celebrating everything hydrangeas
South Yarmouth’s Joan Harrison, former president of the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society and a devoted hydrangea lover, says that even though she has been growing hydrangeas successfully for decades, “There is always something new to learn about hydrangeas!” Harrison has written two books celebrating the glory of Cape Cod’s favorite flower. We spoke to her about her first book from her winter home in North Carolina.
How did you decide to write the first book? What was the most satisfying thing about writing this book?
Hydrangeas: Cape Cod and the Islands was my attempt to show the special connection between the flower and the location. Hydrangeas thrive here, and because they do thrive, they look wonderful in all kinds of settings. Blue hydrangeas in particular are part of what we think of as a Cape Cod look.
My publisher and I agreed on an August 1 deadline. This was daunting because I had to wait for the prime bloom season (the last week of June to the end of July) to take all the pictures. I couldn’t write the text or organize the photos into logical chapters until I had taken the pictures. So I had five very busy weeks, working from early morning until late in the evening.
Whenever I came upon a particularly lovely scene—like the one depicted on the cover of the book—I was delighted to find it and determined to capture it from the best angle. It was a relief when I got it downloaded to my computer to see if it looked as beautiful as I remembered it. This was the most satisfying part of the process: to feel I was conveying everything I felt about the beauty of hydrangeas on Cape Cod.
When I look through the book now, every single picture triggers a happy memory.
How did you find a publisher for the book? How was it marketed and sold? Where is it available?
I got lucky finding a publisher. Eric Linder of Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham is the one who pointed me in the right direction. We were talking about my self-published hydrangea handbook (The Colorful World of Hydrangeas) and Eric suggested I contact Schiffer Publishing because they do such a great job with color photography. I sent a proposal and they offered me a contract.
Schiffer does a lot of marketing, but also depends on authors to market their own work. I did a lot of presentations and book signings last summer and fall all around the Cape. It was fun to meet fellow hydrangea enthusiasts.
The book is available in local bookstores such as Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham, the Brewster Bookstore, Where the Sidewalk Ends in Chatham, and Titcomb’s in Sandwich. It is also available at amazon.com.
Was the first book written for novice gardeners? Flower lovers? Cape & Islands tourists?
I wrote the book for everyone who loves hydrangeas and Cape Cod. I included information in the text to help readers learn more about hydrangeas, but mainly I focused on showing how beautiful they look in all kinds of settings. I tried to capture the special magic of Cape Cod so that visitors could have a visual reminder of its loveliness.
Why do you think hydrangeas are so popular? What is your favorite hydrangea? How many kinds of hydrangeas do you have in your Cape garden?
Hydrangeas are very satisfying to grow. They have a long bloom time, the blooms are beautiful, maintenance is easy, and there are lots of different landscaping uses depending on the species and flower colors selected. Hydrangeas give you many options. It’s my experience that once a gardener has planted one hydrangea, they find it so satisfying that they decide to go looking for another…and another…and another!
My favorite hydrangea is “Merritt’s Supreme.” It’s the first hydrangea I knew by name—back when I was first learning about them many of the garden centers just called them “blue hydrangea,” “pink hydrangea,” and “white hydrangea.” I loved one of my blue hydrangeas so much, I felt compelled to find out which one it was. When I bought it, it was labeled a blue hydrangea, but it was really a purple flower, a beautiful deep purple. The flowers were huge, which didn’t seem possible because the plant itself was a dwarf variety. It had this nice compact form and gave me beautiful flowers which also dried well. I loved it. When I moved back to New England from Oregon, I knew “Merritt’s Supreme” was going to have to come with me…kind of a reverse Oregon Trail!
My garden is filled with hydrangeas. I last counted about 130 different plants, with probably 40-plus different varieties. I do not feel that I have enough hydrangeas, but I am running out of space.
Can you tell us about the value of the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society?
The Cape Cod Hydrangea Society was established in 2008 and we now have about 100 members. Naturally, our members are hydrangea enthusiasts and we all want to learn all we can about hydrangeas. To this end we have workshops on pruning, propagation, and wreath-making, and guest speakers on a variety of topics. Some past speakers were Luc Balemans, the president of the Belgian Hydrangea Society, Glyn Church from New Zealand, author of Complete Hydrangeas, and Mal Condon, owner of Hydrangea Farm Nursery on Nantucket. We have fun activities that are fairly informal. One that is highly popular is our Lunch Bunch when we all gather at a member’s home and get to see that member’s collection of hydrangeas and the garden in general.
Everyone brings their own lunch, which keeps it easy on the host or hostess. It is a very friendly group and we always welcome new members.
Can you talk about the challenges and rewards of growing hydrangeas from novices to experts?
My first hydrangea was a housewarming gift. I planted it near my front door and loved how it looked. I lived in Oregon at the time, and this little blue hydrangea reminded me of Cape Cod, where I’d spent time with my family when I was young. It triggered lots of happy memories and fond associations. One day I decided that if that one looked good on one side of my front walk, I should get another one for the other side. That’s how it started. Then I needed one more next to the garage and a few for the back yard, and before I knew it, I was hooked.
I wanted to learn everything about hydrangeas and back then, 23 years ago, there was precious little print material available. I was dependent on magazine articles for information and was frustrated when a lot of the information seemed contradictory. I have devoted myself to finding the answers to all my questions ever since.
Hydrangeas are remarkably easy to grow, once you know the basics. Beginners usually start with the popular mopheads, as I did. But then you find out about lacecaps, and the Oakleaf hydrangea, and the Climbing hydrangea, and the paniculatas, and soon you have a garden filled with beautiful hydrangeas.
Joan Harrison will publish a second book on hydrangeas this summer. For information on both books, go to schifferbooks.com. For information on Joan’s book signings and other hydrangea know-how, go to Joan’s website, hydrangeamania.com.