April 2013

Hydrangea Days

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2013 / , ,

Writer: Susan Dewey / Photographer: Brigid O'Loughlin, Don Sylor, and Michael McLaughlin 

Pink, green, purple, white, red. Dwarf, tree, shrub, and climbing. Besides the classic blue beauties, there’s a hydrangea out there for every landscape.

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.

Photo by Joesph Lau Photography

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s. Soon you could find hydrangeas on street corners in big cities—there were reports that thieves were sneaking into the backyards of summer homes on the Cape and Islands, stripping shrubs bare, and carting off hydrangeas to sell for outrageous prices in Boston and Manhattan.

Of course, hydrangeas have not always been so well loved. In the 1960s, hydrangeas were considered staid, old-fashioned flowers: something your grandmother loved, certainly not cool enough for the Swinging Sixties.

Cape homeowners then were yanking out the few varieties available in those days—big blue mopheads and stately white paniculatas—in favor of massed beach grasses and sophisticated, minimalist foliages from around the world.

Then, in the early 1980s, Stewart began to publish books like Entertaining (1982), which celebrated the virtues of old-fashioned garden flowers like poppies, peonies, daffodils, and hydrangeas. Many of these flowers grew in Stewart’s backyard gardens in Westport, Connecticut, the Fairfield County town where her empire first flourished.

I grew up in Westport and as a young reporter for the Westport News, Martha Stewart was one of my first interviews for a story on her just-established catering business. I went to her home and marveled over the country kitchen (later photographed extensively in Entertaining) and her gardens, which were beautiful even then.

We walked through her backyard plots, lush with perfect vegetables and old-fashioned flowers. I don’t remember any hydrangeas, but within a few years, everything Martha loved became the ultimate country-chic choice.

The truth is hydrangeas are very old-fashioned flowers, and while not native to Cape Cod or the Islands (just like that other local favorite, Rosa rugosa), hydrangeas have long thrived in our sandy soil and moist summer climate. Since Stewart’s resurrection of the flower, hydrangea varieties have proliferated like dandelions—also not native by the way—and today, there are thousands of varieties of hydrangeas.

There are dwarf hydrangeas in deep rose (“Pink Elf”), hydrangeas that almost glow in the dark (“Limelight” and “Annabelle”), and growers are even working to develop a yellow cultivar.

Of course, most people still love the classic blue hydrangeas best—what is a Cape or Islands garden without blue hydrangeas? But in today’s nurseries there are dozens of varieties of blue hydrangeas.

I could go on and on about hydrangeas, but this is a story about how to grow and prune hydrangeas, another subject of passionate discussion. Hydrangeas do present a few unique challenges in terms of care.

We have consulted with experts and I have relied on years of growing hydrangeas in our own backyard, from the billowing “Nikko Blues” by our back door to the shy “Annabelles” and “Limelights” tucked into shady beds.

And as for Martha Stewart—well, she has come pretty far since she told me how to dry herbs in her Westport kitchen. Of course, she has also given me a great story to tell about my first days writing about the joys of gardening.

Beyond True Blue
The days when Cape and Islands gardeners only plant bright-blue “mophead” hydrangeas are over, and today’s hydrangea choices can be bewildering—even if you know the right Latin names. Here’s a guide to several different tried and true hydrangea choices, in a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.

Photo by Don Sylor

Mopheads & Lacecaps
The most common hydrangea is the mophead, the big, blue, multi-flowered shrub that graces just about every backyard and town street on Cape Cod and the Islands. Today, mopheads (Hydrangea macrophylla) come in a huge array of colors and sizes. To make things even more confusing, the more frilly lacecap varieties are also part of the Hydrangea macrophylla family. Both mopheads and lacecaps are perhaps the easiest hydrangeas to grow.

