.

Inside the Incrediball hydrangea hedge is a mass of Bobo hydrangea, also faced down with flowers. All those woody stems and leaves are sandwiched in between plants that reveal the best part of these big growing plants, and obscures the least interesting. Hydrangea Bobo is the smallest growing of this series, which means it is the easiest of the three to place. It is perfectly scaled at 3′-5′ tall for smaller gardens. Small spaces can easily be overwhelmed by big growing hydrangeas.

We planted several large masses of these on either side of a pool. The creamy green color of the flowers contrasts dramatically with the color of the water. This hydrangea grows large enough to just obscure the fact that the bed was originally terraced into two levels with large informally placed slabs of stone.

Though the grade does drop considerably and quickly from the pool to the water, the mass of low growing hydrangeas helps to soften the descent. The transition from the pool level to the lake level happens fast.  The hydrangeas provide a reason to slow down, and linger.

The view of these hydrangeas, filtered with tall later blooming perennials and annuals, is a soft and informal look. Hydrangeas are stiff and static growing, and benefit from some airy companionship. Phlox have that same stiff habit of growth. In this arrangement, the phlox looks so much more relaxed, given a static growing plant that is so much larger growing.

There are those places where a single hydrangea can make a statement. This tree hydrangea, one of a pair, spends the winter in my landscape building, in a big plastic pot.  In the spring, it is pruned, both on the top, and the roots, and planted back into this large box. A second pruning a month or six weeks later helps to provide a network of strong branches which will help support the blooms. The box is large enough to permit an under planting of euphorbia, petunias and variegated licorice. Seeing it yesterday for the first time since it was potted up in May was a treat. Part formal and part exuberant, it is everything a well grown hydrangea can be.

Hydrangea Time

I am somewhat embarrassed about how many posts I have devoted to hydrangeas over the past 8 years. Probably too many. The varieties, the care, the pruning-I have covered this shrub as if I were a preteen age groupie. I am embarrassed about my love for the whole lot of them, but so be it.  Show me a hydrangea – chances are I will fall for it. Nothing says summer in Michigan so clearly and grandly as the hydrangeas in full bloom. Once the hydrangeas come in to bloom, I am not my usual self. My love of geometry and simplicity fades away. The romance of hydrangeas is tough to resist. It is impossible for me to be critical of any summer blooming hydrangeas. Even those that flop over at the slightest threat of rain. Do not count on me to detail what is not to like about hydrangeas. I like them all without reservation.

I grow Limelight hydrangeas at home. They are so showy in bloom, and so easy to grow. Mine are 15 years old. They deliver their gorgeous blooms every year on time, in spite of a lackluster or hurried early spring pruning on my part – or that week that I forgot to water them. They are forgiving of any bad move on the part of a gardener. They thrive with a minimum of care. They give so much more than they ask. They endow my August garden with that special garden magic I call summer. I would not do without them.

My landscape is primarily evergreen.  I like that structure that is evident all year round. But the hydrangeas blooming in my garden speaks to the blooming great Michigan summer. To follow are pictures of my hydrangea bloom time at home.

The Limelight hydrangeas take my late summer garden to another level. I am sure there are other hydrangea cultivars that are ready and willing to take a garden and its gardener in charge over the moon. Do the research, and choose which cultivar fits in your garden. In general, I like shrubs. They provide mass and texture, bloom in both the spring and summer seasons, and fall color. If you are looking for some great shrubs for your landscape, the hydrangeas are a good place to start. Shrub it up – that garden of yours.

 

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Hydrangeas

hydrangeas and boltoniaNo discussion of a summer landscape in the mid west is complete without a a discussion about hydrangeas. Simply said, a hydrangea is a large leaved blowsy shrub noted for its spectacularly showy flowers. I should preface my remarks about hydrangeas with my point of view about shrubs in general. I am keen for any shrub that can endow a landscape. I find that shrubs perform year after year, with a minimum of maintenance. Some medium sized shrubs-as in spirea-not only tolerate being cut to the ground in the spring, they spring back and bloom without missing a beat. Other shrubs not only tolerate uninformed pruning, they thrive in spite of it. New cultivars of dwarf shrubs-I am thinking dwarf butterfly bush – amiably adapt to small gardens. Big shrubs can screen an untoward view.  Shrubs have a decently long life span. They ask little, and provide a lot.

limelight hydrangeas They bridge the gap between the perennials that are below eye level, and the trees that are above eye level.  A yearly pruning takes the place of the long list of care requirements that perennials require. Shrubs do take a lot of room, so if you garden is small, be discriminating in your choices. Hydrangeas are as friendly to a perennial garden as they are to a stand of trees. They can add weight to a garden. Lime Light hydrangeas sport greenish white cone shaped flowers that can back up a perennial garden. They have a long season of bloom.  Their twigs are sturdily upright.

