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Hydrangeas Are a Beautiful Way to Brighten Up Your Garden

OtherHydrangeas Are a Beautiful Way to Brighten Up Your Garden

Even if you don’t have a green thumb, gardening is one of life’s simple pleasures. Digging in the dirt and nurturing plant life may help fill a void or release stress. Planting a garden connects you with nature, which is why many find it addictive, in a good way.

In addition to being a stress relieving activity,1 gardening2 may also help reduce the symptoms of directed attention fatigue. Directed attention allows you to voluntarily manage the direction of your thoughts.3 Each of us has a finite capacity to maintain directed attention, and gardening may help you engage in involuntary or effortless attention to increase your ability to pay attention to detail.4

Gardening may help reduce agitation in those suffering from dementia,5 and flowers have been found6 useful in reducing the need for pain medication following abdominal surgery. Researchers have found7 the visual stimulation of red roses triggers physiological and psychological responses of relaxation.

Gardening may be a simple way for you to reduce stress and improve your health. Planting hydrangeas is a beautiful way to add color and beauty to your garden, while offering a way to engage in physical activity and get safe sun exposure to boost your vitamin D levels.8

History of the hydrangea

Hydrangea plants produce large blooms that are popular as cut flowers and in the garden. The meaning of hydrangea comes from two Greek words: “hydro,” meaning water and “angos,” meaning jar.9 In Japan, the hydrangea symbolizes apology, while in Europe they were used to declare arrogance and came to be associated with frigidity in the Middle Ages.10

The hydrangea was cultivated in Japan, but fossils have been found dating to 65 million years ago in North America.11 The shrubs did not make an appearance in Europe until 1736; today they are primarily used for landscaping.

While most of the cultivars contain low levels of cyanide, a poison making the petals fatal to consume, hydrangea serrata does not have these. It is used by Buddhist monks as part of a cleansing ritual.12

Each color of the hydrangea has a different traditional meaning.13 The pink hydrangea symbolizes love and sincerity, while the blue stands for forgiveness and regret. White hydrangeas, sometimes used in weddings, symbolize purity, grace and abundance. The purple hydrangea also symbolizes abundance, and as with other deep purple flowers, additionally symbolizes wealth and royalty. The hydrangea flower is used for four-year wedding anniversaries to symbolize appreciation.14

The color of the flower varies depending on acidity of the soil. Hydrangeas tend to bloom pink flowers in neutral to low acidity and blue flowers in high acidity soil.15 They are one of the few plants that concentrate aluminum, which is released from acidic soil and gives the flowers their blue color.16


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Prepare the soil and plant your hydrangea shrubs

While these plants are stunning and produce immense flowers, they are also easy to care for, cultivate and encourage abundant blooms.17 Each variety has slightly different requirements, but most thrive in somewhat moist, rich and porous soil. If the soil in your garden needs amendments, add organic compost before planting and work it into the soil well.18

The shrubs prefer full sun in the morning hours and tolerate afternoon shade. Depending upon your hardiness zone, it’s important to remember most of the shrubs do not appreciate extremely hot conditions, so if you live in warmer climates, ensure your plants get afternoon shade.19 This is one area where the different types may vary, as some will bloom in shade but produce fewer blooms.

Talk to your local nurseries about which varieties do best in your climate zone. Most tolerate zones 4 to 9, with some doing better in zones 5 to 9.20 Growing hydrangeas in zone 9 may require a little care to protect the plants from the heat. Plant your hydrangeas in the spring after the last threat of frost is gone.21 Dig a hole as deep as the root ball and up to three times as wide.

Set the plant in and fill it halfway with soil.22 Water the root ball and after it has all drained, fill the rest of the hole with soil. If you are planting multiple shrubs, you’ll want to space them about three to 10 feet apart depending upon your variety. Once planted, they enjoy a deep watering weekly, especially during the dry season.23

You may get more abundant blooms if you add a side dressing of organic fertilizer in the spring or summer.24 Hydrangea shrubs may be transplanted during their dormancy, in the late fall or winter. If you’re moving your hydrangea in your yard, be sure to dig up the whole root ball and then replant it immediately.25

As winter approaches, the shrubs should be covered to protect them from severe weather.26 Add 18 inches of mulch, leaves or straw in the fall. Then cover the entire plant by making cages out of chicken wire and filling the cage with leaves. Steer clear of maple leaves as they tend to stick together when they’re wet and may suffocate the plant.