Like their cousins, the Hydrangea paniculata and arborescens cultivars, mopheads and lacecaps bloom easily and for a long period every summer and fall when planted in the right environment. This means planting each shrub in well aerated, healthy soil with lots of organic matter, preferably near a reliable water source with the right amount of sunlight. There are a few rules to follow for hydrangeas: these shrubs do not like wet feet, which means it is not a good idea to plant hydrangeas in an area where the soil is soggy or claylike. But just to confuse you even further, hydrangeas struggle in uniformly hot, dry climates: hydrangea flowers and foliage prefer moderate, moist and cool environments, like Cape Cod and the Islands, or Japan, the native country of many hydrangeas.

Most hydrangeas need a lot of sun (at least four hours per day), but many varieties will wilt and look awful in an area with hot afternoon sunlight; these high-performing flower factories are much happier in less intense morning sun. We have learned the hard way that hydrangeas thrive on almost every side of our Cape house: north, south, and east, where we have thriving mopheads, lacecaps, Pee Gees, and paniculatas that perform well without irrigation or supplemental watering of any kind after their first year or two of planting. However, on the western side, which bakes in the afternoon sun, our “Nikko” mopheads and “Blue Billow” lacecaps will wilt dramatically if not watered nearly every day in the summer.

My favorite mopheads and lacecaps are above, but if you have a specific size or color in mind, ask your landscaping company or your local nursery. There is the perfect mophead and lacecap for every hydrangea lover out there.

Pee Gees & Paniculatas
Hydrangea paniculata cultivars are high-performing cousins of the mopheads and lacecaps. The paniculatas evolved from “Pee Gee” hydrangeas (a nickname for the paniculata “P” grandiflora “G” cultivar) that have been around for a long time.

These eight-to-ten-foot floral fountains drip with white flowers that turn a soft cream and rose in late summer. “Pee Gees” love sun and are some of the most maintenance-free hydrangeas to grow, especially in large spaces.

There are several newer, smaller paniculatas that look good enough to eat like “Vanilla Strawberry” and “Pinky Winky,” both covered with pink and white blossoms. A newer paniculata cultivar and one of my personal favorites is “Limelight,” a long bloomer that buds up bright green in the spring before unfurling beautiful, white, cone-shaped flowers. “Limelights,” which are super-hardy, line the entrance to Sandwich’s Heritage Museums and Gardens, an arresting sight all summer and deep into the fall when the blossoms turn a warm rusty pink.

For those with limited space, a good paniculata choice is “Little Lime,” which grows just three to five feet tall and is a distinctive addition to perennial borders or foundation plantings around your house. Another one of our paniculata favorites is the “Tardiva,” which can be trained into a small tree covered with snow white, upright lacy cones. A grouping of three or more “Tardiva” trees adds a dramatic touch to a landscape planting.

Climbing Hydrangeas
For trellises, fences, and arbors, Climbing hydrangeas are sweetly scented vines with frothy white flowers and heart-shaped leaves that bloom before their showier cousins. Climbing hydrangeas take a while to establish, but once rooted, these tough performers will bloom with almost no care. At Spohr Gardens in Falmouth—a tranquil expanse of trails, gardens, and naturalized plantings open to the public—numerous trees are wreathed in Climbing hydrangeas.

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.

Photo by Brigid O’Loughlin

Smooth hydrangeas
For big snowball blooms that mature into a lovely sage green in the fall (perfect for wreaths and all kinds of seasonal decorations), choose the handsome Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle,” also known as a Smooth Hydrangea, a descendent of the Eastern Seaboard’s native hydrangea that still grow in the wild. The flowers are a lovely chartreuse green in the spring—much cherished by flower arrangers—before turning a creamy white with airy flowers. Today’s cultivated “Annabelle” variety has big white bouquets that bloom all season long, eventually reverting to a beautiful soft green in the autumn. “Annabelle” blossoms work especially well in wreaths and dry beautifully. (Check out our wreath-making blog at capecodlife.com/2011/11/simple-hydrangea-wreath to learn how to make a dried hydrangea wreath.)

