“How do I get my hydrangeas to bloom?”
That’s the burning question I set out to answer so many years ago. I’d been a Garden Center Manager in different cities and capacities in the Northeast since 1990, and I swear I’d been asked that question a million times.
The problem was that a reliable answer didn’t exist. Everything we knew about growing hydrangeas came from books written in warm climates—the South or Northwest, Europe, Japan, New Zealand. And no one had as yet come up with a way for Northerners to get consistent blooms on these plants. But I couldn’t just tell my customers that, because by the late 1990’s I had personally sold thousands of hydrangeas, and (cheers to Martha Stewart) hydrangeas had become the biggest-selling plant at the garden center! I didn’t just WANT to find a solution to this problem, I HAD to.
So I started a collection of hydrangeas on which to experiment that now totals well over 400 cultivars, and after years of tests and trials with these plants, I've come up with a solution that works for at least most cultivars of Hydrangea macrophylla in the North.
Hydrangea macrophylla 'Mathilda Gutges'
The problem is that they bloom on old wood—no matter what anyone else says (see Today's Hydrangeas chapter 2, The New Wood Myth). Couple that with the inability of the macrophylla species' 'old wood' to survive winter temperatures under 10°F or so and you begin to feel the frustration of those who know what wind chills of -20°F feel like. And how those hydrangeas love to tease us by being root-hardy enough to shoot back up every spring with such lush, dark green foliage. So to come up with a method for getting these plants to bloom in the North, I had to find a way to:
1. Get them to set flower buds close to the ground
2. Protect those buds for the winter
3. Ensure those buds express their blooms
The video above demonstrates the method I developed, but keep in mind that it is ONLY FOR MACROPHYLLA HYDRANGEAS GROWN IN CLIMATES WHERE THEIR STEMS SUFFER SIGNIFICANT DIE-BACK EACH WINTER. Basically, this is for everyone living in USDA Growing Zones 3 through 7A, which is roughly the top half of the continental United States! I’ve found that this method works for most MACROPHYLLA cultivars, but I must admit that there are a quite a lot of cultivars which seem pretty much incapable of blooming unless the buds at the tips of their branches survive the winter completely intact. I’ve also found that my hydrangeas give me more blooms with each year that I use this method on them.
Click the image at right for a newly updated handout of these steps.
Hydrangea m. 'Spike'
Hydrangea m. 'Seaside Serenade Fire Island'
But despite our best efforts, there's still so many factors that prevent macrophylla hydrangeas from blooming each year, especially in the colder climates of Zones 3 to 7A.
*Exceptionally Cold, Long Winters
*Early Warm-Up and/or a Late Frost
*Cultivars that Bloom From Terminal Buds Only
*Deer Eating Flower Buds
Hydrangea macrophylla 'Rosy Splendor'
Hydrangea macrophylla 'Everlasting Amethyst'
Until there's a better method (and one is coming soon...stay tuned to this site!), I've had amazing success growing macrophylla hydrangeas in patio containers that winter in my garage. The protection from the extreme winter cold and wind guards them against stem die-back, and keeps not just a few flower buds alive and viable, but all of them! They bloom at their maximum level this way, and of the last 15 years of growing some this way, I've had only one year in which they didn't bloom astoundingly, and that was after one of our coldest winters on record!
Hydrangea macrophylla 'Cityline Berlin'
2017 garden tour video. I asked my son, Lochlan, who’s currently majoring in film scoring, if he could put some ambient music together for this video, and a couple hours later he sent me back this piece. I only wish my camera abilities matched his composition skills! (Best listened to on high quality headphones to get the full effect).
2017 was the best hydrangea year we’ve had in Central New York in a long time. It began in 2016 with a very even cool-down, which helped our macrophylla hydrangeas harden-off well for winter. Then, our winter was very mild, with only a couple of brief dips into the single-digits. Our spring gave us a couple of scares, with some light frosts occurring in May, but none were heavy enough to damage our hydrangeas’ flower buds, which came out early due to our very mild April. Spring was a bit dry but summer was cool and wet, just what hydrangeas love.
You’ll note the many macrophylla cultivars that are not blooming at all. This season really illustrated which cultivars should be avoided in our harsh climate, though I hope, in a couple of years, to have a new and more effective way of getting blooms from at least most of those.
The pictures below are of my daughter, Eva. The top three were taken in 2005, when she was just 6 years old. Note that she is planting a shasta daisy in an empty garden bed. Now look at the picture below, from 2017, and note the shasta daisy in the background. Yes, it’s the one she had planted 12 years earlier!
Seeing the progression of this young girl along with the progression of the garden should stir something in us, a sense that people are supposed to grow and mature inside very similarly to the way a garden grows. That is what drives most of us to garden. When we lose touch with that truth, we forget our love of gardening, to our detriment. Not that we have to continue gardening to continue to grow inside. Some of us leave our gardens because of physical limitations, yet the garden still grows within; others turn toward outward service to those less fortunate, knowing that the inner garden is what matters most. We continue to cultivate what is good, and discard what in us is weed.
Work the soil,
work the soul-