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The Times
  • Green Thumbs Up: Beyond the blue hydrangeas

  • In the waning hours of a nearly perfect summer weekend, I settled into a comfortable chair on my deck to soak in the sights and sounds of the early evening, as the veil of darkness slowly descended over my gardens.

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  • In the waning hours of a nearly perfect summer weekend, I settled into a comfortable chair on my deck to soak in the sights and sounds of the early evening, as the veil of darkness slowly descended over my gardens. 
    A male hummingbird suddenly appeared, momentarily hovering face-to-face as if to announce its arrival before visiting the lingering blossoms of honeysuckle along the deck railing and pausing to sip nectar from a hanging basket of cherry red lantana. Moments later, it darted off to a broad expanse of raspberry tinted beebalm below as it continued its final tour of the evening, disappearing into the gathering shadows.
    Only the palest colors can be discerned as darkness falls, with white flowers and foliage having the greatest impact. For those who are often obligated to view their gardens only as twilight descends, plants that feature pastel flowers or variegated foliage may offer the greatest enjoyment.
    The trunks of white birches, the variegated leaves of shrub dogwoods and hostas, the pristine white flowers of tall phlox, impatiens, and Rose-of-Sharon all glow in the fading light of the August landscape.
    Perhaps the most dramatic and impressive white blooms during the month of August are provided by members of the Hydrangea family. While so many homeowners pursue the stunning blue blooms of the mophead hydrangeas, we often face annual disappointments when shrubs produce only sporadic blooms due to adverse weather conditions. 
    Since these shrubs bloom on old wood, the timing of pruning is always tricky, but few can deny the allure of the elusive blue blossoms and the thrill of seeing the spectacular display of shrubs positively drooping with bountiful blooms as they have this season. New cultivars have improved the potential for blooms by summer’s end, but what about all the other hydrangeas that bloom reliably year after year with minimal pampering? Many of these carefree hydrangeas are season extenders with a profusion of blooms that transition from white to lime green or rose pink with practically no maintenance from season to season.
    Hydrangea arborescens "Annabelle" is a personal favorite with massive, symmetrical clusters of sparkling white flowers that begin to appear in July and continue to bloom for weeks, gradually fading to a rich lime-green. An improved selection of a native shrub, this hardy, reliable bloomer produces enormous blossoms up to 10 inches across on stems 3 to 4 feet in height. Snowball hydrangeas bloom on new wood and can be cut to the ground in early spring, which will promote larger leaves and giant blooms, although these sizeable blooms may flop after heavy downpours. Grow "Annabelle" in fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Although it performs best given morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade throughout the day, it tolerates full sun but should receive supplemental moisture during dry spells.
    Page 2 of 3 - New to the market is H. "Incrediball" with even larger flowers on reportedly sturdier stems than their predecessor, reducing their tendency to flop. Perhaps the most touted new hydrangea is "Invincibelle Spirit." Clusters of tiny deep pink flowers fade to a pretty pale pink, and while the flowers are smaller than those of "Annabelle," this new introduction offers a color breakthrough for the snowball hydrangeas.
    Most hydrangeas offer limited appeal when not in bloom, but the oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is an exception. It has attractive blooms, foliage and peeling bark for year-round appeal. This somewhat coarse but appealing native shrub exhibits distinctive, large-lobed leaves that are fuzzy as they emerge in the spring and change to a rich lustrous bronze in autumn. Upright, conical white blossoms appear during July with a mixture of fertile and sterile flowers gradually turning reddish pink. New stem growth is a soft, peachy tan, while older suckering twigs are cinnamon in color and exfoliate to provide marvelous textural interest during the winter months. Ideal for a semi-shady woodland edge, this handsome shrub will flourish in brighter settings given moisture-retentive soil. Selected cultivars, including "Snow Queen" and "Alice," have showy, predominantly sterile flowers while "Pee Wee" is considerably more compact.
    The panicle hydrangeas, often referred to as the "PeeGee" hydrangeas (short for paniculata grandiflora) are perhaps the most reliable and showiest of all. Boasting attractive pyramidal clusters that provide lasting color from mid-summer through autumn, arching branches present a rounded form that may reach 8 to15 feet at maturity. 
    The mostly sterile florets open creamy white and gradually fade to mauve pink as the season progresses. Often pruned to a single trunk creating a small ornamental tree, this hydrangea grows well in full sun or light shade. Selective pruning need only be done in early spring to thin or rejuvenate an overgrown specimen but plants do bloom on new wood so even a hard pruning will not compromise the abundant summer blooms.
    New cultivars of the panicle hydrangeas, including the sensational "Limelight" with pistachio green panicles, offer superior foliage and incredibly prolific blooms. H. "Quick Fire" immediately drew my attention even before it bloomed, with red stems and great foliage; blooms are lacier than most varieties and it is reported to start blooming weeks earlier than other panicle hydrangeas. 
    Hydrangea "Pinky Winky" is even more unique, with erect red stems and white flowers in mid to late summer. As the base of the flower heads turn deep pink, the tips continue to grow, producing new white blossoms that create a two-toned effect. The blooms of H. "Tardiva" appear in late August and early September against a backdrop of especially deep green, lustrous foliage serving as a great season extender.
    Local nurseries are offering many of these fine new introductions. Why not try a few for fabulous, reliable blooms from year to year.
    Page 3 of 3 - Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.
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