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Hydrangea heaven: An ode to a great shrub


My appreciation for shrubs grows deeper every year as I appreciate the low-maintenance aspects of them and new, improved shrubs of all shapes and sizes are released every year. 

Hydrangeas are not unique. In fact they are so popular that even professional plants people will admit they get a little sick of them. But more than any other shrub I grow, I can’t imagine my garden without them.

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is where it started for me and that’s probably where hydrangea growing starts for a lot of people. It’s a classic. A little floppy, but dead reliable and it spreads a bit, creating its own hedge. 

hydrangea walkway
‘Annabelle’ on the right creates a corridor with Incrediball and Invincibelle Spirit on the left to create a charming walkway.

I’m pretty sure that at the time I planted ‘Annabelle’, which may have been one of the first things I planted at this house, I didn’t realize there were other kinds of hydrangeas. Oh, silly gardener.

Hydrangea panniculata Limelight was probably the next hydrangea that came into my life and that was a love affair from the beginning. The big one that grows here in the patio garden appreciates the full sun situation it’s in and I used to regret planting it so close to the patio side of the garden. Now I appreciate its hulking form in that spot where it shields the view as you’re walking down the path just a bit, creating a bit of intrigue. I prune it pretty hard (some years harder than others) but its still 8 feet by this point in the summer. The flowers have just opened and they are, true to its name, the most lovely shade of lime. The bees are constantly burying themselves deep in there and the whole thing seems to be mysteriously buzzing on occasion. 

Limelight hydrangea
The big Limelight in the patio garden is certainly the focal point of the garden at this time of year.
Green limelights
Limelights in front of the deck are still bright green.

After that came Incrediball, marketed as an improvement on ‘Annabelle’, with bigger flowers and stiffer stems but I appreciate both hydrangeas for their different qualities. The flowers are almost obscenely huge and I still have flopping problems when the plants need more water than I give them, as was the case this year. 

Incrediball and Invcincibelle Spirit hydrangea
Incrediball and Invincebelle Spirit both flopped a little this year when they didn’t get as much water as they would have liked, but I love how they intermingle.

Then there was Invincibelle Spirit (followed some years later by Invincibelle Spirit 2), a pink aborescens that I like, particularly when the blooms are at their brightest, clearest pink. 

Invincibelle Spirit II
Invincibelle Spirit II is a little pinker and holds its color better than its predecessor.

Recently I’ve started appreciating hydrangeas with flowers that are a little airier. Hydrangea paniculata Quick Fire has lacy flowers and nice, stiff stems. I think it’s a more natural look in a hydrangea. 

quick fire hydrangea

quick fire hydrangea
Quick Fire’s lacy flowers are a bit more natural looking than it’s bawdy hydrangea relatives.

But this interest in lacy flowers led me to the mountain hydrangeas: H. serrata. I’ve grown Tiny Tuff Stuff and Tuff Stuff, but they are only finishing up their second and third seasons in my garden. So far I’m feeling about them the same way I was when I first found Limelight. Interestingly, I’m finding them to be not significantly different in size but, this year at least, the blooms on Tuff Stuff were much larger and I found that to be a more pleasing look. They’ve responded to my treatment with aluminum sulfate to turn them blue to varying degrees. If they prove to be reliable bloomers over the years, I’d rate them at the top of my list for the best shrubs in my garden.

Tuff Stuff hydrangea
Beautiful blooms on Tuff Stuff.
Tiny Tuff Stuff
Tiny Tuff stuff is that sea of dark pink (a few plants went bluer than others) in the middle of the patio garden.

I also added H. paniculata Bobo to the circle garden last year and this is truly a remarkable plant. It stays low—stocky even—and gets entirely covered in fluffy white panicles. In the places where there’s not a flower I know a deer has done some nibbling. It’s an amazing plant for a small garden.

Bobo hydrangea
Bobo is just getting going.

Of course there are other hydrangeas that I’ve tried and others still growing in my garden, including the oakleaf hydrangeas I planted earlier this year. On many others, the jury is out and a few are not performing well enough to stay in the garden if I find something better to plant in their place. 

Incrediball hydrangea and 'Etoile Violette' clematis
Incrediball mixes well with the ‘Etoile Violette’ clematis that scrambles up the deck railing.

