How To Care For Hydrangeas In The Midwest: A Gardener’s Guide

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In the lush tapestry of a Midwest garden, few flowers captivate the eye quite like hydrangeas. With their breathtaking array of colors – from delicate pinks to deep blues – these blooms stand as beloved staples among gardeners in the heartland. Yet, navigating the nuances of hydrangea care can prove a daunting task, given the diverse needs of different varieties. Fear not, for this guide is your compass, steering you toward the perfect hydrangea for your landscape and offering essential insights to ensure their thriving presence through every Midwest season.


Exploring Hydrangea Varieties

colorful hydrangeas

When choosing hydrangeas for your Midwest garden, opt for varieties that are well-suited to the climate. Hardy, native species like the smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) tend to perform exceptionally well in this region. Local nurseries typically carry varieties appropriate for the proper hardiness zones, but don’t forget to check the tag just in case. Ask for a knowledgeable staff member, and don’t hesitate to ask for advice on the best available options.

Smooth Hydrangeas

smooth hydrangea

This quintessential variety boasts luxuriant blooms in an enchanting spectrum of hues – blues, pinks, and purples. Yet, be mindful: their flower color can be swayed by soil pH, with acidic soil yielding blues and alkaline soil yielding pinks.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

oakleaf hydrangea

Embrace the allure of this distinctive variety, boasting oversized leaves reminiscent of oak foliage, ablaze with autumnal hues come fall. While its flowers may lack flamboyance compared to other varieties, its rustic charm is unrivaled.

Panicle Hydrangea

panicle hydrangea

This stalwart bloomer is a paragon of reliability. It unfurls majestic cone-shaped clusters of white flowers, gradually blushing to a tender pink. With a greater tolerance for heat and humidity, it's a steadfast choice for Midwest gardens.

Planting Your Hydrangeas With Precision

Hydrangeas, with their captivating blooms in a spectrum of pinks, blues, purples, and whites, are a gardener's dream. However, these beauties require specific planting techniques to ensure they thrive and reward you with years of floral glory. This detailed guide walks you through the essential steps of successfully planting hydrangeas, from choosing the perfect location to nurturing them for optimal growth.

Selecting The Right Spot

Hydrangeas are not fans of extremes. While they appreciate some sunshine, particularly in the morning, harsh afternoon sun can scorch their leaves and hinder flower development. The ideal location offers dappled shade throughout most of the day, with 6 full hours of morning sun for optimal growth. Consider planting them near taller shrubs or trees that provide natural shade during the hottest part of the day. Additionally, ensure the chosen spot has good air circulation to prevent moisture buildup and potential fungal diseases.

Preparing The Soil

Hydrangeas require well-drained soil that retains moisture effectively. Clay soil, which tends to hold water excessively, can lead to root rot. If your soil is heavy clay, amending it is crucial. Mix in organic matter like compost or aged manure to improve drainage and aeration. Aim for a 50/50 mix of existing soil and organic amendment. The ideal soil pH for hydrangeas can vary depending on the variety and your desired flower color. Smooth hydrangeas, known for their blue blooms, prefer slightly acidic soil (pH 6.0-6.5). If you favor pink blooms, aim for slightly alkaline soil (pH 7.0-7.5). You can adjust the pH using soil testing kits and amendments like aluminum sulfate for a more acidic environment or lime for a more alkaline one.

Planting With Care

Dig a hole 2-3 times wider than the root ball of your hydrangea and just as deep. This allows for proper root expansion in the future. Gently loosen the roots of your hydrangea before placing it in the hole. Ensure the root flare, the area where the stem meets the roots, sits slightly above the surrounding soil level. Backfill the hole with the amended soil mixture, tamping gently to remove air pockets. Water the plant deeply to settle the soil and ensure proper hydration.

Adding The Finishing Touches: Mulch & Support

Apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch around the base of your hydrangea, keeping it a few inches away from the stem to prevent rot. Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, regulate soil temperature, and suppress weeds. For larger hydrangeas, especially those planted in windy areas, consider staking them for support during the first growing season. This will help prevent the wind from damaging the young plant.