hydrangea Annabelle (2)The hydrangea Annabelle has been in bloom since June in my zone.  This is a stellar year for them.  Everywhere I see them, they are standing up fairly straight, and loaded with blooms.  I have never been a big fan of the Annabelles. Their tendency to flop over demands careful staking way in advance of the growing and flowering. What a nuisance.  This year, all those giant white blooms look great wherever I see them.  Staked, and not staked.  In sun, and in shade.  I suspect our heavy and regular rain has been really good for them.

the landscape in July (2)I planted 3 rows of annabelles and 2 rows of Lime lights in this garden this spring-so the hydrangea bloom time will be long.  5 rows of hydrangeas is an embarrassment of riches in hydrangeas.  The Annabelles, to the left, gracefully drooping over a rustic boulder wall, start blooming in June. The taller and more vertical growing back stop of Lime light hydrangeas begin to bloom in late July. This garden is at least 150 feet from a rear terrace.  All of that white will read well from a distance. Unseen in this picture-a perennial garden with a lavish white coat of hydrangeas backing it up.

hydrangea gardenI placed the 3 rows of Annabelle hydrangeas just behind this rock wall.  Their inclination to droop will soften this wall. They will provide a graceful and warm backdrop to the perennials in front of the wall. The Limelights in the rear were invisible when they were planted.  But by next year they will provide another taller layer of white to the perennial garden.

hydrangeas needing waterHydrangeas do not like dry soil. These Annabelles are in sore need of water. They may flower, but the flowers will burn without regular irrigation.  If your hydrangeas have leaves that are turning yellow and dropping on the interior, get out the hose and soak them.

hydrangea BoboI also grow Little Lime hydrangeas, which top out at 4-5 feet, and the shortest of the Limelight series-Bobo.  At 30 inches tall, they are perfect for a small garden. Or for a foreground garden that needs to be low. They are a good choice for those moments in the landscape that asks for a plant that is short and wide. This hydrangea takes to perennial neighbors like a duck to water. The white flowers highlight and set off all of the other colors in a garden.

limelights 2013 (7)I prune my Lime lights in April.  I wait until I see the buds swelling.  I usually prune my 50 plants back to 30″ tall – give or take. Every other year. I do not prune them down near the ground. Really hard pruning results in fewer, and bigger flowers. I am not interested in bigger flowers. I like lots of medium sized flowers. I like my Lime Lights at home very tall-they are faced down by an old hedge of Hicks yews.  Some years I snip the old flower heads off, and leave them be.  Light pruning means you will get long woody legs. The following year, I may take them down to 30″  My yews cover those old legs.  If your hydrangeas are front and center, take them down closer to 30″. Irregularly.  Prune each branch individually, so every branch has its own air and light space. You can prune down to 14″ above ground-if you dare.  Do not go lower than this.  Forcing growth from below ground is hard on a shrub.

August 28 2013 (8)I have had a lot of questions regarding the proper spacing of Lime Light hydrangeas. I would say there is no proper, or right spacing. The spacing chosen has to do with the design intent. I space them at 30″or 36″ on center, if my intent is to create a dense and homogeneous hedge. Close spacing means that the entire length and width of the hedge grows and prospers as one organism.  The individual plants intertwine, and become one. I have never seen a hydrangea hedge that resented this spacing.  A spacing at 6 feet is an option.  But this row will never read as a hedge.  It will read as thick and thin. Wavy. I have had clients space them at 6 feet one year, and add an intervening plant the next year.

September 19 2014 (64)Hedging hydrangeas make a very strong statement.  A lone hydrangea as a foundation planting always looks alone, and gawky.  Great landscapes gracefully integrate individual plants in service of a greater whole. I like to mass hydrangeas. A showy shrub such as this-plant lots of them. Build your gardens around them. Be generous.

hydrangeas in SeptemberIn late September, the Lime Light blooms will begin to pink up. This color is a sign that the season is coming to a close.

Oct 17 2011 001In October, the pink deepens.  This view out from my rose garden is a view I treasure from  July through October.  The dry flower heads stay put all winter long. The list of plants that do well in my zone is long, and varied.  The delight this shrub furnishes to me is very long and varied.  I would not do without them – the hydrangeas.

