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How to Grow Hydrangeas

Updated on December 5, 2013
Hydrangeas with a purple hue.
Hydrangeas with a purple hue.

Hydrangea Origins

Hydrangeas were first discovered in Japan to be used as an ornamental plant in a garden. The entomology of the name "Hydrangea" is derived from ancient Greek with "hudro/hydro" meaning water and "angeion" meaning vessel. Due to the needed care and maintenance required, hydrangeas do live up to it's entomological definition. In modern times, we see this in nearly every garden due to it's overall beauty and ability to add density and detail to any garden or yard. This shrub, whose native to East Asia and the Americas, is a very hardy and easy plant to cultivate and propagate. Proper care of this plant has shown to provide many years of beauty for outdoor and indoor use.

Hydrangea Characteristics

Hydrangeas are exclusively characterized by its unique small dense flowers formations called corymbs, that grow in a spherical or half spherical cluster. Their leaves are relatively broad, and semi waxy that can range from forming dense shrubs, loose clusters to tall tree forms. The flowers can be multiple colors that can be manipulable by adding additives to the soil to raise or lower the pH of the soil.

Annabelle hydrangea.
Annabelle hydrangea.
Lacecap hydrangea.
Lacecap hydrangea.
Mophead hydrangea.
Mophead hydrangea.
Oak leaf hydrangea.
Oak leaf hydrangea.
Paniculata hydrangea, stone wall and stone steps for reference.
Paniculata hydrangea, stone wall and stone steps for reference.

Species of Hydrangeas

It's important to know which hydrangea you want as there are different characteristics and features unique to a few select type of hydrangea plants as well as care and maintenance.

Hydrangea Arborescens "Annabelle"

This type of hydrangea comes in exclusively white. For a long period of time, this hydrangea was the standard type as it was the most hardy and also produced the largest clustered blooms. It can also take quite a hit, as it is common to grow this as a hedge plant, this species of hydrangea can take a hard prune and still bounce back. It will bloom once a year without fail. The only real flaw to this species is quite ironic. The prized blooms are actually it's greatest weakness, the large blooms will become so heavy it will weight down the shrub causing it to sag and possibly topple over.

Hydrangea Macrophylla Normalis "Lacecaps"

These hydrangeas are more subtle, like its name, lacecaps are less dense and adds grace and simplicity to gardens. These hydrangeas are in every way identical to the mop head but with one difference, the flower blooms. Notice that the blooms happen around a cluster of still yet to bloom buds. The difference between the two blooms is that the outside blooms are sterile blooms while they encase the fertile cluster of blooms. This bloom formation is what gave rise to its name as the intricate center is highly detailed like lace. Needs shade to do well.

Hydrangea Macrophylla "Mophead"

Like the lacecaps, mopheads are very similar in every way. This is probably the most popular hydrangea plant grown in almost every garden. The main feature, only exclusive to this species, is its color feature which shows immediately on fresh blooms. Needs shade to do well.

Oak Leaf Hydrangea

This species of hydrangea is named oak leaf for it's strikingly large leaves similar to those of an oak tree. These hydrangeas can tolerate much more sun than the lacecap and mophead. Because of its name, this tree has something to look forward to every part of the year. During fall, this hydrangea's broad leaves will turn a brilliant red hue. During the bloom, this hydrangea puts out white blooms.

Paniculata Hydrangeas

This hydrangea species is of the largest. They can get from anywhere from 8-13 feet tall. Unlike mopheads and lacecaps, these will need some time with direct sun to do well. This is the only species can be trimmed and formed into a tree if wanted. They are very forgiving and can be pruned anytime, other than when blooms are forming.

Blue hydrangea flower cluster.
Blue hydrangea flower cluster.
Purple hydrangea flower cluster.
Purple hydrangea flower cluster.
Pink hydrangea flower cluster.
Pink hydrangea flower cluster.
Red hydrangea flower cluster.
Red hydrangea flower cluster.

Color and Why it can change

Hydrangeas are nature's pH strip for the soil. Visually, the flower's color is a very clear indication of what pH condition the soil is. Because it can change color, the hydrangea plant has become quite popular due to the ability to manipulate the flowering plant's color. Many gardeners pride themselves in being able to change the shrub's color. It is definitely something to be proud of because the process of changing the color is not an overnight process. Changing the color will take months if not years to condition the soil and maintain the optimal pH composition so the plant can consistently produce vibrant colors. Unfortunately, not all hydrangeas are created equal. Out of the various different species, the mophead and lacecap hydrangeas are the only two that can have their color modified.

How does the plant change color?

Being nature's natural pH strip, the plant's natural accumulation of aluminum in the soil will produce the natural hues. Because without human interference, hydrangeas are more likely to reflect the pH of the natural soil. With some help, by removing the aluminum, or rather, mitigating the amount of aluminum can nudge the plant to develop the more coveted red/pink hues through a more basic soil composition. Some gardeners will add more additives to the soil to make it more acidic and that too will affect the hydrangea, giving it a more significant dose of it's naturally acidic chemical intake.

**Because this plant is so sensitive to pH differences, even the water that is used should be carefully scrutinized as it may contain minerals that can throw off the pH. It's often common practice to collect rainwater and use that as the irrigation medium of choice when watering hydrangeas.


Soil pH Table

pH
Color
Additive Needed to Achieve Color
7.0 or Higher (Basic)
Pink
Dolomitic Lime
7.0 or Lower (Acidic)
Blue
Garden Sulpher
7.0 Neutral
Purple
A mix and match of both to yield a balanced soil pH

Hydrangea Color Poll

If you grew hydrangeas, what color would are you more likely to pursue to achieve?

