Hydrangea How-tos: Tips on planting and maintaining the perennial favoriteApr 26, 2023 04:32PM ● By Patrick McGee
Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 14. It’s one of the biggest holidays for floral sales, both stunning cut-flower bouquets and pretty, potted varieties. Mid-May in Nebraska also ushers in the first opportunity to plant without the threat of frost while bringing gentle spring rains and cool temperatures. Undoubtedly, many metro green thumbs will take to their flower beds and gardens this month to plant hydrangeas, which produce some of the prettiest blooms to be had.
Hydrangeas are a common sight in Omaha landscapes. Their radiant seed heads (panicles) add clusters of white, green, and other colors to yards throughout the growing season. And after they bloom, their dried seed heads hang around, adding interest in the fall and winter months.
Ann Wickenhauser, a veteran horticulturalist (and my aunt) said, “[The panicles] look really cool on those icy days.” Wickenhauser specializes in floraculture, a branch of horticulture that works with flowering plants and arrangements. She absolutely loves hydrangeas. “They’re timeless!” she said, adding that their panicles are a good choice for both weddings and funerals. “They are probably the No. 1 selling shrub right now.”
As a child playing with my sister and cousins in my aunt’s South Omaha yard, I recall a full border of lime white panicles along a hill. “I had 30 of them,” Wickenhauser remembered. Now 30 years later, her hideaway garden at her Ralston home displays a variety of dwarf hydrangeas, including “Bobo.” “[It’s] just a cutie patootie!” she exclaimed.
In addition to being popular, hydrangeas are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased from garden and hardware stores alike. “They’re one of the most developed shrubs there is,” as a result of hybridization, she explained. Different varieties have blooms that range from light green to pink to blue. “They have cute little names like “Little Lime, Annabelle, Little Annabelle,” she said. Wickenhauser said modern varieties do not require soil additives to achieve colorful panicles. The “Endless Summer” variety shades a traditional blue; although admittedly it isn’t as hardy in Nebraska as others. She recommends planting newer varieties to avoid using chemicals to achieve colors.
Hydrangeas are also exceptionally easy to grow, Wickenhauser said. “The No. 1 tip is don’t plant them too deep,” she said. Also, “don’t drown them” or overmulch, she added. Once hydrangeas are established, they don’t need frequent watering except during drought conditions. “That’s why they’re so perfect,” she explained.
Wickenhauser said because so many varieties exist, it's important to read the labels and follow directions on sun exposure and shade tolerance. Gardeners should also be cognizant of how the landscape will change over time when choosing a planting spot.
“More than anything,” she said, “don’t cut them at the wrong time.” The greater share of hydrangeas bloom from new growth. Cut them back early in the spring, regardless of type. Removing the previous year’s panicles is all that is required for new blooms. Another piece of advice: don’t over-trim. “If you don’t want a 6-foot hydrangea, don’t buy a 6-foot hydrangea (variety)—that’s why they make dwarves.”
A decade ago, my mom, Diane McGee, planted six “Ruby Slipper” hydrangeas, hedging the brick front porch of their century-old Elmwood Park home. The display is spectacular. The “Ruby” panicles break up the brick wall and provide a vibrant backdrop, like crackling fireworks, behind the “Knockout” roses and creeping clematis nearer the boulevard. In the winter, the foliage turns blazing red before defoliation. To the side, she planted “Lime Light” hydrangeas. The “Ruby” variety blooms early and prolific, and the “Lime Light” blooms later. (She planted an impressively tall and prolific bloomer of unknown variety at my little Aksarben house as well.)
For maintenance, McGee said, “I actually don’t do anything [to them]. They are real easy to take care of,” she said. “All you have to do is trim them [in the spring].” Anything more complicated, she asks my aunt. “She’s an expert,” and a “real[ly] good designer.”
Regardless of expertise, hydrangeas are accessible and pretty easy to grow. They are extraordinarily forgiving, and they thrive in Omaha’s weather and 5b hardiness growing zone. An average gardener could plant hydrangeas this Mothers’s Day and, with just a bit of effort and know-how, have gorgeous, vivid blooms for many summers to come.
This spring and summer, MUD will be asking Omaha homeowners to abide by an alternating odd-even watering and lawn irrigation schedule to help reduce demands on the water system during peak days. For more info, visit mudomaha.com/news/spring-planning-odd-even-watering-helps-reduce-system-load/