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Hydrangeas full of Southern charm

Different soils produce pink, blue blooms

POSTED: July 25, 2014 1:00 a.m.

A thriving "Strawberry Vanilla" hydrangea bush, above, is at Master Gardener Mary Richards' home in Flowery Branch.

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For anyone looking to dive headfirst into gardening, Hall County Master Gardener Mary Richards  says the hydrangea is an ideal introductory perennial plant that comes in a wide variety of colors and types.

“It’s just a really tough, hardy plant to use in your garden,” she said. “If someone is a new gardener, hydrangeas are one of the easiest to start with.”

Richards has been gardening in Georgia for 15 years and frequently brings home new types of hydrangeas. She loves the flower, which she calls a “very traditional Southern garden plant.” Owner of a landscape design business, she said she also likes seeing how the different types grow at her home before planting them in her clients’ gardens.

“I never met a hydrangea I didn’t like,” Richards said. “I use my garden as a trial garden for new ideas and plants for my landscape designs. I’m always pushing the plants’ cultural needs to the limit.”

Around her house, Richards has some varieties of hydrangea that thrive in direct sunlight, while others bloom best in a pot.

“‘Nikko Blue’ is a big leaf hydrangea, a macrophylla, and they can handle a lot of sun,” she said. “It gets direct sun until around 2 in the afternoon.”

Richards mentioned the plant enjoys cold winters and hot, humid summers in Georgia. But some hydrangeas don’t grow well in the region’s unique soil.

“‘Penny Mac’ is a type that will bloom blue if you grow it in the soil here, but it will be pink if you plant it in a pot with good potting mix,” she said.

Getting pink hydrangeas in the region is sometimes difficult because of the soil. Richards said gardeners are looking to create a variety that will grow pink in an acidic environment.

“Acid soil means blue blooms and pink blooms mean alkaline soil,” said Wanda Cannon of the Hall County Extension Office.

However, if gardeners are looking to grow the pink variety, potting the plant or using lime in the soil to make it more basic are two options.

Cannon mentioned cutting and layering hydrangeas are the keys to keeping them healthy, but other issues can arise throughout the summer.

“The most common problem for hydrangeas failing to bloom is winter injury and wrong pruning times” she said. “Too much shade or sun, poor soil fertility or overfertilization can be troublesome. Leaf spot and powdery mildew can be problems.”

Richards prefers to use mostly organic methods in her garden to keep insect, disease and mildew problems at bay.

“I use a mushroom compost in my garden,” she said. “You really don’t have to do a whole lot to maintain these plants.”

Hydrangeas do require cutting back at the end of their growth period, though. But no specific time exists to prune hydrangreas that encompasses all the flower types.

“Cutting them back really depends on the type,” Richards said. “You have to know what you have. Some need to be cut back by August, but others can wait until winter.”

Cannon emphasized the need to know accurate pruning times for hydrangeas to avoid any delays in blooming for next season.

One of Richards’ hydrangeas, a Peegee or paniculata called “Tardiva,” doesn’t bloom until August, so it can wait to be cut.

“It will bloom when the others are almost done, and it’s a bright white flower,” she said.

Another type, called “Strawberry Vanilla,” blooms white as well but ages to a pink color before changing again to a burgundy flower.

“It will keep blooming while it ages,” Richards said. “So you will have this plant with white, pink and dark pink flowers all at the same time.”

Georgia has a native hydrangea vine that will grow wild and can be purchased from a nursery.

“There are also climbing hydrangeas (Anomala) that grow like a vine with white lacecap flowers,” Cannon said. “These plants can be trained up the side of a home or over an arbor or trellis. They are slow-growing plants.”

Most varieties of hydrangea are what Richards calls an “indicator” plant.

“They’re usually the first to start drooping when they need water, so you can tell,” she said. “They’re a picky plant, but they’re tough to kill.”


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