The middle of July is when hydrangeas usually start to bloom in Western Washington — but this summer the big, ball blooms of hydrangeas were showing color months ahead of schedule and many local gardeners had bushels of hydrangea blooms by the beginning of June. Give credit to the mild winter weather and start celebrating the summer of 2015 as the heavenly year of the happy hydrangea.
This is also the time of year to visit local nurseries and broaden your hydrangea horizons. There are a lot more hydrangea varieties to choose from than the blue balls that thrive in the shade. Hydrangeas that stay pink or white, climb trees, like full sun and turn colors in the fall are all waiting for adoption this month.
Big Leaf Hydrangeas — Hydrangea macrophylla
This is the traditional hydrangea with mop head flowers that usually bloom blue or purple in the naturally acid soil of Western Washington. You can change the flower color from blue to pink by adding lime around the roots in early spring. Most big leaf hydrangeas flower on two-year-old wood, so if you prune each year you’ll be cutting off the future flowers.
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An exception is the new Endless Summer hydrangeas that flower on both old and new wood. There are also some compact varieties perfect for pots like the 2 foot tall Pia and Pink Elf. If you want thick, glossy leaves and vivid, rich colors, look for the German hydrangeas in the Cityline series: Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rio and others have been bred for superior colors, some with bi-colored petals. Big leaf hydrangeas also include the lacecap hydrangeas with center flower panicles that stay as tight buds giving the blooms a more delicate look. ‘Twist and Shout’ is a lacecap hydrangea that flowers on both old and new wood.
Growing tip: Big leaf hydrangeas do best with morning sun and afternoon shade, and the shallow roots need a bark mulch to keep them cool.
Panicle Hydrangeas — Hydrangea paniculata
Your grandmother may have called these big blooming shrubs her “pee gee” hydrangeas but there are now so many new and cold hardy panicle hydrangeas available that Grandma, like the rest of us, would have a hard time choosing just one variety. The good news is that the panicle hydrangeas will take full sun and are easier than ever to grow in our climate.
Flowers grow in pointed or cone shaped clusters, but instead of blue, they start out creamy white and then turn pink and peach as summer turns into fall. Panicle hydrangeas can be pruned into small trees or purchased as compact dwarf plants to grow in large pots or near the house as a long blooming foundation plant. Pinky Winky has enormous blooms that progress from white to bright pink, “Bobo” is a white compact dwarf at 4 feet tall and Quick Fire has pointed blooms that open pure white then fade to a rich red.
Growing Tip: Give panicle hydrangeas at least 6 hours of sun a day and prune in early spring when you see the forsythia in bloom. (I learned the hard way that if you prune a panicle hydrangea in April or May you’ll have a summer with foliage but no flowers.) Keep the soil moist to lengthen the bloom time. In my garden, the pee gee hydrangeas are in bloom from August until October.
Smooth Hydrangeas — Hydrangea arborescenes
The leaves may be smaller but the flowers are bigger on these tough, more cold-hardy hydrangeas, and new varieties have strong stems that hold the huge balls of blooms upright. Annabelle is the classic smooth hydrangea, but the aptly named Incrediball has even larger creamy white balls of blooms that can be 12 inches across — and the flowers are held up on strong stems that won’t flop. If you crave more color, there is a pink Incrediball Blush and to garden for a cause look for the all pink Invincibell Spirit as one dollar from the sale of each hydrangea plant will go to breast cancer research. Invincibell Spirit makes a great gift plant for a patient battling breast cancer.
Growing Tip: The smooth hydrangeas are rock solid when it comes to cold weather so these can handle an exposed site in full sun. Harvest the blooms all summer and into the fall as this form of summer pruning will help to shape the plant. Don’t try to grow the smooth hydrangeas in the shade — you’ll be disappointed at the lack of blooms.
Oakleaf Hydrangea - Hydrangea quercifolia
This one is grown for its foliage, and the creamy white blooms are just a bonus. Large, lobed and deeply ridged leaves turn brilliant red in the autumn. Oakleaf hydrangeas thrives in sun or part shade, but for fall color this hydrangea needs at least half a day of sun.
Climbing hydrangea – Hydrangea petiolaris
White, lacecap-style blooms poke through the foliage of this climbing hydrangea, but be warned that this vine clings with its own suction cup attachments that can ruin the finish of a painted house. Let it grow up a tree or over a shed or provide a trellis or gazebo that will never need painting. Climbing hydrangeas need half a day of sun and are slow to get started, so you may have to wait years to enjoy the first summer of blooms — but then watch out as the climbing hydrangea can scale the tallest trees.