Choosing the Best Hardy Hydrangea For Your Garden (And How To Make It Thrive)
In recent years, hardy hydrangeas have become one of the most popular flowering shrubs and it's easy to understand why. Hydrangeas are showy, versatile, adaptable, and easy to maintain.
Panicle hydrangeas are said to have cone-shaped flowers, but I only partially agree with that description. I would say that the cone shape may be very distinct or very vague, depending on the variety. Flower size also ranges greatly.
Smooth hydrangeas have broader, dome-shaped flowers. Flower size is more consistent (about 6-12" in diameter) between varieties.
With regard to flower colour, hardy hydrangeas are endless shades of white, pink, and lime. As the flowers age, they often take on changing tones and/or different colors.
Hardy hydrangea flower color is unaffected by the soil's pH level.
Panicle hydrangeas have reddish, woody, sturdy stems, whereas smooth hydrangeas have green, flexible, relatively soft stems. This is because panicle hydrangeas regrow on previous season's growth and smooth hydrangeas grow anew from the ground each year.
Panicle hydrangea leaves also tend to be darker green and more leathery; smooth hydrangea leaves are lighter green and softer.
A major difference between panicle and smooth hydrangeas is their pruning requirements.
Panicle hydrangeas only need only a light annual trimming of the branch tips. (The exception to this is if you have an old panicle hydrangea that is not blooming well any more. In that case, the hydrangea will need "motivation" to bloom again. Just cut back a few of the oldest stems as low to the ground as possible in early spring.)
Smooth hydrangeas need a hard annual pruning in early spring, Cut back all stems to about
3-6" from ground level. For this reason, smooth hydrangeas are the better choice if your desired planting site is subject to heavy winter snow loads.
A mature hardy hydrangea can be as little as 3' x 3' or as large as 10' x 10', depending on the variety.
As demonstrated in the photo gallery below, hydrangeas can be planted as:
Note - Tree hydrangeas are simply hydrangea shrubs trained into a tree form. This process takes several years of selective pruning. If you have the patience, any hydrangea can be trained into a tree (otherwise, ready-made tree hydrangeas are available.)
Planting and Growing Information
Hydrangeas are easy to grow but they do need moist soil. Hydrangeas resent being dry and they will show it. If you prepare your soil properly, add mulch around the shrub base, and water deeply but infrequently, your hydrangea should thrive.
Different hydrangea varieties tolerate varying degrees of shade. Generally speaking, hydrangeas are adaptable to sites that receive a minimum of 3 hours of sun daily.
Since hydrangeas flower prolifically, fertilizing is a good idea. For the first year, only use bone meal and transplant fertilizer. After that, apply a slow-release fertilizer yearly to maximize flower production.
I've yet to meet a hydrangea that I didn't like, but here is a broad sampling of the available varieties:
Hydrangea Paniculata 'Bombshell'
Hydrangea Arborescens 'Incrediball'
Incrediball is the new and improved version of 'Annabelle'. (Annabelle was discovered in Anna, Illinois in 1910.) Though lovely, Annabelle's blossoms tend to flop, giving the plant a messy appearance. Should a heavy rainstorm strike an Annabelle, it looks more like a tornado touched down on it.
On the contrary, Incrediball has remarkably stiff, strong stems to keep the flowers upright. And the kicker is, Incrediball's flowers are even bigger, reaching up to 12" in diameter! The flowers open lime green, turn white when fully open, and then revert back to lime green.
Incrediball grows 4-5' high and wide.
Hydrangea Paniculata 'Little Lime'
Little Lime is my latest hydrangea infatuation. We had a beautiful display of them at our front entrance last season and I couldn't keep my eyes off of them. On several occasions, I got close to admire their mesmerizing, artfully colored blossoms.
Little Lime has dense flower clusters, ranging from white to lime to pink, and everything in between. It is highly productive in terms of flowering.
Little Lime is a dwarf hydrangea, topping out at about 3' high and wide.
