Almost every garden has shade – and even if it begins as sunny, once trees and large shrubs develop, shady areas are almost inevitable. We can treat shade in two ways, as a problem, or as an opportunity. Once we see it as an opportunity to grow plants that prefer or even require shade, a whole world opens up to us. Once we start looking for shade-loving plants, hydrangeas immediately stand out, not just for shade tolerance, but for spectacular and colorful late blooming, when many other plants have finished flowering, and the garden has taken on the green tones of summer. There are several groups of hydrangeas, to suit our needs and particularly where we live. Some lucky gardeners can grow them all, so let’s take a look.
Mop Head Hydrangeas are classic shade-loving plants, extensively bred from a Chinese species called Hydrangea macrophylla. Most of them grow to a decent size of 4, 5 or even 6 feet tall, and the same across. Some varieties are smaller, especially those that grow and flower in colder areas, but all are worthwhile shrubs for those shady parts of the garden. With their spectacularly large flower heads in shades of red, pink, white, mauve or blue, they bring rich colors to the garden just at the time when other plants have finished flowering, and the heat of summer draws us into the shade – where we find our hydrangeas in full fancy dress. These easy to grow plants are attractive for months on end. As soon as the buds open in spring, there is something very satisfying about the large, rich-green leaves, and the rounded structure of the bush. It is not long before we see the first signs of the year’s floral display, as dense clusters of pale green baby flowers start to show at the ends of the developing stems. These steadily expand over late spring and early summer, in shades of fashionable pastel green, until they are the size of an outspread hand. If this was all they did we would be satisfied with these elegant domes of pale green.
Of course, that is not where they end, because soon we see the first hints of color around the edges of the petals in these clusters of many flowers, and soon enough, now that summer is well-developed, they transform into hemispheres of deep, rich color, depending on the varieties you choose to grow. The exact color varies with the soil they are growing in, but with most hydrangeas the colors are always beautiful. On alkaline soils, choose pinks, reds and white, like the Cardinal Red Hydrangea. On acid soils you can grow blue hydrangeas, and the best all-round choice is Nikko Blue, which is the most reliable one for keeping its special color in a wide range of soils.
By the time that first color appears, the domes of flowers will be a full 8 inches across, and often larger, and they cover the bush, at the ends of almost every branch. These mounds of beauty bring glorious color to the shady parts of the garden, and continues right into early fall. As the color fades, the flower clusters still remain, turning back to green, and ultimately a soft, pale brown. In milder areas, these heads remain attractive well into winter, before it is time to prune our bushes in preparation for the next year’s glorious display.
The big limitation with mophead hydrangeas is that most are only hardy to zone 6, so that leaves a lot of the country outside their territory. For those who live in colder areas, the best choice is Endless Summer, which will be pink or blue, depending on the soil. It flowers late in the season, on new shoots that grow even when the main branches are killed by frost.
For a bigger range – and bigger shrubs too, the panicle hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata, has a lot to offer, especially since breeders in recent years have extended the range of colors available. These hardy plants will grow happily in chilly zone 3, so there are few places they won’t thrive. Even if you live in zone 8, you can enjoy them alongside your Mopheads. They will grow into tall shrubs 8 feet or even more in height, and their size can be controlled by pruning. Since they flower on new shoots, then can be pruned as hard as you want, and they will still produce their spectacular cone-shaped flower clusters over summer and into fall. The traditional color was only one, white, which is still a great option, but breeding has brought us attractive lime-greens, such as Limelight, and dusky reds, like the gorgeous Ruby Slippers. If such a large shrub is too much for your garden, then consider the Little Lime Hydrangea, like a miniature Limelight, and more suited to smaller spaces, or as a gorgeous low hedge.
If you live in cold places, but hanker after that classic mophead shape, rather than the cones of the panicle hydrangea, then the Annabelle Hydrangea is for you. This plant, hardy to zone 3, is a selection of another species called Hydrangea arborescens. It is best pruned to the ground each spring, and it will rapidly come back to 3 or even 4 feet tall, topped with snow-white balls of blossom, that color as the cold arrives, turning beautiful shades of pink and then red. Cut while still colorful, and hung up to dry, they hold their color indoors all winter – a reminder of the beauty of the summer garden.
If you feel overwhelmed by a shady garden, take heart in the wonderful range of hydrangeas you can grow, no matter where you live. If you hanker after blue, but don’t have acid soil, you can still enjoy them by growing in pots. Large tubs of hydrangea are great for decorating a shady terrace, and with the use of the right types of special fertilizers and water treatments, which you can pick up at any garden center, it is easy to keep the flowers blue, and enjoy that stunning color, no matter what kind of soil you garden on.