Propagating hydrangeas from cuttings is easier than you may think

Although they produce an abundant number of flowers, they rarely produce seeds.27 However, you do not have to purchase your hydrangea shrubs from the nursery but may propagate them from cuttings of your favorite shrub or from a shrub of your friend or neighbor after getting permission.

If you’d like to plant multiple shrubs, it may get expensive as some premium hydrangeas in some of the smallest containers may start at $25. This means a hedge row may cost hundreds of dollars.28 By using a fresh cutting, you’ll get a new plant identical to the original. Since a cutting need be only a few inches long, a mature shrub could yield 12 or more new plants.29

The process of taking a cutting is also called “striking” in some areas.30 The first step is to select a stem. The Spruce31 recommends propagating in the spring when plant growth is at its peak. Take your cutting in the early morning or late evening as this reduces heat stress.

Look for a branch without a bud. If it’s early spring and the plant has not formed buds yet, both blooming and non-blooming stems develop as cuttings. Use sharp and clean shears to take the cutting and sanitize them first so no fungal disease is introduced to the original plant or the cutting.32 

Look for tender green stems as woody stems will be less active and take double the time to root. The cut should be 2 inches below a leaf node and about 5 inches long in total.33 Once the cutting has been removed, take off all but the top two leaves.

The leaves should be removed with your shears, so you do not damage the stem. Cut the leaf off where the stem begins to expand into the leaf. After trimming inspect the stem for damage. Discard any damaged cutting at the stem as it will likely develop root rot or will not thrive.

Next cut the top two leaves in half crosswise, as the cutting is not equipped as yet to deliver enough moisture and nutrients to feed the leaves without first rooting.34 Once all this trimming is completed the stem should have enough energy to produce roots, then developing into a full shrub.

Rooting fluid and cups make the process easier

Before sinking your cutting into soil medium, treat the cut end with rooting hormone. Consider making your own at home by using willow water.35 The willow tree is a rich source of indole acetic acid hormone, which helps the plant to grow roots. Pick a few young stems and twigs of a willow tree and boil it in water.

Let this stand overnight and then dip your cutting edges in the tea. Use fresh tea each time you propagate new hydrangea plants for the best results. While some have good results starting cuttings in just water,36 plants rooted this way may develop weak, unsuccessful root systems when the plant is transplanted into soil.37

Instead, choose soil that will hold water. Many potting soil mixes contain products making it difficult to keep the soil moist for your cutting, and garden soil is typically too heavy for cutting to develop roots.38 Choose potting soil and amend it with a wetting agent to keep the soil moist throughout, such as sphagnum peat moss.39

Cuttings develop best in a warm, moist environment, much like a hot house. Consider making your own for each cutting by watering the pot well and covering in a plastic bag, using sticks to hold the plastic away from the plant.40 Place your cuttings in indirect sunlight to avoid burning the plant and check every two to three days to ensure the soil is moist.

Another option is to plant your cutting in a large cup and cover it with a 3-liter plastic bottle.41 The plastic bottle may be reused multiple times and it creates a unique hot house effect, allowing the cup to drain through the bottom as it’s not covered. This may help reduce root rot.

The cutting soil should be moist but not soggy. In small pots and near the sun, you may have to water frequently to prevent it from drying out. It takes approximately 10 days for new roots to begin to form. After about a month, a plant may be transplanted in the ground to its permanent location.42

Care through the season reaps bountiful hydrangea flowers

Pests and diseases most commonly affecting the hydrangea shrub are slugs, powdery mildew, gray mold and rust. While the hydrangea plant fully appreciates moisture, too much may promote fungal disease. Powdery mildew is one fungal disease affecting several different plants and causing the plant to become weaker and bloom less.43

A plant will look as if it’s been dusted with flour. Infected plant parts should be removed and destroyed. Do not compost any infected plant as the disease is easily spread. Organic fungicides include sulfur, lime sulfur and potassium bicarbonate.44 Fungal diseases may be prevented by avoiding watering from above and selectively pruning to keep good air circulation between the plants.

Slugs will damage many plants and are found throughout the country. They enjoy moisture in humid climates and are hard to spot in the soil because of their dark color, but you’ll see evidence of the damage on the leaves.45 You may make a slug trap by laying pieces of cardboard in the bare soil around your plants.