 

 

 

Designing With Hydrangeas

hydrangeas-hedge.jpgThe last two posts focused on the cultivation of hydrangeas.  In short, what hydrangeas are available, and under what circumstances do they perform.  Most of them are easy to grow, and willing.  Some are marginally hardy.  Some are not at all hardy in my zone.  Some represent better than others.  Growing hydrangeas is a much different and much easier topic to discuss than designing with hydrangeas.  One could grow no end of them-as I do.  I have 50 in my front yard.  Putting them together in a coherent and satisfying way-this would be garden design.  A garden or landscape design implies an idea, a scheme, or a plan.  The purchase of a hydrangea is easy.  Designing a place for it in a landscape-not so easy.  Any plant that I have a mind to include in a landscape gets a thorough vetting.  By this I mean-what does this plant require?  How much space does it take?  Where will it thrive? How can this plant be integrated into the whole?  Once I have an idea for a space, is a hydrangea the best plant to express that idea?  The picture above depicts a planting of limelight hydrangeas, before the bloom.  This is the perfect moment to think over their addition to your landscape.  Flowers can be very seductive, and distracting.   A big growing coarse leaved shrub that needs plenty of space-that would be a hydrangea. A hydrangea planted in too small a space is like being occupied by an army-beautiful flowers notwithstanding. This is the simple and working description, not the romantic one.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgFlowers are just but one aspect to consider.  There are the green times.  The winter times. The fall color.  The early spring. Make it a point to be intimately acquainted with anything you plan to introduce into the garden, should the overall design be important to you. This planting of hydrangeas works well with certain other elements in the landscape.  The yews are dense, and clipped.  The boxwood is denser, and more closely clipped.  The peonies have big leaves.  The lady’s mantle blooms at ground level in a sumptuous way.  The hydrangeas?  They preside over all-given their height and exuberance.  Hydrangeas have a density and bulky aspect that makes them ideal for garden situations where they cannot overwhelm their neighbors.  Small leaved or delicate perennials can be visually and physically overrun by a neighboring hydrangea.  Stout evergreen hedges can give a crisp look to a blowsy growing shrub.  Yews can help support the lax stems of hydrangeas.

Annabelle-hydrangeas.jpgAnnabelle hydrangeas will flop over in an instant.  If you plan to make them part of a landscape design scheme, stake them early.  This client loved the big growing rangy shrubs with their giant flower heads-but he equally loved the design of his landscape.  These Annabelles were staked first thing, in the spring.  The boxwood provides an orderly edge to the space.  They also provide some green interest in the winter months.

grass-border.jpgHydrangeas are big growing.  They need lots of space.  This planting of Annabelles has a grass border.  The slender simply textured blades of grass contrast and highlight the big leaves and rangy growth of the hydrangeas.  The ivy was part of an existing bed when we renovated the space-I did not see any reason to get rid of it. The texture of the grass with the hydrangeas is more pleasing than the texture of baltic ivy.

Annabelles-in-bloom.jpgThe flowers of hydrangeas are overwhelmingly beautiful. And overwhelming.  They need a big space to be.  They are a perfect match with massive architectural features, as a stone wall or flight of stairs.  Their sheer bulk, strong presence and white flowers makes them ideal for expressing a long sweep, or directional line in a landscape.  The white flowers make a great backdrop for other flowers, either perennial or annual.  Their height, which can be somewhat controlled by pruning, makes them ideal for facing down other larger landscape elements, like trees.

hydrangeas.jpgA hedge of Limelight hydrangeas is a soft way of defining a space.  You need the room to let them grow up to be what they are destined to be.  A long run of them can enclose a space, in a friendly way.

hydrangeas.jpgA landscape dominated by evergreens, and deciduous trees at a distance, can be leavened, brightened, by hydrangeas.  The leaf is a medium green, and the white flowers can be seen from blocks away.

hydrangea-border.jpgHydrangeas develop woody legs, over time.  Face them down with shorter growing ornamental grasses-or in this case, Honorine Jobert anemones.  Your design may ask for layering.  A design is not about this plant, or that plant.  It is about a community of plants, the interaction of all with the weather and the seasons.

hydrangeas-and-yews.jpgGreat design is intimately associated with the relationship a designer assigns from one plant to another.  The relationship of the plants to the space.  What defines that relationship?  Color, mass, texture, line, volume, weather-all of these design elements figure into the design of a landscape.  A design that accommodates, makes use of, and features the habits of the plants involved is design that is visually sensitive.

hydrangea-wall.jpg

The most important element in design?  The gardener in charge.  It is easy to grow hydrangeas.  It is much harder to design successfully with them.  But when the design plan is well done, a beautiful shrub goes on to help create a breathtakingly beautiful space.

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