I’m always happy to try a new hydrangea. I’m certain I’m bound to fall in love again. But I know for sure, they’ll always have a home in this garden. 

hydrangea corridor

36 Responses

  1. Came on here to find some help with “ to prune” or “ not to prune.
    I’m on middle of the state, Indiana. I have 3 Limelight hay hydrangea and 6 Incredible Hydrangeas.
    Everyone ones seems to disagree what we did last year to them. 😢
    Deer did eat 2 of my Incredible about 1/2 way down in the spring. Now that it’s Mid Oct. looking what to prune or wait. Help!!
    Susan 🥰

  2. Hi Erin

    In your experience do Annabelle and incrediball perform similarly in partial shade? I live in zone 6 and have an area under a tree with dappled shade. I considered blushing bride but I want pure white flowers. Thanks

  3. Annabelle hydrangeas are the reason I started gardening at all. My dad planted my first one because I didn’t my even know how to plant it! I love your YouTube videos.

  4. Erin,
    I planted 4 Ruby Slipper Oak leaf hydrangeas in my front flower bed because they are shade tolerant, and I hate them! I love how they are pretty and white, but they fade to an ugly brown. I am seriously thinking of replacing them. I like the Oakleaf H because of the colors that the leaves turn in the fall, but the brown brachs I can’t take. Any suggestions?

  5. Hi there!
    This is lovely! I recently saw some of what I think are your Annabelle’s in the background of your instagram stories and just HAD to search your blog to see if I could see them better, so beautiful! I feel like i’ve really been discouraged from planting Annabelle’s because of the flop, although I have had lots of other hydrangeas over the years. We moved just over a year ago and I have a PERFECT spot for Annabelles. It’s right in front of the brick house, with a tidy little boxwood hedge to rein them in. I can just see the glorious mop heads rising above the hedge. I have wanted to do this from the first but just felt like the gardening world said Annabelles weren’t good, I am glad to be wrong! I think in the spring I will just go for it and put them in!

    Thanks so much for showing us your hudrangeas!

    1. Annabelles against a boxwood hedge is a classic combo and I still think it’s one of the best. Yes, they flop a bit, but so do all the mopheads, even the ones that are bred for stiffer stems. Honestly I don’t mind it, and the hedge will manage that a bit. Plus, with a hedge, you can always stick some structure in there to keep them upright and no one will see it.

  6. I need to replace Magical Flame hydrangea in front of our front windows as they grew too large. I cannot decide between BoBo or Invincible Spirit – can you recommend which would be the most attractive as the primary foundation shrubs in the front of our home? Thanks for helping.

    1. It depends a bit on the style of your home, color, etc. Bobo is a great option because it’s short (no more than 4 feet tall and rarely that, in my experience), gets covered in flowers with very stiff stems. Invinciible Spirit is pink, mophead flowers, so a looser look that is pink all year, vs. just pink in fall like Bobo is. I.S. will also be larger.

  7. Wow a beautiful heaven created with bountiful collection of hydrangea flowers. These shurby plants are also my most favourites among other beautiful flowers. Cheers and keep nurturing this amazing flowers. Cheers and regards from bhutan.

  8. Your hydrangeas are gorgeous. I have several that are very healthy but zero blooms. I believe they are Hydrangea Macrophylla, any advice?

    1. I have a few H. macrophylla and you’ll notice I didn’t mention then. The few I have that are performing well are new and quite small so not much to look at but others are not carrying their weight. Macrophyllas bloom on old wood (some also bloom to a lesser extent on new wood) so anything that damages those flower buds, which are set the year before, will prevent them from blooming. In my garden that’s usually cold, but deer browsing or pruning after the buds have started forming can do it too. Some of the varieties that also bloom on new wood need to reach a certain size before that happens. And if none of that sounds right, make sure they aren’t in too much shade.

  9. I recently discovered your blog and I am really enjoying it. The year I got married I bought a lacecap hydrangea called “Wedding Gown.” There weren’t many reviews out about it so I took a chance. Well, 9 years later and I have to say it is the most interesting and unusually beautiful hydrangea in my garden. It has large double flowers surrounded by smaller double ones. Each stem looks like a mini bridal bouquet. The flowers are very white in early summer, then change to pink in late summer and then red in autumn. I’m in zone 6 and it can definitely handle the snow that gets dumped on it from our driveway each winter.

  10. My favorite is H serrata Blue Billow. The flowers are an electric blue when they first appear before mellowing out to a pinky purple and the foliage is deep red in the fall. And it’s quite happy and blooming well in a mostly shade location.

        1. I was referring to Blue Billow which gets no protection at all. Another point in its favor is that it’s incredibly easy to grow from cuttings.
          I also have Nikko Blue in my yard (can you tell that I have a thing for blue?). It too gets no protection and has been a reliable bloomer for me. It has slowed a bit in the last couple years but I thinks that is because it’s getting less sun than when I planted it.
          I’m on the western shore of Lake Michigan in a solid zone 5.