Hydrangea Paniculata 'Quick Fire'
Quick Fire is a valuable variety because it starts blooming one month earlier than any of the other hardy hydrangeas.
Quick Fire has a loose and airy flower shape. The blossoms emerge white, turn to pink, and eventually deepen to a cherry red.
Quick Fire is one of the largest hydrangeas, maturing to 6-8' high and wide.
Hydrangea Paniculata 'Fire Light'
2014 was only the first year we grew Fire Light. However, its unique flower color and shape makes it worthy of mentioning.
Like most pink hydrangeas, Fire Light flowers start out white and darken to a rich pink color. The flower panicles have a particularly distinct, dramatic shape.
Fire Light grows anywhere from 5-6' high and wide.
Hardy hydrangeas are exceptional flowering shrubs for our area. If you see a hardy hydrangea variety that I don't mention here, give it a try anyway. Chances are you will love it.
Check out the Proven Winners website to preview many more hydrangeas, including ones that will be released in 2016. I can't wait to try them all!
6/3/2015 11:12:11 pm
Hi can. You explain how to turn a hydrangea cutting into a tree.
6/4/2015 01:57:37 pm
6/20/2017 09:32:10 am
I have a question about climbing hydrangeas. We live in Nova Scotia and these grow so well here. I would love to try one in our new location which is central Ontario, Barry's Bay, which is zone 4. Will a climbing hydrangea survive in this colder zone? what if I provide some winter protection?
6/20/2017 07:10:22 pm
Hi Julie. I would expect it to survive in Barry's Bay, as we are Zone 3/4 and they winter here just fine, without extra protection. If it's grown in a drier climate, it probably will require more frequent watering.
7/4/2018 06:16:59 am
Well they didn't survive, one expired during the winter and the other made it, but wilted away in June. We had a particularly hard winter. I have another one in a different location and will try again. I think I will protect this one for the winter.
10/22/2017 10:54:16 am
What a wonderful overview about Hydrangeas. Thank you so much. I have three potted Hydrangea plants (the type from the grocery stores) that I kept in our heated garage each winter. Now, they lost leaves...grew new ones and flowered...I don't know if this is the correct way to do this. I took them out in the late spring; onto the deck and one grew beautifully. Huge flowers. The other two, slowly...slowly grew. I'm in Thunder Bay, Ontario and I have read I could simply keep them in their pots and put them in an unheated enclosed area like an unheated potting shed. Is this true? Thanks in advance for any help. I'd love to keep going with these three beauties. :-)
10/22/2017 08:57:23 pm
Hi Janice, that's great :)
6/14/2018 09:52:08 pm
I got the latest Canadian Living magazine, and immediately noticed your ad with the incredible Fire Light Hydrangea. I checked to see if you had a site. The Hydrangeas are so beautiful, and here I thought my pitiful blue ones were the epitome. I would love to know when you would send out your plants.
7/2/2018 10:26:07 pm
Assuming you live in Canada
7/3/2018 07:56:38 pm
All good points Leslie....thank you for commenting.
6/18/2018 07:37:01 pm
I'm not sure where you can find them...often wild plants do not adapt well to urban garden life. We do not propagate plants other than seeded annuals.
4/13/2019 11:43:55 am
I am looking for a Hydrangea for a mostly shady area, Zone 3-4, about 3-4ft high. I would prefer a pink one but I would be happy with any color. Any recommendations?
4/13/2019 12:20:13 pm
I live in the same zone as you and have quite a bit of shade in my front yard. The hydrangeas that only get a few hours of filtered sunlight per day didn't set many blooms. The ones that got about 4 hours of sunlight did better. I do think they need more sun to get more blooms, especially in our cold zones.
4/14/2019 09:17:18 am
Hi Barb, try the Invincibelle Ruby or Lavalamp Flare.
4/14/2019 09:18:11 am
As Julie points out, they will certainly flower less in shade. They should get at least 3 hours per day to flower.
6/25/2019 04:45:14 am
I have the white afore hydrangea in a pit bought this summer... it states that the zone is 4 to 8.... so my question is leave in pot and bring indoor? Or can I plant it outside? Added info ... I live in Thunder Bay Ontario where our winner can go 40 below zero. Suggestions?