Hydrangea Planting Success: Beyond The Basics

Remember, timing your planting is crucial. Ideally, plant hydrangeas in spring or fall when temperatures are mild. This allows the plant to establish a strong root system before facing the extremes of summer or winter. While established hydrangeas are generally drought-tolerant, consistent watering, especially during the first growing season and hot, dry periods, is vital for healthy flower development. Deep watering once or twice a week is usually sufficient. Pay close attention to the leaves; wilting is a sign of dehydration. Finally, fertilize your hydrangeas in early spring with a balanced fertilizer formulated for flowering shrubs. Avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen, which can promote foliage growth at the expense of blooms.

Winter Preparation

As the crisp autumn air settles over the Midwest, and vibrant summer blooms give way to fiery foliage, it's time to prepare your garden for the winter months. For hydrangea enthusiasts, this crucial step ensures your prized shrubs emerge from winter dormancy healthy and ready to flower again come spring. 

  • Autumn Cleanup: Once the blooms have faded and leaves start changing color, remove any spent flowers or dead leaves. Leaving these on the plant can trap moisture and create a haven for disease. However, avoid pruning at this time, as it can remove flower buds for next season.
  • Watering: Water your hydrangeas deeply throughout the autumn months, especially during dry periods. This helps the plant store moisture needed to survive the winter. However, as the ground freezes, watering gradually reduces.
  • Mulching: Apply a fresh layer of 2-3 inches of organic mulch, like shredded bark or wood chips, around the base of the hydrangea. This insulates the roots from the harsh winter temperatures and helps retain moisture in the soil.
  • Protecting Flower Buds (Smooth Hydrangea Only): For smooth hydrangeas, the key is to protect the flower buds that will bloom the following spring. Here are two methods:
  • Burlap or Cheesecloth Wrapping: After the first frost, carefully wrap the flower buds with burlap or cheesecloth. Secure the material loosely to allow for air circulation. Remove the wrapping in early spring once the threat of frost has passed.
  • Soil Mounding: Alternatively, you can mound a cone-shaped pile of soil (around 6-8 inches high) around the base of the plant, completely covering the lower stems and flower buds. Carefully remove the soil mound in early spring.
  • Heavy Snowfall: If your region experiences heavy snowfall, gently brush off any snow accumulation from the branches to prevent them from breaking under the weight.
  • Extreme Cold Snaps: In extreme cold snaps, you can provide additional temporary protection by loosely draping a sheet or frost cloth over the entire plant. Remember to remove the covering once the temperatures rise to avoid smothering the hydrangea.

Spring Awakening & Pro Pruning Tips

Once spring arrives and the threat of frost has passed, remove any winter protection measures you put in place. Prune your hydrangeas according to the variety and assess their overall health. With proper winter care, your hydrangeas will be well-equipped to thrive, and you will be rewarded with another season of breathtaking blooms in the vibrant Midwestern summer.

Pruning hydrangeas can be a bit tricky, as different varieties require different approaches. 

  • For smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) and oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia), the best time to prune is right after they finish blooming. 
  • Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) should be pruned in late summer, as they bloom on old wood. 
  • Mountain and bigleaf hydrangea varieties should not be pruned at all.  
  • As a rule of thumb, plan to prune only 1/3 of the height and width of your new-wood blooming hydrangea in late winter or early spring. 
  • Remove thinning side branches to help prevent weak stems and flowers from flopping. Always remove dead or damaged wood throughout the year.

As you embark on this horticultural odyssey, remember: the journey of nurturing hydrangeas is as enriching as the destination of their breathtaking blooms. Arm yourself with knowledge and commitment to diligent maintenance, and watch as your Midwest garden blossoms into a floral paradise, adorned with the timeless elegance of hydrangeas. Reach out to the Be Green Pro team for more information on how to keep your flowers and other landscape features looking their best all year long!