  11. Hydrangeas are some lovely shrubs. I feel like I have enough of them in the garden now. I don’t have a large lot so I am trying to be more diversified. I like all of your choices. Annabelle in my garden looks so ratty by now. We are drier and hotter here. I know she likes lots of water.

  12. Another Endless Summer fan here! Although for the first time, I followed the instructions to the letter on pruning and they did not bloom like they have in the past. Next year I am just going to let it grow wild again.
    I just planted a Little Lime this spring and it has flourished, I did not know if it would bloom this year. But it did — green. I have read that’s just a quirk that sometimes happens, so I am hoping for white blooms next year. The green did blend well with pink roses for a pretty table arrangement, though.

    1. See my comment above about Endless Summer. But I know you’re much warmer than I am so I bet you get great blooms on the old wood. I have Little Lime too and I’m not thrilled with its performance, although the green blooms you experienced are typical. They will turn white with time and then get a pink tinge. I quite like those green flowers. I think Bobo is far superior to Little Lime for a small panicle hydrangea, although it is quite a bit smaller than Little Lime.

    1. Oh you’re going to laugh: I purposely didn’t mention Endless Summer. Believe it or not, it is the one hydrangea that I’ve jettisoned from my garden (although at least one other is getting the hook soon). It never performed for me: the buds on the old wood would always freeze out and the flowers on new wood were so few and far better that it just wasn’t worth it. There are a number of new introductions in the Endless Summer line that have greatly increased bud hardiness though (it’s one of the things they are specifically breeding for) and I’ll happily give some of those a try. I’m not sure what zone you are in, but I think people in warmer zones (I’m in 5) seem to have far more success with Endless Summer because the bud hardiness issue isn’t a problem.

  13. I wish I knew how to keep the deer from eating them! I planted a row of Incrediballs two years ago as a border along our lot line and the deer and rabbits won’t let them get more than a foot tall. Same with my Annabelle. The only safe ones are my Twist and Shout and Little Lime that are planted beside my house. They haven’t found them….yet. Yours are beautiful. I’m so envious.

    1. I use a deer repellent spray (I’ve been using Messina’s Deer Off for a number of years with good results, and it doesn’t stink up the garden), but this year I also used Wireless Deer Fence (these are battery-operated little stakes that you put in the ground that shock a deer if they touch it) and put some right next to hydrangeas. I feel like that worked, but there are other issues with them (including that I’ve lost a bunch in growing foliage).

      1. Verticillium wilt took out my rising sun redbud this spring and my wife and I about cried. It would’ve been its 3rd full growing season in my garden and last year it had really started coming into its own…. I’ve worked in the green industry for 20 years and IMO I’ve never seen foliage with more ornamental appeal than pink>chartreuse leaf shading and cool arching/upright-weeping form. Why’d you have to remind me of verticillium wilt ?

  14. I have a hard time deciding which Hydrangea is my favorite. This summer was pretty tough on them and it was a job to keep them watered. Of course now we are having so much rain it is beating the limelight down , but the other varieties are loving it. I have always loved Oakleaf H. and have recently planted one called Great Gatsby I think. Too soon to make a judgement on it but the blooms are huge. Definitely as I get older I am adding more shrubs to my garden. Much easier on my back and knees. Highly recommend Viburnums and Vitex also Hepacodium better known as 7 sons a small tree with great late summer flowers and fall color. Also loved by pollinators. Counted 8 tiger Swallowtails on it yesterday.

    1. Gatsby Gal is the oakleaf I just planted recently. I hope it thrives as there are so many lovely features of it. Viburnums are probably my next favorite shrub, although some are susceptible to verticillium wilt, which can be a problem in parts of my garden.

  15. Thanks for the hydrangea tour. They are all lovely. I had some beauties in my old garden until the deer would mow them down to a few inches tall every year. They left them alone for years and then decided they liked them. In our new garden, I have decided to only plant them inside the fence. I know they can jump the fence, but so far they have been too lazy. Outside the fence I only plant things they do not like and it seems to be working.

    1. Deer are a problem with hydrangeas, to be sure. Your fence plan sounds good; I’ve found most deer to be pretty lazy too. I’m sure they’ll get out of that if they ever get very hungry, but there’s a lot of other food for them to much on most of the time.

      1. I bought a beautiful Run Away Bride hydrangea three years ago and within days one of our visiting hates chewed it right back. One very expensive rabbit fence later it is finally putting on some growth and hopefully it might flower next year.

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