Oakleaf hydrangeas
Lastly, there is the Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), which is a large shrub with oakleaf-shaped foliage and white-mounded flowers that needs a lot of space to flourish. Oakleafs do well in the far corners of borders or off alone with room to sprawl, adding a distinct shape and handsome foliage to tree and shrub beds. The “Pee Wee Compact” variety (three feet by three feet) is a great addition for small spaces where unusual foliage and dramatic flowers are needed.

Hydrangeas have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.

Photo by Michael McLaughlin

Pro Cuts
Hydrangeas flower without pruning in the wild. But for prize-winning blossoms, here are some pruning tips from a Cape Cod Hydrangea Society expert.

Pruning hydrangeas is one of those subjects that makes many gardeners nervous. Part of the problem is that the various kinds of hydrangeas grow and bloom in different ways on different schedules. It can be confusing trying to figure out just which kind of hydrangea you have in your garden and how and when it should be pruned and fertilized.

Most mopheads, for instance, set new buds every year on old wood—as in wood from the previous growing season—which means that when spring comes, the coming summer’s flowers have already appeared as buds ready to bloom in late June or early July. This means that if you decide to prune your mopheads and lacecaps in April—which you should do at that time of year to get rid of any dead, diseased, or under-performing canes—you need to be careful not to cut off the healthy buds that matured over the previous growing season, or you won’t have any flowers come summer.

Hydrangea paniculatas, including “Pee Gees,” “Limelights,” “Little Lime,” and so forth, do not bloom on old wood, but set their flower buds in the spring on new wood. This means that you can prune any dead or diseased canes without worrying about cutting off the flowers for this season’s blooming. Paniculatas can be pruned in April along with the macrophyllas, although it is better to prune the paniculatas even earlier in late February or March.

Cape Cod Hydrangea Society
A good resource is the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society (capecodhydrangeasociety.blogspot.com), an organization of dedicated hydrangea growers who all have years of experience. The society’s meetings are very helpful and feature informative presentations by hydrangea growers, floral designers, landscaping professionals, and others.

The society is also responsible for a beautiful hydrangea display designed and planted six years ago at Heritage Museums and Gardens. An annual society membership is $25. If you want to learn everything there is to know about hydrangeas, this is the organization to join.

Pruning and Transplanting Tips
Last spring, at a mid-April pruning workshop held at Heritage Museums and Gardens, Joan Brazeau, the current president of the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society, shared hints for hydrangea pruning with a large group of gardeners of all abilities. Armed with big loppers for cutting out large canes right down to the ground as well as smaller pruning “snips” for removing last year’s dead flowers, Brazeau led the group around Heritage’s numerous hydrangea plantings, including several right at the main entrance.

Brazeau, whose Yarmouthport gardens flourish with more than 75 hydrangeas, introduced the group to Mary Kay and Mal Condon, owners of the well-known and respected Nantucket Hydrangea Farm (hydrangeafarm.com), who helped answer questions. Standing before a grouping of mopheads that looked like a sad collection of dead sticks, Brazeau pointed out the just-emerging pairings of buds clustered along several canes. “Before I start, the first thing you need to know is that everyone who prunes hydrangeas needs sharp pruning shears,” said Brazeau. Wielding a pair of clippers, she demonstrated the best way to prune off last year’s blossoms, making a cut just above a pair of outward facing buds on a healthy cane.
“Do this all over the shrub,” said Brazeau, cutting off all of last year’s flowers above a pair of buds and demonstrating the importance of removing any spindly canes, or those criss-crossing each other. “The good news is that hydrangeas really require very little care,” said Brazeau. “Hydrangeas don’t even really need pruning—in the wild, hydrangeas are not pruned and the shrubs still bloom.” However, Brazeau explained that all kinds of varieties—from the aborescens to the paniculata varieties—get a good jump-start in the spring by pruning out three to five of the largest canes.

“Take out your big loppers and cut the stalks right down to the ground,” said Brazeau, drawing gasps from the more tenderhearted gardeners in the group.

