06 Dec 2021

Gardening: Caring for your heavy drinking hydrangeas

With Jo McGarry of Caragh Nurseries

Gardening: Caring for your heavy drinking hydrangeas

Hydrangeas are beautiful in your home

I wrote about the beautiful hydrangea last week - but one column is definitely not enough for this stunning flower. Part two this week will cover how to keep them looking their best.

Although their appearance may seem high maintenance, with the right conditions and care hydrangeas are actually fairly easy to grow - so grab your gardening gloves and read on.

Hydrangeas are not marginal plants by any means and they do need good drainage but those fleshy stems and large, succulent leaves will tell you that they are heavy drinkers.

Dry, sandy soil in full sun is not an option for these water guzzlers. If you are planting a new one, make sure that the soil in which you plant them has been beefed up with a good compost or manure (leave for enough time before planting), which will act like a sponge and hold on to moisture when the surrounding soil is drying out. Water new hydrangeas copiously during the first weeks of their establishment at this time of year.

They can cope with full sunshine provided that the soil in which they are growing is not likely to dry out, so if you are on lighter stuff give them a spot in dappled shade where they are likely to be less stressed.

If you are growing them in pots and tubs, water them every day in summer – morning and evening when it is hot and sunny – adding liquid feed once a week in spring and summer.

Generally, plants require little pruning. As flowers fade, they dry on the stem adding interest to your garden in autumn and into winter. Before you do any cutting, it’s important to determine if your plant flowers on new or old wood.

Many varieties of macrophylla and H. quercifolia flower on old wood, typically the classic big leaf, lacecap, and mophead types. These plants form buds in late summer, just as the current year’s flowers are finishing.

They require only a light trim immediately after flowering, cutting stems to just above a pair of healthy leaf nodes. Avoid an ‘overall’ pruning in winter or early spring because this removes many of next year’s flowers.

Others flower on new wood - like smooth and panicle species, Hydrangea. arborescens, like the Annabelle and H. paniculata, which covers a lot of the new varieties that are becoming really popular like Limelight and Sundae Fraise.

These form sets of buds in spring - these varieties should be cut back in late winter or very early spring and can take a hard pruning when needed.

Cut back liberally to one to two feet to encourage new growth and flower production. This also produces a full, strong plant that will stay upright under the weight of their profuse summer blooms.

A full bouquet of hydrangeas cut and arranged on a table is pure bliss! They are one of the best loved flowers around but can be a little tricker as a cut flower, so here is my guide to using them as a cut flower.

They often wilt as soon as they are cut and brought into the house, and there is nothing pretty about droopy hydrangeas! Here’s a few ways to help keep full, long-lasting cut hydrangeas, which I learned in my floristry days.

Cutting hydrangeas during their growing season is far different than cutting them at the end of their season when they are papery and really don’t need water to stay beautiful. Here are a few great tips for having fresh cut hydrangeas in your home all summer long!

Take a bowl of cool water out with you when cutting the flowers. As soon as hydrangeas are cut the stems should immediately be put into tepid water. Use a sharp knife or clippers to cut each stem on a diagonal and submerge!

When you bring hydrangeas inside, make sure you strip off the leaves from each hydrangea stem. I break this rule often and I shouldn’t! The leaves are big water drinkers and will steal it from the blooms. At least, strip off most of the leaves. Those that are below the water line should absolutely be removed!

Cut the hydrangeas stems to the desired length. Smash the very bottom of them to allow more water to travel up the stems and feed the blooms. I use a rolling pin to crush the ends of the hydrangeas I bring inside.

If your hydrangeas are starting to droop then it’s time to bring out the big guns. Hydrangeas produce a ‘sap’ that clogs their stems and blocks water from traveling up it to those gorgeous blooms. Boiling water helps to do away with the sap. Put boiling water into a cup. Dip each stem into the boiling water for 30 seconds and immediately put them into a vase or container filled with room temperature water.

Replacing the water in the vase of hydrangeas will keep them fresher longer! Also, give hydrangeas a fresh cut and dip them in boiling water before putting them in the fresh water!

For emergency recovery, if after a day or two they start to prematurely wilt, you can submerge them in a ‘bath’ of water for about 45 minutes. Then recut and place the stems into boiling water and then back into a vase of fresh water. They should revive in a couple of hours and live another day or two.

Air-drying is the ideal technique if you want your blooms to take on that faded vintage, dusky hue. The most crucial part of drying hydrangea is choosing the right moment to pick the blossoms from the shrub.

Tempting as it might be to pick them at their most lush and vibrant, fresh blooms contain too much water and will only lead to withered petals if picked too soon.

Bide your time and wait for the flowers to dry naturally. You’ll know the time is right when their colours start to fade.

Once cut, strip off the leaves and arrange your flowers in a vase – or for a simple vintage arrangement, tie a bunch of three or four blooms together with ribbon or twine and hang upside down. They look particularly pretty suspended by a windowpane in the bedroom or kitchen.

I would usually create a Christmas wreath of just hydrangeas to use inside. I wouldn’t normally put this on the front door but you can - I like it where I can see it as they are just so beautiful.

All you need is a willow cane and a bare wreath. Weave the ends of the stems through the wreath so that each bloom is tightly secured.

I use floristry wire for the trickier ones. Add the blooms all the way around, choosing different sizes and shapes to make sure that the wreath is even and full throughout the wreath.

Keeping it looking like a wreath rather than a huge mound of flowers is the key, so work around the outside first then fill in the inside and there you have it. Hydrangeas all year long!

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