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Caring for hydrangeas – for flowers all summer long


Those who want to care for hydrangeas have a worthwhile task. The popular garden hydrangeas are stunning with their oversized flower heads in rich blue, bright pink or pure white and they have an old-fashioned charm that is hard to elude. This makes them almost unrivalled in the world of flowering shrubs. If you care for hydrangeas and have the right know-how, you are guaranteed to experience a long-lasting, colourful show of flowers in your garden. Here you will find the most important tips for planting and caring for your hydrangeas.

The variety of hydrangeas is huge (one has the impression that the breeding provides us each year with new, impressive varieties) and there is a very large selection of flower shapes and colours. It is worthwhile to take a closer look before you purchase a hydrangea. If you know which species grows and thrives in the garden, for example, you can feel very confident when pruning. For a good overview, we have divided the hydrangeas into two groups (more information on the individual species can be found in the Lubera® garden shop):

Group 1: The hydrangea classics and other flowering wonders
These include the following shrubs:

• Mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla)
• Oak-leaved hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia)
• Lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata)
• Climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea petiolaris)

In general, all representatives of this group are fairly easy to care for. In a rather unfavourable climate, however, these hydrangeas often present a challenge because they form their flower buds as early as autumn. This is especially true for the mophead and lacecap hydrangeas as semi-shrubs. Their buds can easily be damaged by an early frost in autumn, a long, harsh winter or a late frost. If you are unlucky, the flowering will fail in one year and unfavourable pruning can increase the damage even more.


Picture: Hydrangea macrophylla 'Messalina' – with pink flowers

Group 2: Hydrangeasy hydrangeas – they are easy to care for

There are two types in this group:

• Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata)
• Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens)

These hydrangeas do not display their flowers until early summer on the new wood – a frosty winter cannot harm them very much. They flower pretty reliably every year and the hobby gardener does not have to pay too much attention to them. Even incorrect pruning measures are easily forgiven. Now that is easy gardening with hydrangeas! Nevertheless, you should take fundamental aspects into account when caring for them.

Picture: Smooth Hydrangea 'Strong Annabelle'® - Hydrangea arborescens has huge, white flowers

The suitable location

Hydrangeas are not sun worshipers, but generally they prefer full sun in the morning with some shade in the afternoon. Panicle and oak-leaved hydrangeas can even be planted in the sun (assuming they are sufficiently watered). The location for hydrangeas should not be too shady because there you would have to do without flowers to a large extent.

If you grow hydrangeas, a nutrient-rich, moist soil is an advantage for all types. However, this should have no waterlogging because then the shrubs would hardly bloom. Add some compost to supplement a poor soil or loosen a solidified soil. Alternatively, you can also incorporate acidic potting soil, as the natural home of the hydrangeas are sparse forests. And because the forest floor, due to the decomposition of leaves, needles and twigs, is rather acidic, the pH value of your garden soil should not be too high (the optimal value is about 6; at higher levels there is a risk of iron deficiency). A sheltered location is ideal – especially for varieties with heavy flower heads that are easily shaken by the wind (e.g. 'Annabelle').

Caring for hydrangeas – watering correctly

Hydrangeas are basically quite thirsty plants. In the first two years after planting, keep a close eye on your shrub – make sure the soil never completely dries out. If your hydrangea is exposed to full sun, it may show slight wilting in the afternoon, but recovery usually occurs later in the day. We recommend that you apply a layer of mulch (consisting of leaves, grass clippings, wood chippings) to the base of the plant. This layer provides good protection against evaporation and also acts as a warming blanket in a cold winter.

Caring for hydrangeas – the appropriate fertiliser

If your soil is very nutrient-rich, you do not necessarily have to fertilise. Generally, your hydrangeas benefit from a mineral or organic fertiliser in the spring. If you do not have a blue flower colour (more about this later), we recommend applying a slow release fertiliser with phosphorus. While nitrogen primarily promotes so-called vegetative growth, i.e. the formation of shoots and leaves, phosphorus stimulates flowering, the phosphate in the soil, however, is often bound for years and many soils are therefore over-supplied with this nutrient. However, in the case of exclusive fertilisation with nitrogen (e.g. with horn shavings), hydrangeas can become somewhat lazy in the longer term. So if your hydrangeas are mostly vegetative, you may want to use a phosphorus fertiliser or have a soil study done. Starting at the end of July, the fertilisation should be stopped so that the plant can slowly switch to "winter mode" and can defy the frost better.

