Hands off the hydrangeas

Arborescens (Annabelle?) hedge in Lake Placid

Thanks to plentiful rain and other friendly conditions, this is the summer of the Hydrangea in the Northeast, at least as far as I’ve observed. Huge stands of paniculata, macrophylla, and arborescens varieties are blooming profusely. My neighbor’s pink macrophylla blooms are easily a foot in circumference; it’s amazing they’re not pulling down the whole shrub. My macrophylla ‘Alpenglow’ doesn’t have huge blooms, but they are profuse and a rich, deep pink (changing now to deep rose-brown).

Macrophylla ‘Alpenglow’

Inevitably, during Garden Walk, this hydrangea attracts attention and questions. Many visitors seem to think there’s some kind of secret potion I’m pouring into the soil. Gardeners are routinely told by many nurseries that they must adjust the pH of the soil in order to achieve the hydrangea colors they desire. This is something I’ve never done, and all my surviving hydrangeas have remained exactly the same color promised on their labels when I bought them. Either I have the perfect soil for each shrub (seems unlikely) or the predisposition of the hybrids is maintaining consistent bloom color (seems likely).

Paniculata ‘Limelight’ earlier this season

It’s not color that people should worry about, especially with bigleafs. Many of the gardeners who visit me also complain that they never get blooms. I think this probably has to do more with weather and the natural urge of neatnik gardeners to cut back shrubs every chance they get. With macrophyllas, the buds form in late summer and must survive the winter and—even more dangerous—spring clean-up efforts. Basically, the first rule is do no harm. Some winter protection is often necessary, but that’s all I ever do. (I do prune my  paniculata and arborescens in very early spring.)

I went to my favorite source to learn about color change in hydrangeas, the Garden Professors Facebook page, and I found this statement by Linda Chalker-Scott: Genetics plays a large role in color and it’s not necessarily overcome by soil pH. In her article here, it’s clear how complex hydrangea coloration can be. What I got from it is that it might be best to leave such manipulation to the scientists, and buy strong, reliably colored hybrids.

And hope we get another year like this one.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Try the Mid West. All my hydrangeas and most of this area got no blooms whatsoever! Great foliage, great disappointment! Very early Spring….then plunging temps and hard freeze. Just hoping next year will be better.

    • Yes, and that’s really my main point–people hoping that magical elixirs will do the trick when it’s really pretty much all about how lucky you are with the weather.

  2. My mother had one of the older varieties of hydrangea along the edge of a lawn. They limed the lawn one year and affected the hydrangea: half the bush was blue, half was pink.

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