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Heady, High-Drama Hydrangeas for the North State Summer Garden

I grew up spending several weeks each summer with my parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles in a small town on the rocky Rhode Island coast. In that breezy seaside climate, with sun and salt-air, the July and August roadsides and farmsteads were extravagantly adorned with the big, brash, bold and brazen blooms of hydrangeas. So-called mophead hydrangeas, lacecap hydrangeas and climbing hydrangeas were everywhere nodding their cheerful blue, pink and white heads. Now, mostly through association, hydrangeas are firmly in my top ten favorite garden flowers – they speak to me of summer vacation: of laughter and seashells, ice-cream cones and lighthouses, lightening bugs and late mornings with sandy sheets. Hyrdangeas are – simply put – happy. Photo: Blue lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) along a stone wall in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

Hydrangeas are ancient plants and fossils of hydrangea foliage in the southeastern United States date back to the early tertiary period of our planet’s history. In contemporary times, they happily grow in almost any township with water from Maine to Florida, New York to California, Washington State to Southern California. They are cheerfully ubiquitous. And all this speaks volumes about their hardiness. They can take sun, wind and bitter winter cold. They don’t mind the burning salt air, and they can even take some drought once established – but one thing they don’t like to live without is what the coasts have year-round: humidity. Which might make you wonder how well they will do in the relatively dry and reliably hot North State? Photo: Climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea petiolaris) along an old outbuilding in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

Chico home gardener, Daran Goodsell and the 20 various hydrangeas that flourish in her Chico garden are here to tell you that hydrangeas like the North State Garden just fine. Photo: Cheerful pink mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea Macrophylla) and the white panicle of an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) in Daran and Dan Goodsell’s Chico garden.

Daran and her husband Dan have been working on their current garden for about 5 years. When they moved in, Daran knew the backyard was ideal for hydrangeas because of its eastern exposure, which would allow for 4 -5 hours of morning light, and its many high trees, which would provide dappled mid-day light. She brought just one hydrangea with her from her old garden, but she was determined to get more. With this hydrangea expansion in mind, she and Dan prepared their backyard beds accordingly. “The soil is so important to hydrangeas,” Daran tells me, “they need nutrient rich soil and regular water, but they do not like to have wet feet.” To provide the right drainage, the Goodsells double dug their garden beds to loosen the soil more than two feet down, and then added 1 foot of new compost to the mix. This high concentration of organic matter mimics that of the woodland floor to which hydrangeas are native in East Asia and North and South America. Photo: Daran Goodsell among her hydrangeas.

In addition to the careful soil preparation, Daran feeds her hydrangeas two times a year, right before their bloom cycle and then as needed throughout the season. “You’ll know when they need a boost,” she tells me. “Their leaves will look yellow or heavily veined.” Daran uses an organic hydrangea/camellia (which is slightly acidic) food sold at nurseries. Finally, once a year, she top dresses her plants with a new 1-inch layer of compost to keep the soil loose and rich. Photo: The luminous creamy panicle of a mature oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) complementing the deep burgundy of a japanese maple in Daran Goodsell’s garden.

After the soil prep, regular water was the next consideration. Daran and Dan allowed for two kinds of water to the hydrangea beds: drip for the regular deep watering, and small mister heads to get humidity-like moisture to the foliage “especially on our hot, hot summer days,” says Daran. She waters her plants from May – October and does water them once a day in our hottest summer stretch. She then turns the misters on mid-day or early afternoon briefly for that shot of cooling moisture to the leaves. Hydrangeas are pretty thirsty plants, Daran stresses. “If watering or drainage is an issue – the way to go is containers,” Daran tells me. Photo: One of the hydrangea borders at the Goodsell garden.

Hydrangeas are a genus of more than 80 species and many, many cultivars and hyrbids of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and climbers. Native North American hydrangeas include: Hydrangea arborescens also known as smooth hydrangea, which is native to the eastern United States as far west as Iowa, and Hydrangea quercifolia, or oakleaf hydrangea, which is native to the southern US. While hydrangeas rarely grow as trees, the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ – also known as the ‘Pee Gee’ Hydrangea, is often grown limbed up (with all lower branches removed to expose a main trunk) as a small tree. Hydrangea macrophylla is perhaps the most common species, and includes the common “mophead” and “lacecap” forms – often with their cotton-candy colors of blue or pink. Hydrangeas can run reddish, purple, blue or pink based on amount of available aluminum in their soil and aluminum is made available to the plants based on the acidity of the soil. To a certain extent, you can affect their color using soil supplements to alter the acidity. In general, white forms of hydrangeas will remain white in any soil, although some ‘white’ forms move from creamy to pinkish through the season. Photo: The red stem of H. macrophylla ‘Lady in Red’. The red stem holds winter interest much like red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea).

Hydrangea flower heads are actually large collections of small flowers – the most showy ones are sterile and the little fuzzy-looking ones in the center or underneath are the fertile flowers. These collections of flower heads, known as corymbs, come in various shapes and sizes from the flat form of the lacecaps and climbers (Hydrangea petiolaris) to the domed and rounded heads of the mopheads to the elongated panicles of the oakleaves and paniculatas. Daran likes the oakleaf hydrangeas best for beginning growers because they do not go fully deciduous and they have great burnished red fall color. “You just can’t kill them,” she assures me. Photo: A close up showing the sterile flat white flowers on a hydrangea corymb with the fertile flower heads below.

To keep your hydrangea plants in good form, prune the stems that flowered last year down to the first set of double leaves on the branch. You can prune right after blooms are done or you can leave the flower heads through the winter for winter interest. As cut flowers, it is hard to beat a hydrangea for drama, but they can be finicky and one will wilt right away while another will hold its bloom for weeks or even dry in the vase and be lovely as a dried flower. Some people recommend burning the end of the flower stem to seal the moisture into the stem, others advocate cutting the stem at a steep angle or even mashing the end of the stem to allow it to absorb as much water as possible. Photo: A purple form lacecap.

Currently, three sides of the Goodsell’s back garden are lined with hydrangeas. The common blue mophead blooms happily alongside the specialty varieties. Daran likes hydrangeas as much for their interesting foliage as for their stunning blooms – and her garden has three gray, white and green variegated plants as well as a coveted tri-color, which has white, yellow and green leaf markings. The star of the show (pardon the pun) when I visited in early summer was perhaps the ‘Starburst’ hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Haye’s Starburst’), whose delicate double-sterile flower heads are borne on varying length stems giving the impression of a shooting star. Gorgeous. Photo: Hydrangea arborescens ‘Haye’s Starburst’ in Daran’s garden.

Daran has orders in for at least four more hydrangeas she has read about about now “must have.” Dan, a former potter whose artistic work can be seen throughout their house and garden and whose old kiln bricks make up their garden patio, is in charge of garden hardscape – and something tells me he is going to be busy building and digging this fall. Photos: (Right) The variegation on Daran’s Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Variegata’, and (Left) her Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Tri-Color’.

In a North State Garden is a radio- and web-based outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum РExploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden celebrates the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region, and is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell Рall rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.