Hydrangeas require little effort for a great return, writes Justin Newcombe.
The hydrangea is a gardening enigma. It's seen as "awfully tasteful" (thanks Martha Stewart) but at the same time is the plant that springs to mind when old-fashioned garden styles or "old lady" plants are mentioned. Perhaps this can be used as evidence that old ladies are awfully tasteful.
But I've always pictured them as versatile, a go-to plant in many design situations and excellent for those of us who crave a low maintenance garden. Their obvious attribute are the cheery flowers which appear as soft handsome globes in many strong colours from crystal clear whites, apple greens and deep blues to pinks, reds and maroons. There is the possibility of subtly changing the colours on the same plant - you'll often notice variations in colour as the summer flowers degenerate. As a rule you won't radically change the flowers from one colour to another but you can encourage them to maintain and even enhance their intended colour by making the soil either more acidic for blue-oriented flowers or alkaline for red and pink flowers. It's actually quite difficult to make any colour change permanent. And it is even more difficult to change the colour of white flowers at all, although I do get blue spots appearing on my white ones by the autumn.
But because of the great flowers, other attributes often go unnoticed. The hydrangea has a very useful canopy too, with thick, soft green leaves that appear from bud nodes on the stems in the spring. It's the foliage that gives the hydrangea the ability to mix and mingle with a variety of garden and landscape styles. From a maintenance perspective the hydrangea is also a star as it gives back far more than you ever have to put into it. However like all plants, being an organic organism, there are still some requirements you need to meet.
As a rule hydrangeas, especially the smaller ones, prefer shade or semi-shade. If you are keen to plant some in a sunny position try Hydrangea paniculata. These are usually larger varieties which grow well in open spaces. Hydrangea require a friable, free draining soil and abhor wet feet but they also like a reasonable amount of water. They will hang in there for you if you don't water them but they certainly won't be at their best.
Pruning is another important time in the yearly lifecycle of a hydrangea, and is best performed in late autumn. As a rule take each branch back to the second node or knuckle and remove any old foliage and detritus which may harbour pathogens. For this reason it's also best to remove old leaves and flowers from around the base of the plant and compost them.
Propagation from cuttings is easy. In fact if you have never tried to strike cuttings before and you are keen to have a go, hydrangeas are the perfect forgiving plant for a beginner. Planting can be done all year round if you're careful; however, now, the middle of winter, is best. Avoid leaving planting until early spring, if possible, as the hydrangea is vulnerable to shock when it's coming into bud.