published Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Hydrangeas are summer's snowballs: Five tips for growing this quintessential Southern plant

A Hydrangea plant growns in a garden on Lookout Mountain in this file photo. The garden, which is part of a beautification project led by May Mitchell and Susan Bradley, features a variety of plants and a gazebo.
A Hydrangea plant growns in a garden on Lookout Mountain in this file photo. The garden, which is part of a beautification project led by May Mitchell and Susan Bradley, features a variety of plants and a gazebo.
Staff Photo by Megan Summers
  • photo
    An array of Hydrangeas borders a stone walkway at the home of Signal Mountain resident, Donna Smith, in this file photo.
    Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

When Katie and Mike Myers celebrated their third anniversary on July 1, Katie had two rings to remind her of their special day: One was the band on her left hand, the other a circle of 14 hydrangeas at their home.

"I had hydrangeas at our wedding reception," says Katie, a retired school principal. "The next spring I planted a huge circle of them as a reminder that our love is endless and everlasting. They are beautiful."

Hydrangeas in bridal bouquets or reception decor grew into a trend about three years, says Curt Hodge, co-owner of Gil & Curt Flowers. But their ties to Southern landscapes are generations-old. Other than magnolias and camellias, few plants are more traditional in Southern gardens than hydrangeas.

While there are almost two dozen species of hydrangeas, there are six most popular in this region. Jack Townsend, a longtime employee of The Barn Nursery, lists them as Penny Mac, Endless Summer, Nikko Blue, Limelight, Quick Fire and Annabelle.

Here are five tips for growing these big bloomers.

1 Where and how to plant: Hydrangeas bloom best where they get morning sun and afternoon shade. Deep shade is detrimental for most species except the Oakleaf hydrangea, which will grow as long as it receives either early morning or late afternoon slanted sun, according to information from the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture.

Dig a hole for the plant as least twice the size of its container. If the soil is heavy clay, mix in one third organic material such as homemade compost. Plant at soil level or slightly higher to allow for soil to settle.

2 Watering: Hydrangeas are known to love water, especially since their large leaves give off water faster than the roots can replace it during summer's heat. This week's heavy rains have been good for hydrangeas, says Townsend.

If you want to understand how much hydrangeas love water, just "look at the name -- hydra," a root word that, like "hydro," means water, he points out.

Water them early in the morning or late evening, always at the base of the plant. Wetting their foliage can lead to disease.

3 Color changing: One of the fascinating aspects of hydrangeas is that gardeners can custom-color their blooms from blue to pink, or vice versa. Townsend said to make blossoms turn blue, add aluminum sulfate to the soil around them; to go pink, add lime.

4 Pruning: "On Annabelles and Nikkos, you don't want to prune at all. They bloom on old wood," says Townsend. "Endless Summer or Penny Macs, you want to deadhead."

Cutting blooms from hydrangeas for bouquets is another form of pruning, according to horticulturist Pat Lea. For example, mophead hydrangeas grow new stems over the summer; buds form at the tips of that new growth, which will open and produce flowers next year. Short, leafy stems are preparing next year's flowers, she says, so don't remove them.

On full, strong shrubs, cut flower-bearing stalks down to about a foot or so above the ground. New stems will grow from that base stalk. Once cut, the flower stem can be trimmed to the size needed for the indoor arrangement, Lea says.

"One thing to remember," says Townsend, "is if you just cut them and put them in a vase, they won't last long. But if you slice the stalks (take a small knife and cut a vertical strip into the base of the stalk) or mash it a little to allow water in, they will retain their blooms a lot longer. The more you cut, the more water it will take up."

5 Drying blooms: Kevin Roberts, floral designer at Trends N Trends in Cleveland, Tenn., says wait until the color starts to fade and blooms begin to dry out on the bush before cutting.

"That way a lot of the moisture has started to drain out of the bloom. Then cut stems and hang them upside down. Hang them someplace that won't be damp, so moisture won't affect them. Don't hang them in the sun, because that will fade them faster," he advises.

Roberts offers this tip before arranging dried blooms: "Spray them with a little hairspray after they have dried and before you take them down. That will help hold them together when you arrange them."

Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6284.

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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