It's hydrangea time, and any garden that calls itself Southern has hydrangeas blooming right now. Or, trying to bloom. In our top ten lists of questions from customers at the store, "Why don't my hydrangeas bloom?" is one. Like those melt-in-your-mouth Southern biscuits, hydrangeas aren't as easy as they look. Read on for a quick how-to on getting those mop-heads blooming in your yard, and bonus, I've included a super easy recipe for Southern biscuits. It takes under 20 minutes from start to pulling-them-out-of-the-oven finish. You're welcome, and welcome to the South.
Pruning hydrangeas is key to blooming. Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens), better known as the 'Annabelles', 'Invincible Spirit' and 'Incrediball' bloom first, generally mid-to-late June. They are perfect for zone 3-9, flower on terminal wood (new growth), can tolerate full sun if they get plenty of moisture, mature size is 3-5' x 3-5', and it is one of the showiest flowers (up to 12" across). These are best treated like your herbaceous perennials. Cut back severally in fall to 4-6" inches, creating stronger stems for next season, and you don't sacrifice bloom by pruning since they bloom on new wood.
The bigleaf hydrangea or French hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) also has the mop-head bloom, but they can be pink, blue, purple or white. Their color depends on the acidity of the soil. In WNC, we generally have blue. A classic Southern staple is 'Nikko Blue.' Their zone is 6-9, mature size is 4-6' x 4-6' and they prefer morning sun with afternoon shade. Water is a must. The best way to maintain them is to cut the to the first pair of buds below spent blooms in early spring.
The newer cultivars like the Endless Summer, All Summer Beauty, and Let's Dance, are zoned 5-9 and bloom on old and new wood. That means a longer blooming season and if we get a spring cold snap (we will), you still get blooms, and because they're blooming on new wood, you get blooms right on through fall. Pruning these can be done anytime, but if you do so in spring, wait to remove dead wood until all leaves have pushed out. Morning sun, afternoon shade is still.best.
Panicle Hydrangea is a taller shrub and blooms on the heels of the bigleaf hydrangea. Its flowers are panicle shaped, hence the name, not mop-head. They are white but fade to pink as they mature. They are also urban tolerant if you live in a particularly traffic congested area.
Some cultivars bud on terminal (end) and lateral (length-wise) making the shrub very floriferous. These hydrangeas can handle full on sun and the favorite 'Limelight' grows 6-8' x 6-8' feet. Too big? No worries, there are smaller varieties such as 'Little Lime' 'BoBo' and 'Little Quickfire' that range from 4' x 4' to a border-tucking 36" x 3'. These hardy plants are zone 3-9 and can be pruned to 18" yearly. Low maintenance and great blooms.
Finally, the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), is a native that can tolerate full sun or moderately dense shade. It is cold hardy to Zone 5 so you'll have fewer worries about losing flower buds to winter or spring frost. The flowers are just as showy as the mop-heads varieties though they are long and cylindrical rather than globe-shaped. They are white and fade to shades of pink and brown as they mature. The leaves turn red in the fall before dropping and the bark is exfoliating, making it an interesting winter shrub. There are lots of new cultivars ranging in size from 3' x 3' to 6-8' x 6-9. It is definitely trouble-free and you'll still have great flowers for the table.
And those biscuits? Simple. Take two cups of self-rising flour and mix with 8 ounces of whipping cream. Cut to shape and bake at 425° for 10 to 12 minutes. Easy peasy.
Written by Cinthia Milner, Garden Coach, OSA, blog writer.
BB Barns serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.