See results

Shade

Because there are so many different species of hydrangeas, it is important to know which is which because shade can play a VERY important role if not a direct role in the health of the hydrangea.

Often times, there are more species that require direct sunlight to nourish the plant; unfortunately, due to the spectacular arrays of colors the mophead and lacecaps can produce, they are the more popular ones. However, their real flaw is that they can not take direct sunlight as well.

How to approach shade. When growing hopheads and lacecaps, it's important to find an area where the sun still penetrates but can provide enough shade to shield it from ever getting more than 30 minutes to an hour of direct sun penetration. This doesn't mean to plant the hydrangea in complete shade, either. Hydrangeas do not do well in FULL SHADE. To achieve complete shade would be to plant it under a very large oak tree where very little light can penetrate, this will hinder the plant and cause it to under develop its clusters of blooms, if not possibly kill the plant over the years.

Pergolas. If there are not a lot of shade and your backyard is off limits, then a little help from you is appreciated. Pergola's can be used to provide shade to mopheads and lacecaps to help in the shade your plant from direct sunlight.

Timelapse of Hydrangea 8:00 AM - 3:30 PM (Shows the hydrangea throughout the day with direct sun)

Diagram showing general shrub planting.
Diagram showing general shrub planting.

How to Plant Hydrangeas

Planting a hydrangea plant is simple. When ready to plant find an area that will allow the plant to grow to its maximum size of a possible 4 feet by 4 feet. Some maybe larger; therefore, adjust to the plant. Dig a hole that is the same depth of the root ball that it came in. The surface of the current soil surface in the container will and can serve as a level to show where to bury up to.

Soil composition is also important. Do not plant in clay as this retains an overabundance of water and can lead to root rot which can kill your hydrangea. Do a test, dig a 1 foot hole into the ground where said hydrangea will be planted. Fill the hole with water and let the water stand. If the water completely disappears within 15 minutes, the soil is good enough to plant because it is well drained. Anything that will take over 30 minutes to an hour will be too compact and may do harm to your hydrangea.

**Plant hydrangeas early summer or late fall.

Watering

Watering a plant should be done religiously regardless if the plant is in a container or in the ground. However, when it's in the ground mother nature will help out with the occasional rain possibly 5-6 days out of the month, depending on were you live. With hydrangeas, it's important to know how much water it's getting. As hardy as these plants are, they are rather fussy when it comes to water intake. Hydrangeas like moist soil, but not drenched soil. If their flowers are exposed to wind, direct sun, or heat, it will dry out their flowers considerably. To defend against that, the plant itself will need quite a bit of water intake.

If possible, install a drip system so the soil is kept moist rather than overhead watering. Overhead watering can cause lots of pests and diseases that hydrangeas are prone to get due to wet leaves. Drip systems also use up less water in the long run and they keep the soil directly under the plant moist rather than stay on the leaves that can evaporate.

It's wise to water the plants once a week deeply so that the water is fully absorbed from about 9-10 inches beneath the soil surface. During times of considerable drought, it's wise to water twice a week to ensure maximum soil moisture.

To ensure maximum soil moisture retention, it's advised to apply mulch to the base of the shrub to ensure effective water retention. However, applying mulch will require an adjusted watering schedule to ensure the soil does not get over saturated so root can rot.


Sick hydrangea plant showing signs of possible root damage.
Sick hydrangea plant showing signs of possible root damage.

Symptoms of Overwatering

Root rot:

- Visible roots will show signs of fungus growth and decaying matter around the base of the tree where roots are exposed.

Flower Indications:

- Damaged root systems will take an overall toll on the whole shrub. Because not many would go digging into the soil to expose roots, diminished buds is a good indication the shrub is not doing well. Lesser clusters will amount to fewer blooms.

Leaf Indications:

- If root rot is apparent in the flowers, leaves will show a considerable sign as well. Because there have been some damage to the roots, leaves can turn yellow rather than its rich dark green hue. Defoliation is also a sign of overwatering.

Fertilizing

It's important to know that any plant that look weak or maybe in trouble should not have any fertilizer applied to it.

It's generally accepted to feed hydrangeas once or twice a summer and should not be fertilized after summer.

Cutting placed into water is establishing roots.
Cutting placed into water is establishing roots.

Cloning a Hydrangea

Hydrangeas takes root as cuttings very successfully. Meaning that if you were to cut a hydrangea and placed it into the ground or water, it is likely to develop roots without any encouragement. When you want to take a cutting from a hydrangea, it's best to take a stem that is a non flowering stem. cut back all but 4 leaves and leave about 6 inches from top to bottom. Because it's important for cuttings to take root, a little encouragement is not unwanted. Dipping the stem into rooting hormone can greatly improve your chances of establishing that cutting.

If successful, take the stem and leave it in the container of soil for a month or two to establish roots. Wait until planting season, which is in either early summer or late fall, then place the whole plant into the ground. It is best to get cuttings in early summer so the new cuttings can get established and mature so they can survive the winter better. As it takes time to propagate, early summer provides the best amount of time for trial and error before the first frost comes.

Conclusion

Hydrangeas may look intimidating to a new gardener; but, they are hardy and forgiving. Growing hydrangeas is often rewarding as the flowers it produces can be used to amplify an already beautiful garden or enhance a subtle garden. The flowers can also be brought inside to enhance surroundings within a dwelling. These flowers can also be dried and made into ornaments which can last for a long time.

The hydrangea plant has various meanings; but, only through interpreting it your own way, a hydrangea can symbolize anything from an abundance and fertility, to being modest and sincere. Regardless of what the meaning is, this plant is beautiful and is often one of the most commonly used plants in wedding bouquets.

Enjoy growing with your hydrangea because it is not only nature's pH strip, but also a mood ring for you. Grow with your plant and your plant will grow with you.

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