First thing each morning, turn the boards over and scrape the slugs into plastic containers. Shallow dishes containing beer will lure slugs to their death. Consider spreading diatomaceous earth around the base of the plant which will kill the slugs before they attack the plant.46

Pruning hydrangeas

Hydrangeas are deciduous shrubs growing in two distinct types. When you prune will be determined by which type you have. One type produces flower buds on old wood and another on new wood. As implied by their name, “old” stems are what are left from the previous season.47

Flowers blooming on old wood are best pruned to remove damaged areas or dead stems. Plants older than 5 years may be revitalized by pruning. Old wood types of hydrangeas should be pruned only after blooming in summer but not into the fall as they will start developing buds for the following season during August and September.48

On the other hand, hydrangeas blooming on new wood set their flower buds in the current season and may be pruned in the fall.49 Some gardeners choose to prune to the ground each fall, but this will slowly weaken the plant. If your hydrangeas have not produced an abundance of flowers, it might be because the plant has not gotten enough sun, was pruned at the wrong time or a frost killed the flower buds.50

When a hydrangea plant gets older, it may produce smaller blooms. In this case, regular removal of some of the older canes to ground level may keep the shrub growing vigorously.51 Climbing varieties do not usually need to be pruned, but you may consider it to keep the new shoots under control.52

Choose your hydrangea plant carefully

While there are between 70 and 75 species native to Asia and the U.S., only six types are commonly grown in gardens.53 There is a delightful amount of variety between the five main types of common hydrangea, ranging from types that bloom profusely throughout the summer to those that may be trained to grow in tree form, up to 10 ft tall.54,55

Hydrangea macrophylla (bigleaf hydrangea) — This is the most common type of hydrangea, also called the French hydrangea.56 There are three types bigleaf hydrangea: the mophead, lacecap and mountain. The mophead is the best recognized and most popular.

Their large flowers are often purple, blue or pink. The leaves are thick and crisp and often heart-shaped.57 Lacecap bigleaf hydrangeas are identical to mopheads except for the shape of the blooms which have little buds in the center. The mountain hydrangea is the least common with small flowers.58 These plants are extremely hardy and were bred to survive harsh climates.

Hydrangea paniculata (panicle hydrangea) — This is the only type of hydrangea that will form trees when pruned into a central stem or trunk.59 They are known for their cone shaped flowers starting out white and then turning pink as the season progresses. They are the most cold-hardy of all the hydrangea plants.60

Hydrangea aborescens (smooth hydrangea) — These are sometimes known as wild hydrangeas and are native to the U.S.61 They tolerate hotter climates and are sometimes used as hedges as they may grow in full sun and are surprisingly drought tolerant.62

Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea) — This deciduous shrub is named after the oak-shaped leaves that turn bronze and crimson during the fall months.63 They work best in partial shade in hotter climates but may tolerate full sun in cooler areas. The flowers are creamy white and bloom in late spring and early summer.

Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (climbing hydrangea) — This hydrangea is native to Asia and is a deciduous plant producing masses of white flowers blooming in late spring to early summer.64 The leaves fall off in the fall exposing a reddish-brown bark on mature stems. The plant may grow between 30 to 80 feet long.65

Cut and dry your hydrangeas to enjoy all year

By cutting and drying flowers, you’ll be able to enjoy them all year long. Begin by allowing them to dry naturally on the plant, which often happens between August and October. When the petals have turned a parchment paper color and the flowers feel like paper it’s time to cut them from the plant.66

If they are cut during peak blooming or during your rainy season, the levels of water in the stems and leaves will be too high and the flowers will dry too slowly. If you wait too long, the flowers will turn brown and not keep their color. Cut them in the early morning hours leaving a 12- to 18-inch stem.

Remove the leaves and place the flower in a jar of water, covering the stems halfway. Cutting the stems varying lengths will ensure the flowers get good air circulation and dry well. Place the jar in a cool spot and keep it out of direct light. In about two weeks, the flowers should be ready.

You may also hang them upside down to dry individually or in bunches. Hydrangeas may also be dried in sand by placing the flowers in a plastic container and covering them.67 The sand acts as a desiccant to remove water from the plant. Remove the flowers from the sand after two to four days and shake them clean. Dried hydrangeas display well in bouquets, craft projects, vases or wreathes.

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