Saturday 20 January 2018

To prune or not to prune? The late flowering hydrangea

Marie Staunton considers the fate of her beautiful, much loved, blue and white hydrangea .

Blue or pink? Hydrangeas are able to indicate soil type.
Blue or pink? Hydrangeas are able to indicate soil type.

Marie Staunton

Hydrangea are probably the most trustworthy of all the late flowering shrubs and seem to have remained a popular choice with gardeners all over the country, due in part to the many varieties that have come on stream over the last number of years.

Most will know the mopheads and the very pretty lacecaps but hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' is so forgiving of heavy winters and dry summers that it really should be on the top of your list when shopping for a flowering shrub.

It is also a plant that needs a good old fashioned chop back in early spring as it flowers on the new growth made after that. Annabelle is a white flowering hydrangea. I have seen whole borders given over to this particular variety and it is a sight to behold.

To prune or not to prune hydrangea causes a bit of stress for new gardeners but the only real damage you can do is to reduce the flowering ability of your plant for the following season if you prune back too hard. Mopheads are the varieties that need to keep their hats on until March and then you can snip off the old faded flower heads down to the first pair of decent looking new buds.

The flowers of the lacecap hydrangea can just be taken off as and when they fade; no stress there at all. If your plant gets a bit leggy and outgrows its space, just prune it back to knee-height to put some manners on it again. It will sulk and flower very poorly the next year but after that it will be back on form.

In terms of where to place these flowering plants, it is a personal choice. They like a bit of dappled shade as opposed to full on sunshine - a little like ourselves, really.

Once established they will be a huge asset to your garden, the only worry is to make sure that they don't go without water during the first couple of years after planting.

You may be aware that the PH of your soil will affect the colour of some hydrangea. Pinks on an acid soil will turn shades of purple to full-on blue, depending on just how acid the soil is; white however, remain perfectly white regardless of soil type.

The beautiful blue hydrangea in the photo, even in its semi-shaded position, draws you in. Don't be afraid to let a plant become the main attraction in a border. Why would you crowd a star performer like this one?

I only came across a plant called hydrangea arborescens 'Incrediball', after seeing it in John Lord's garden a few weeks ago and, of course, I had to have one.

Big, and I mean big, flowers, to make the neighbours really jealous, come into their own in late summer. The white flower heads can be as big as 30cm across and they stand to attention unlike some varieties that tend to flop over. This variety requires a good prune back to about 30cm in late winter or very early spring.

Hydrangea petiolaris is the climbing hydrangea, a low-maintenance climber for a shady north or a west-facing wall. Plants are slow to get going, which might drive you mad in the first few years.

However, it is well worth the wait and, once established, will require little effort on your part to keep it looking well. Prune out damaged stems in spring if the need arises. It is a heavy climber, so a wall or heavy fence is a better bet for this particular hydrangea.

I have seen hydrangea grow well in big containers and, provided they are watered and fed regularly, they will be fine. Hydrangea 'Little Lime' is a very compact variety that you should look out for. You can grow them in an ericaceous compost to get that illusive blue colour, if your garden soil is alkaline.

Hydrangea make excellent cut flowers, too. They can last for at least a couple of weeks in a vase. If you dry them they can be used in autumn wreathes and then sprayed for later use in Christmas swags.

Ask Marie

Q I have a large part of my garden in shade. Can you recommend some plants for shaded and semi-shaded areas?

Marie replies: For impact try Fatsia japonica. It does well in a sheltered position in shade or semi-shade. I particularly like the plant Mahonia aquifolium which is one of the more compact mahonia. Cut it back after flowering to keep it from getting too leggy. The yellow flowers are just what the doctor ordered to brighten up a February morning, and as long as it isn't in dense shade it will thrive.

For ground cover an evergreen Pachysandra terminalis is a good choice. It can tolerate dry soil but not a chalky soil. But, as carpeters go, it's excellent for shade. The Vincas are equally good ground cover for a shady position. The only snag is you could get fewer flowers but the foliage is fantastic anyway. Ferns, and in particular Asplenium scolopendrium, or the Hart's tongue fern as it is more commonly known, is another great choice for your garden.

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