Hydrangeas: Selecting, Pruning & Preserving

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Hydrangeas: Selecting, Pruning & Preserving

Hydrangeas come in a range of shapes, colors and forms. From the well-known mopheads in pink and blues, to the lesser-known climbing varieties that bloom in lace-cap whites, there’s a hydrangea variety to fit almost any garden, in almost every zone. Plus, once these plants begin to flower, many of their billowy blossoms make for gorgeous fresh-cut centerpieces that can be dried to last well into winter. But before you can harvest flowers, first begin by selecting the right hydrangea for your garden.

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If you need something that climbs, both deciduous and evergreen varieties of climbing hydrangeas are available. Warning: both grow slowly. The deciduous option provides beautiful peeling bark in winter, yellow fall color and white lace-cap flowers in spring to summer. The evergreen option doesn’t lose its deep green leaves, but it may take years before putting on a show of fluffy white flower puffs. Climbing hydrangeas require little pruning. Clip and tie as needed to train them to grow up walls or trellises; eventually, their adventitious roots will take hold, enabling the plant to support itself. Deadheading isn’t necessary, but it can prove aesthetically worthwhile. Unfortunately, the flowers of the climbers aren’t the best for your bouquet.

Need a hydrangea that will tolerate a bit more summer sunshine? Consider the Hydrangea quercifolia. Its robust, crinkly oak leaf-shaped foliage will actually put on a better burgundy fall leaf show when grown in a sunnier spot. Plus, its white cone-shaped summer flowers are both lovely in the garden and in a bouquet. As they dry, these flowers fade to a dusty pink. And, come winter, these shrubs may or may not drop their colorful autumnal leaves. If they do, you’ll enjoy reddish-brown peeling bark until spring. Oakleaf hydrangeas require very little pruning. Cut out any dead or broken material regularly, and every few years remove a couple of the oldest, most unattractive shoots by cutting them to the ground.

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If your garden cries out for a tree-form hydrangea, consider one of Pee Gees. These lovely shrubs are often trained and pruned into ‘Standards’, which are single-trunked, tree-like forms. These look fantastic in formal settings, smaller gardens and containers. Most Pee Gees bloom in tones of white, with minor color variations; the flower form is conical. Prune out some blooms while these are flowering to maintain form and create lovely bouquets. In spring, clip out spent blossoms and any sprouts coming from the main trunk or soil. This will help you maintain the tree-like form.

Finally, don’t forget to consider the ever-popular Bigleaf Hydrangeas. This group has been cultivated so much over the years that you’ll find options small enough for tiny gardens and bushes big enough to fill a huge space. In generations past, it took tricky soil science to force them to bloom blue or pink, depending on your preference and your native soil. Fortunately, today, growers have developed varieties that will hold true to their named color regardless of your soil’s acidity level – just ask. Plus, Bigleaf hydrangea flowers come in big mophead forms as well as lace-cap shapes. If you plan to cut them for fresh or dried arrangements, choose a mophead variety.

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Pruning Bigleaf hydrangeas is fairly simple. Cut out all of the dead shoots all the way to the ground; sometimes this is easiest to do when the plants are devoid of leaves in winter. Then, while the plant is blooming, cut a few of the oldest, unsightly shoots all the way to the ground, and use those flowers for arrangements. By removing a few older shoots each year, you will be encouraging the plant to send up new growth from the ground. This will help fill out the plant and have it blooming somewhere other than at the very tips of some very scraggly looking stems. And, if you wish, deadhead for a tidy look.

The easiest way to dry hydrangea flowers is to create a bouquet exclusively of mophead or cone-shaped (not lace-cap) flowers. Begin by cutting your flowers when they are at their peak on a dry, warm day. Do not trim them when they are wilted or wet. Place the arrangement in a vase with a small amount of water, and put the arrangement in a dry location. The stems will absorb some of the water, and the rest will evaporate. As this happens, the hydrangea flowers will dehydrate as well, preserving them for months. The flowers may change color a bit; they may wilt slightly, but they will store beautifully left in place -- offering a bit of summer into the winter months ahead.