How to have blue or pink flowers

Not every hydrangea has the potential to change colour. The suitable candidates are the mophead and lacecap hydrangeas – depending on the site conditions, they impress with pink or blue flowers. It is possible to influence the flower colours, but you should not expect an immediate effect. A change in colour can take months. Basically it is easier to turn a blue flower into a tender pink tone than vice versa.

If you want to grow blue-flowering hydrangeas and get a nice shade, there are a few things to keep in mind:

• The soil should have a constant pH of 4 to 4.5
• The aluminium supply of the soil should be good
• No phosphorus-rich fertiliser should be used

If the pH value is above the stated value, the hydrangea flowers will slowly, but certainly turn pink. So if you want to enjoy rich blue colours permanently, you should help the plant by applying acidic soil (rhododendron soil) and a special hydrangea fertiliser, which contains a “blue maker” (potassium aluminium alum). Alternatively, you can purchase the alum in the pharmacy. Then enrich your water with three grams of alum per litre and water your hydrangea weekly starting at the beginning of May for about four weeks. If possible, use rainwater since tap water is often too calcareous. If necessary, work a compost of oak leaves, pine needles and coffee grounds into the soil. Avoid using a high phosphorus fertiliser. If there is too much phosphorus in the soil, aluminium phosphate compounds will form that are difficult to dissolve. The required aluminium is then not absorbed by the hydrangea.


Picture: Hydrangea macrophylla – a blue mophead hydrangea

Brief information about the colour change in hydrangeas

Blue to pink: Apply a phosphorus-rich fertiliser and increase the pH of the soil by liming (possibly several times a year) or just sit back – usually the site conditions in the garden also change by themselves.

Pink to blue: Make sure you have acidic soil (rhododendron soil). If you have loamy soil, you should think about exchanging the soil around the planting hole because this will not be so fast due to its good buffer system. Avoid the use of a phosphorus-rich fertiliser. Use a fertiliser with potassium aluminium alum.

The right cut as a guarantee for flowering

We refer back to the hydrangea groups listed above. The types from Group 1 should be pruned in the spring and if possible only the old inflorescences until the next intact bud pair should be cut back. A radical pruning would remove the flower buds from the previous year, which cannot be reproduced in early summer. However, you should always cut off any dead and frozen shoots.

No rule is without an exception:Reblooming, newer varieties of mophead hydrangeas (e.g. 'Everbloom') not only bloom on one-year-old wood, but also on this year's shoots, and can thus be cut back a little more in the spring if necessary.

When you cut the Hydrangeasy varieties from Group 2 nothing can go wrong. If you shorten these hydrangeas to 20 to 30 centimetres in March – just before sprouting – this has the following advantages:

• The dead wood is removed
• Magnificent flowers are formed
• The shrubs show vigorous budding and do not get bare from below

In the case of the last-mentioned pruning measure, there should always be at least one bud attachment per shoot. If a bigger bush should decorate your garden, you should not reach for the clippers every year.


Picture: Mophead Hydrangea 'Royal Red'® - Hydrangea macrophylla, the hydrangea with dark red flower balls

Caring for hydrangeas – the ideal winter protection

You should be vigilant especially with mophead hydrangeas and lacecap hydrangeas because their shoots do not completely lignify and are therefore more susceptible to frost. These hydrangeas must also save their flower buds as unscathed as possible over the winter. In autumn, make a very thick mulch layer of brushwood, leaves or straw. If you want to be on the safe side, you can place a wire cage around the shrub and then fill it with loose foliage (it does not look pretty, but it is highly effective).

If there is a risk of late frost, you should also cover frost-sensitive hydrangeas overnight with a garden fleece. Often, at minus temperatures only the leaves and buds at the end of the shoot are damaged. If you cut them off, you can still expect flowering in the summer.

If possible, keep the hydrangeas planted in pots in a sheltered place on the terrace, after you have insulated the container well. In the house, the humidity may be too high, which makes the plant susceptible to fungal diseases (botrytis).

Caring for hydrangeas when the flowering (also) becomes a burden

Smooth hydrangeas are impressive due to their opulent inflorescences, which develop a considerable weight. Without being supported they can literally be doomed. Here you can help them by using bamboo canes (e.g. with an U-shaped arch). If necessary, you can also tie the flowers to the canes with a string. Perennial rings, perennial supports or lattices, through which the hydrangea shoots can grow, have also proven themselves. Cleverly planted, the surrounding green of a hedge can also be used as a support.


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