7/25/2019 11:47:15 am
Hi Beth, you could bring it into a heated (but cool) garage but most of them, if rated to zone 4, will also winter here in the ground. You can cover it with mulch in late fall, but leave it as late as possible so rodents aren't as tempted to make a home in it.
6/12/2021 10:29:00 pm
Hi. I live in Alberta Canada. Just bought a Nikki blue hydrangea. Will I just plant it in big pots or I can plant it directly on the ground? Thanks
7/14/2019 07:26:53 am
Hi, so we just planted the hydrenga leuchtfeuer near our ceder ( like close to the lower branches ) in the back yard .. but I just read some where that hydrangeas don’t do well near trees ..? Should we move them ?
7/25/2019 11:49:42 am
Hi Ed, if they are planted within just a meter or so of the cedars, they may not do well. Too much competition for water and nutrients from the cedars. If you were able to prepare a nice planting hole for the hydrangea and it wasn't a mass of roots, it may be fine.
7/18/2019 05:49:24 am
Hi. Planning to use hydrangeas for centerpieces at my son's wedding the end of September. We are in southern NB. I was thinking I'd have to dry them but would they still be viable that late?
7/25/2019 11:44:58 am
Hi Marilyn, the hydrangeas should be picked for drying once they are fully open. Lois Hole recommends cutting the flowers, placing them in 1" of water and let them dry slowly so that they keep their colour better. You may be able to use fresh blossoms in September, providing you don't get a hard frost before the wedding.
7/27/2019 11:19:18 am
I am from Bracebridge, when do I prune my Quick Fire Hydrangea. This is the second summer I have had it and it is doing well. Can I prune it
8/4/2019 03:27:09 pm
Can hydrangeas live in acidic soil? I have a backyard with afternoon sun and bordered with pine trees. I'm in the lower mainland in BC.
8/4/2019 08:13:57 pm
Acidic soil is not a problem, though if you grow the macrophylla type hydrangeas, the flower color will be affected by the pH. Also, they do love moist soil so if they are too close to the trees they won't grow well. If you have to dig through a mass of live roots to dig the hole, it's too close to the trees.
6/14/2020 11:44:26 am
I am new this year to hydrangeas. We live in east central Alberta and I planted an Invincebelle Ruby in my always moist flowerbed with full sun for most of the day. My questions are should I use a support cage and will it survive our winters. We are Zone 3.
6/29/2020 10:27:12 am
Are there any hydrangea varieties that thrive in shady areas? One side of my house needs some plants, but doesn't really get any sun. Would the Incrediball variety survive? I live in southern Alberta (near Calgary). Beautiful summers, colder winters
7/31/2021 02:32:51 pm
7/10/2020 09:51:28 am
It is so helpful to find these information and discussions. I am new to gardening, and I just planted a small limelight tree in my full sun yard, at Richmond Hill, Ontario. So far, it grows well without any visible issues. But it has not shown any buds, and there seems no sign of flowering. Is this right, or did I missed anything? Thanks so much in advance and I appreciate your valuable advise.
9/8/2020 07:54:05 am
Thanks, but is there any Permanent green Hydrangea to grow in Montreal ?
8/26/2022 08:23:43 pm
Mojito, sold at Loews or Rona, zone 4
10/21/2020 01:30:39 pm
Hi, I live at Brampton, Ontario and it’s zone 5. I bought lots of endless summer hydrangea (original, blushing bride and bloomstruck. Which one is better to winterize my hydrangea? Burlap or cage it with chicken wire and put a lot of dry leaves? Thanks
5/5/2023 09:55:47 am
Hello, really great article. I wonder what do you think of endless summer hydrangea? It claim to be as hardy as -30F, (-34C). As I live in Edmonton, and in desperate for these beauties, I wonder if they can make it through Edmonton winter, I am gonna try though nonetheless. Haha, please let us know if you have some good methods to overwinter them :)
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