Hydrangea How-To's

Big, showy hydrangeas are a popular fixture in many gardens.

But did you know there are several varieties of the flowering shrub, each with a unique look?

On The Early Show Tuesday, Tara Heibel, owner of Chicago home and garden store Sprout Home (www.sprouthome.com), showed some of the different types of hydrangeas, and told how to care for them properly. She also showed an example of a small garden plot, to give an idea of what you can plant alongside hydrangeas.

Incidentally, Heibel was selected recently by House & Garden magazine (www.houseandgarden.com) as a "Tastemaker," a top up-and-coming garden designer.

And she's opening a branch of Sprout Home any day now in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

TYPES OF HYDRANGEAS

There are 23 varieties of hydrangeas, but only five are cultivated and sold in the United States.

Most people are probably only aware of the most popular hydrangea, called "macrophylla," more commonly known as garden hydrangea. It has big leaves and large mounded clusters of pink, blue or white "mophead" flowers. The cool thing about garden hydrangeas is that you can influence the color of the bloom based on the makeup of your soil (this is true for most varieties of macrophylla). Adding aluminum sulfate to your soil will make it more acidic, resulting in blue flowers. If you want pink flowers, or want to make your pink flowers even pinker, you need alkaline soil, and adding lime to the garden will achieve that. Lime and aluminum sulfate can be purchased at garden centers or nurseries; follow the instructions on the back of the package.

For a totally different look, choose a hydrangea with a "lacecap" bloom: flat heads of large-petaled flowers clustered around bead-like ones. Lacecap hydrangeas can also be climbing plants. These climbers can take some time to bloom, but once they begin to, they are truly spectacular.

A third type of hydrangea is known as the "oak leaf" hydrangea because, appropriately, the leaves look very similar to those of an oak tree. This is the only hydrangea that displays fall foliage; the leaves turn a beautiful deep mahogany-red and stay on the plant until late fall. The flowers are white; they take on a pink hue toward the end of the season.

Another type of hydrangea is known as a "smooth leaf" hydrangea. The leaves on other hydrangeas are ridged, while these are totally smooth. The white or creamy flowers are "mop heads," like the traditional garden hydrangea. This plant looks wilder than other varieties. It blooms earlier and does better in colder parts of the country.

GENERAL CARE

Hydrangeas can be planted in partial shade to full sun, depending on where you live.

For instance, the plants can't take the intense midday sun in the South and would need to be planted in a shadier spot. However, the same plant would do fine in a mostly sunny area up north.

If you're unsure, ask an employee at a garden center in your area.

These are water-loving plants, particularly after they've been transplanted or first planted. They need moist, fertile soil that drains well.

Most hydrangeas don't need pruning. If you want to shape the plant some, it's usually best to prune right after the flowers bloom. The danger with pruning is that many species use old wood to produce new blooms the next year. If you cut off a lot of this wood, you're also cutting off your future blooms. However, plant breeders are working on this problem.

In Heibel's example of a small garden on the show Tuesday, she had a traditional garden hydrangea that's a "super bloomer." It blooms twice in a season, off old and new wood, which is quite unusual. What this means for the average gardener is that you can't "mess up" if you prune: You'll still get flowers, no matter what!

IN THE GARDEN

Heibel's example had three garden hydrangeas in a bed with some other perennials.

Hydrangeas are fabulous because they are truly show-stoppers all on their own.

However, if you want to work them into a larger garden, look for low-growing plants that have nice contrasting foliage. You want the other plants in the garden to "frame" the hydrangea, or create a blank canvas for it to shine against.

Remember that hydrangeas also make fabulous cut flowers. They have vibrant colors and a remarkable staying power when they're trimmed and brought inside.

For more from House & Garden on hydrangeas, click here.

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