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Amanda Powers illustration
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Amanda Powers illustration
French hydrangeas can't help it. They don't mean to be so showy. The blowsy blooms of h. macrophllya — the most popular of the hydrangea genus — spring forth in blue, purple and pink balloons each summer like the cheer squad of the South, with all the pomp and circumstance, but more delicate.
Hydrangeas love our part of the country, adapting to our climate well. Thanks to Richmond's milder winters. "They aren't dying to the ground every year and are able to grow to a larger size," says Michael Spence, nursery manager at Strange's Garden Center in Short Pump. Bigger shrubs equal bigger impact, and by the end of the summer, the bold flowers are literally everywhere, blooms exploding in gardens, cuttings springing from vases, ubiquitous for a few glorious weeks. There is little need to tame them, but there is plenty to get creative about.
Amend the soil to change the color. There are two varieties of French hydrangeas: mopheads, which produce the pom-pom-esque blooms hydrangeas are known for, and lacecaps, a subtler version that has a flat "cap" of tiny fertile flowers ringed with fatter sterile blooms. These two are the changelings that can be turned from powdery blue in acidic soil to lipstick pink in alkaline soil.
If you want to play with color, do a soil test so you know what you're starting with, says Spence. Amend soil with garden sulfur for blue blooms (pH below 5.5) or pulverized or crushed lime for pink (pH above 7).
Beware of pests. The hydrangea's archenemy is the slug, which also favors damp, cool environments. They are easily dealt with using baits or copper ribbon. Prevention is always best. "Fill jars of cheap beer to attract slugs away from the shrub," Spence says.
Also, look out for powdery mildew. A generic fungicide will nip it in the bud. To prevent, avoid overhead irrigation and plant with enough space for air to circulate around the leaves so they can dry out from rain.
Finally, late in summer, you may find flea beetles snacking on the leaves. A spray of horticultural oil will smother the insects.
Landscape with complementary colors and varied bloom times. "When I'm planning a bed, I choose plantings for the different seasons to have something visual all year round," Spence says. "Hellebore is an evergreen perennial that flowers in late winter when nothing else [does]." He also likes Virginia blue bells for the first hint of blue in the spring season.
Also include flowering plants with bold oranges and yellows for visual interest. Spence likes Japanese maple and Exbury azalea. Heuchera, an evergreen perennial with ornamental chartreuse or pink leaves, is fun and quirky.
Prune conservatively and with care. Once your shrub has had three to four growing seasons, you can start pruning. Spence recommends waiting to prune until flowers are just starting to fade. "Lacecaps and mopheads bloom on one-year-old wood so you don't want to cut off the old wood," he says. Clip the stem right above the new, pea-sized buds forming. This is also the time to remove about a third of woody, unproductive branches. Deadhead blooms at any time.
The only thing better than a French hydrangea is one that blooms all summer long. The aptly named "Endless Summer" was the first variety of re-blooming or remontant hydrangeas, which bloom on both old and new wood. "No matter what you do, you will get blooms next year, which is a great advantage," Spence says. The one drawback is that these varieties tend to be simpler — at least right now. "You don't get the more complex varieties that bloom pink and green or blue and purple on the same flower," Spence says. But what you sacrifice in originality, you get back with a long season of blooms.