By Darlene Midlang
Wander through Catskill neighborhoods and hydrangeas of countless styles, size and colors greet you. This popular woody perennial that graces people’s yards, comes from Japan and China which are the host to some 70-75 varieties. Although the Catskills don’t sport as many varieties as Asian countries, if you are hydrangea shopping the myriad of choices may still overwhelm you.
Hydrangeas are a large leaf plant that can be used as a single specimen as a foundation planting or as a shrub border. Its blooms are a cluster of tiny flowers. They are quite resistant to insect and disease problems. Many do very well without pruning. When browsing a garden center or looking on line for plants, it is important to pay attention to its USDA Hardiness zone. Much of the Catskills are Zones 4 or 5. Don’t hesitate to select plants that can tolerate colder temperatures. The hardier the hydrangea, the better it will be able to tolerate a cold snap. Avoid placing this plant in a windy, open area.
Choosing the Right Plant
Many hydrangeas bloom white or pale green while others bloom pink or blue. The blooms are of three shapes. There are lacecaps, mopheads and cone shaped. Lacecaps have a small bud in the center and larger showy blooms on the outer edge of the flower cluster. Mopheads are a cluster of large showy blooms. One of the popular white bloom hydrangeas is the Oakleaf hydrangea with a cone shaped flower. The Oakleaf turns a brilliant fall color and unless pruned can grow to 8 feet. There are many other white bloom hydrangeas to choose from – PeeGee, Snowball, Annabelle, White Dome, Little Lamb, and Limelight to name a few. Spend some time on line or talking to your garden center staff to assess the size and the type of flower head that appeals to you. Although known as white hydrangeas, be aware that as the flowers age, in many varieties the white blooms will fade to a lovely, soft pink.
Are you looking for more color? There are non-white varieties. Hydrangeas flower colors are determined by your soil. If you soil is acidic, your hydrangea willhave blue flowers. If you want to change your soil pH to be more acidic add aluminum sulfate.
Don’t be surprised if you purchase a pink or blue hydrangea finds the color changing once planted in your soil. I’ve watched mine move to blue as the plant acclimates to my acidic soil. The tiny individual flowers that make up the bloom are now a beautiful mix of pink and blue. If one has acidic soils, it is not as easy to change the hydrangea from blue to pink. But if you are determined, add dolomite lime to the soil several times throughout the year to raise the pH. If one is determined to have pink hydrangeas, consider placing them in a pot where it will be easier to manage the soil pH. Some non-white hydrangeas to consider are Endless Summer, Pink Diamond, Pinky Winky, and Quick Fire.
My Hydrangea Doesn’t Bloom
Like any garden plant, location is everything. Hydrangeas enjoy sun but will welcome afternoon shade. Make sure your hydrangeas are watered deeply and weekly if the summer is dry. Unfortunately, this spring we’ve had unexpected cold snaps in the Catskills. Some varieties are more vulnerable to unpredictable frosts because they flower on the previous year’s growth. Consider a PeeGee hydrangea which is adapted to cold climates.
If you have a hydrangea with blue or pink flowers, it is most likely a Bigleaf hydrangea. In cold climates many of these cultivars die back to the ground in cold weather. Because these hydrangeas bloom on old wood and the old wood has died back, the plant is generating new wood. Flowers don’t bloom on the new wood. Protecting these hydrangeas during the winter months may help keep them blooming every year.
If none of the above seems to be the problem, it could be that the nutritional needs of the plant aren’t met. Maybe the foliage looks gorgeous but there is not a flower to be found. Too much nitrogen will give lush green growth but no blooms. Add phosphorus as it aids in the flowering and fruiting of most plants. Bone meal is a great addition to your soil.
Before you put down that hard earned cash to buy that lovely hydrangea or any other flowering beauty tempting you, ask yourself a few important questions: What zones work for this plant? How much sun does it need? What size will it get? Do I have the right space for it? How will it compliment my hardscape and my other plantings? How much care will it take, and do I have time to care for it?
Darlene Midlang is the owner of Hestia’s Garden, a Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteer and a Catskill transplant from an Iowa farm via New York City.