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All hail the hydrangeas; Forget those who say they're old hat... this is a plant always in fashion for gardeners with a love of colour.

Byline: With Diarmuid Gavin

MY FAVOURITE garden anywhere is one planted solely with hydrangeas. It's both a garden and a road - the famous crooked, curvy Lombard Street in San Francisco, US - and for much of the summer it delights residents and tourists alike with its bright display of shrubby flowers behind curved sloping box borders.

For flower power, it's hard to beat hydrangeas and although they're sometimes labelled as old-fashioned, for me they remain a favourite.

And it seems they're popular with readers too as the most common query I get is about hydrangeas - how to prune, why blue ones turn pink, and flowering problems. So here's a guide to this superb shrub.

Hydrangeas hail from south and eastern Asia (Japan, China, the Himalayas and Korea) and the Americas, and were introduced to England in the 18th century.

The name hydrangea comes from the Greek meaning water vessel - which is a good way of remembering that they don't like to get dry.

Ideally plant in well-drained, moist soil and in dappled shade - avoid dry, sunny places. A bit of shelter is good, especially from biting cold easterly winds that can damage flower buds.

That said, they're excellent maritime plants with tolerance to salty spray.

The Portuguese island of Faial in the Azores is also known as the Blue Island due to the abundance of blue hydrangeas there.

But many gardeners in the UK have been disappointed after planting a beautiful blue hydrangea that then starts to produce pink flowers the following year.

This is because the aluminium sulphate that makes petals blue is only available for uptake in acidic soil.

If you don't have the right soil, then the best way to ensure ideal conditions is in a container where you can control soil condition by buying acidic compost and occasionally topping up with aluminium sulphate, sometimes known as hydrangea blueing compound.

While hydrangeas do quite well on neglect, they can become a bit leggy if left unpruned. It's also not unusual to see small front gardens dominated by a hydrangea that has been left to its own devices.

Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas, the most commonly planted kind, will usually only need their old flower heads to be removed, cutting back to a pair of healthy buds. It is generally wise to leave this until spring as the old flower heads will give the more tender buds protection from frosts.

To keep the plant producing fresh stems, remove two or three older stems completely. If you have to chop back to bring the plant back to a manageable size, you will forfeit the flowers that year but they'll return the next.

My favourites? Well everybody loves Annabelle with her large domes of white flowers. I also love vanilla fraise, a paniculata hydrangea with cones of white flowers that age to a strawberry pink - delicious!

Last year, I also planted hydrangea aspera Macrophylla in my garden. This will grow into a large shrub with big felty leaves and beautiful lace cap flowers, pure white on the outside surrounding a mauve centre.

And finally, don't forget the climbing hydrangea, H. petiolaris. It will happily grow up a north or east-facing wall and doesn't need any supports such as trellis or wire as it is self-supporting, clinging to the walls with its aerial roots.

Like a lot of climbers, it can take a few years to really settle into a new home but be patient - lots of growth will be going on underground.


A selection of hydrangea flowers

hydrangea paradise... Lombard Street in San Francisco is Diarmuid's favourite garden
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 8, 2015
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