A few years back, my little one took a fancy to surfing and we spent a summer chasing waves along the wonderful west coast. And so one Saturday afternoon, I found myself driving from Donegal to Sligo in search of surf... when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a floriferous candy-coloured display of hydrangeas.
My surfer dude cast her eyes towards heaven as I screeched the car to a stop. Wetsuits and foam boards went flying everywhere while I grabbed the phone and snapped an image (below) that has delighted me ever since. And in a quiet moment, if I'm feeling unloved, I post it on Instagram and watch the love flow in!
In that Sligo moment, a love affair began. I've several varieties in my garden and they all do different jobs for me. They're easy to grow, make great informal hedges and wonderful long-lasting cut blooms, and are a good choice for coastal areas as well.
Looking especially gorgeous at the moment is Hydrangea 'Annabelle', as the immature green flowers have developed into delicious, creamy-white, large flower heads. I think she performs better in full sun - sometimes you see her in the shade, struggling a bit. Wonderfully, the flowers will persist for months and, like mopheads, can be left on until next spring before being lightly pruned off. There is a new version called 'Strong Annabelle' whose blossoms are the size of footballs!
I've a Hydrangea paniculata (above) growing nearby in a pot. These have cone-shaped flowers and are an increasingly popular plant. Mine is called 'Limelight', with a subtle lime-green flower that will mature to pink in autumn. For smaller pots and plots, there's a dwarf version of this called 'Little Lime'. Another well-known variety is 'Vanilla Fraise', which has cones of white flowers that start to flush a rosy pink before deepening to a raspberry hue. Both are very hardy so are useful choices for colder northern areas. These types of hydrangeas can be pruned back hard in spring to encourage new wood, which bears the flowers.
Doing a completely different job is the climbing hydrangea, H. petiolaris. It's a fantastically useful plant, as it will happily grow in the shade on a north or east-facing wall and it doesn't need a trellis or any other supports to climb because it is self-supporting with its centipede-like aerial roots. However, like many climbers, it likes to settle into its new surroundings for a year, or even a few, before it really takes off. A lot of growth can be happening underground as it spreads its roots and gets ready for take-off. You really do have to be patient and the blooms will come.
Growing in the shade near the maple, I have the beautiful Hydrangea aspera 'Villosa'. This has the most gorgeous big, velvety leaves and lovely white lacecap flowers which surround a large mauve centre. This needs space, as it does grow quite large, and requires just a gentle pruning in spring of old flower heads, back to a pair of healthy, fat buds.
Finally, I have my collection of mopheads and lacecaps, the most common and popular type of hydrangea, which are perfect for pots of colour. They range from pink to blue and purple as well as white. My blue one stays blue because it's in a pot of ericaceous compost - if I plant it in the ground, it well certainly end up pink. This is because the aluminium which keeps the flower blue is only available for uptake by the plant in acidic soil, which my soil isn't. In pots, you can occasionally top up with aluminium sulphate or bluing compound. As a rule, unless they are growing too large, don't hard-prune these types, as you will remove future flowers - just remove faded flowers in spring.
Keep your hydrangeas well hydrated throughout the year and be sure to give them a good feed in spring to ensure long-lasting shrubs.