She explained that any completely dead canes (which have a much whiter look and also snap off with ease in your hands) should also be cut to the ground. “This is much easier to do before the leaves appear and it will increase air flow in the shrub as it begins to bloom,” said Brazeau, noting that both paniculatas and arborescens can be pruned down to 18 to 24 inches each year if desired.

Brazeau noted that the latest trend in hydrangeas is the development of more “remontant” varieties, or those that can bloom on both new and old wood. Varieties such as the popular Nikko and Endless Summer hydrangeas fall into this category.
When asked if hydrangeas can be transplanted in the spring, Brazeau noted that hydrangeas can be moved in either the early spring, or the early fall. “Hydrangeas are very hardy and can be moved at either time of year, but they need to be in a place where they are comfortable,” said Brazeau. “If you transplant your shrub in April, you probably won’t get any blooms that summer—but next year, your hydrangeas will thank you with lots more blooms.”

Moving onto a large row of “Limelights” bordering a long picket fence near Heritage’s gift shop, Brazeau encouraged all the volunteers to jump in and start pruning. “These are paniculatas, which bloom on new wood and need to be pruned lightly,” said Brazeau, noting that the “Limelight” planting is a favorite with Heritage visitors. “This garden is photo op number one,” said Brazeau. “It is just beautiful with these ‘Limelights’ full of thick foliage and huge white blooms, bordered with purple Russian Sage perennials and some colorful mophead hydrangeas.”

“‘Limelights’—and almost all hydrangeas—do not like a lot of high, hot sun,” Brazeau continued. “The perfect spot for most hydrangeas is one with morning sun and afternoon shade.”

Leading the group to the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society’s display garden, Brazeau pointed out several new shrubs planted the previous fall, which were surrounded in chicken wire stuffed to the brim with pine needles. “We put baskets around those that are young, or especially tender, in December,” said Brazeau.

Asked about fertilizing, Brazeau said she gives her hydrangeas a dressing of a fertilizer like 19-6-12 to encourage blooms in the early spring, explaining that fertilizing should end by mid-July. “The main thing about hydrangeas is that they love water,” said Brazeau, noting that her own dozens of hydrangeas are well watered with a comprehensive drip irrigation system that she runs three times a week for 45 minutes. “If you don’t have a drip system, be sure to thoroughly water the roots of the hydrangeas, not the flowers,” she explained. “Water the shrubs at least three times a week with a good solid soaking—early morning watering is always best.”

When asked how to change the color of a hydrangea, Brazeau made a joke about a “Blushing Bride” hydrangea, a pale mophead with a pinkish hue. “This bride was a little frigid and needed some warming up,” said Brazeau to loud laughter. “She needed some lime, which turned her a warm pink.” Brazeau explained that lime could be applied to a hydrangea’s roots to increase pink color, whereas aluminum sulfate enhances the blue tones of shrubs. “Aluminum sulfate can really make a big difference to the blue color of a hydrangea,” said Brazeau. “It will take a season for the color to change, but next year you’ll say, ‘Wow! Now that’s a really blue hydrangea!’”

“At the Hydrangea Society, we try to promote all kinds of hydrangeas that will do well on Cape Cod and the Islands,” Brazeau concluded. “Not every hydrangea has to be an ‘Endless Summer’—although it’s probably appropriate that this variety is what most people who come here love best.”

Celebrating Everything Hydrangeas
Cape Codder’s book showcases the joys of growing 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 have long been loved as Cape Cod’s quintessential flower, ever since Martha Stewart shared her affection for the flowering shrub with the world in the 1980s.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.

Susan Dewey is associate publisher and editor of Cape Cod Life
Publications as well as a lover of hydrangeas.

Susan Dewey

Susan Dewey, former associate publisher and editor at Cape Cod Life Publications, lives in Centerville where she grows vegetables and flowers for Cape farmers' markets, designs perennial gardens for her son’s company, Dewey Gardens, and enjoys living on beautiful Cape Cod year round.