Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: All hydrangeas like consistently moist soil, especially when planted in sunny spots.In Greek, the word hydrangea means ‘water vessel.’
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: All hydrangeas like consistently moist soil, especially when planted in sunny spots.In Greek, the word hydrangea means ‘water vessel.’

Hydrangeas are in-your-face, bold and bodacious. With blooms as big as your hand, or in the case of “Incrediball,” a dinner plate, some people find them just too much. I think they can be wonderful. Growing up with near-indigo blue mopheads at my grandmother’s cottage sowed a lasting soft spot in my heart for them.

In a long row flanking a fence, they make a regal statement. Overflowing a mixed border, their coarse leaves are the perfect counterpoint to blades of airy ornamental grasses or even tight-knit evergreen shrubs. I’ve seen a green-and-white garden of frothy white hydrangeas and cream-striped grasses that is as refreshing in summer as a frozen drink. You can evergreen carex or liriope and some spring blooming bulbs at a hydrangea’s feet to boost winter color after its leaves are gone.

With so many more varieties available today, making a choice can be bewildering.  There are five main species sold — H. macrophylla, so-called bigleaf or mophead; H. serrata, mountain or lacecap; H. arborescens, smooth; H. paniculata, panicle or Pee Gee, the ones you see pruned up as “trees” sometimes; and H. quercifolia, oakleaf, which offers gorgeous fall color.  Most prefer some shade from the hot afternoon sun. Of these, the paniculatas and arborescens are the most heat- and sun-tolerant. All like consistently moist soil, especially in sunny spots. It’s literally in the name — in Greek, hydrangea means “water vessel.”

And then there’s the pruning confusion, and the fact that certain hydrangeas change their flower colors based on the soil conditions. But don’t throw in the trowel yet.

Here’s my version of a handy-dandy selection tool:

Hot sun: Is your garden site south or west facing? Choose a variety of Hydrangea paniculata or H.arborescens.

Do you want the flowers to be white, fading to tan, not pink? Choose H. arborescens like ‘Incrediball’ and ‘Annabelle’ or H p. ‘Limelight’ and its spinoffs. Most paniculatas morph to an often-spectacular raspberry in fall.

Do you want pink — the faster the better? H. p. ‘Quick Fire’ and ‘Little Quick Fire’ go pink early.

Partial shade:

Do you have a shadier garden? Most species will work, though H. paniculata and arborescens may take on a looser habit in shade. I’ve got some ‘Annabelles’ in quite dank shade on the north side of a fence under a rose arbor, and they bloom buckets — just further apart.

Are you a control freak about blossom color? If yes, skip blue- or pink-flowering types, which can do a wardrobe change once they are planted in your home soil. A single plant, even a single blossom, can turn multicolored as the plant and the soil get to know each other! Acidic pH = bluer. Alkaline pH = pinker.

Yes, you can change the soil with yearly applications of either Aluminum sulphate or agricultural Lime. If that’s not you, stick to white-flowering bigleafs ‘Madame Emile Moulliere’ or ‘Onyx Zebra’, arborescens like ‘Incrediball’, or a lime paniculata like ‘Little Lime’, depending on your sun exposure.


Will you — and any members of the house with lopper access — pay attention to pruning at the right time? If not — for whatever reason, no judgement — look for a paniculata or arborescens, which bloom only on “new wood” or this season’s growth.

They’re the most forgiving of pruning, because if they have time to grow a new branch this season, it can flower. Varieties and species that bloom on old, or both old and new, should only be pruned right after flowering, according to plant brand Proven Winners, or you risk lopping next year’s bouquets.

Proven Winners has a chart showing its varieties’ specs here:

Are you gardening in a smaller space or in containers? In sun, try H. paniculata ‘Bobo’ or ‘Little Quick Fire’, or in shade, ‘Let’s Dance Rave’.

Do you want to feed bees and pollinators? Look to H. paniculata, arborescens, and serrata types (panicle, smooth and lacecap), which have plenty of fertile flowers to fuel up the pollinators.

Do you crave fall interest? Check out the white-to-red flowers on many panicle hydrangeas or the showy burgundy leaves of the oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia).