Designing With Hydrangeas

hydrangeas-hedge.jpgThe last two posts focused on the cultivation of hydrangeas.  In short, what hydrangeas are available, and under what circumstances do they perform.  Most of them are easy to grow, and willing.  Some are marginally hardy.  Some are not at all hardy in my zone.  Some represent better than others.  Growing hydrangeas is a much different and much easier topic to discuss than designing with hydrangeas.  One could grow no end of them-as I do.  I have 50 in my front yard.  Putting them together in a coherent and satisfying way-this would be garden design.  A garden or landscape design implies an idea, a scheme, or a plan.  The purchase of a hydrangea is easy.  Designing a place for it in a landscape-not so easy.  Any plant that I have a mind to include in a landscape gets a thorough vetting.  By this I mean-what does this plant require?  How much space does it take?  Where will it thrive? How can this plant be integrated into the whole?  Once I have an idea for a space, is a hydrangea the best plant to express that idea?  The picture above depicts a planting of limelight hydrangeas, before the bloom.  This is the perfect moment to think over their addition to your landscape.  Flowers can be very seductive, and distracting.   A big growing coarse leaved shrub that needs plenty of space-that would be a hydrangea. A hydrangea planted in too small a space is like being occupied by an army-beautiful flowers notwithstanding. This is the simple and working description, not the romantic one.

limelight-hydrangeas.jpgFlowers are just but one aspect to consider.  There are the green times.  The winter times. The fall color.  The early spring. Make it a point to be intimately acquainted with anything you plan to introduce into the garden, should the overall design be important to you. This planting of hydrangeas works well with certain other elements in the landscape.  The yews are dense, and clipped.  The boxwood is denser, and more closely clipped.  The peonies have big leaves.  The lady’s mantle blooms at ground level in a sumptuous way.  The hydrangeas?  They preside over all-given their height and exuberance.  Hydrangeas have a density and bulky aspect that makes them ideal for garden situations where they cannot overwhelm their neighbors.  Small leaved or delicate perennials can be visually and physically overrun by a neighboring hydrangea.  Stout evergreen hedges can give a crisp look to a blowsy growing shrub.  Yews can help support the lax stems of hydrangeas.

Annabelle-hydrangeas.jpgAnnabelle hydrangeas will flop over in an instant.  If you plan to make them part of a landscape design scheme, stake them early.  This client loved the big growing rangy shrubs with their giant flower heads-but he equally loved the design of his landscape.  These Annabelles were staked first thing, in the spring.  The boxwood provides an orderly edge to the space.  They also provide some green interest in the winter months.

grass-border.jpgHydrangeas are big growing.  They need lots of space.  This planting of Annabelles has a grass border.  The slender simply textured blades of grass contrast and highlight the big leaves and rangy growth of the hydrangeas.  The ivy was part of an existing bed when we renovated the space-I did not see any reason to get rid of it. The texture of the grass with the hydrangeas is more pleasing than the texture of baltic ivy.

Annabelles-in-bloom.jpgThe flowers of hydrangeas are overwhelmingly beautiful. And overwhelming.  They need a big space to be.  They are a perfect match with massive architectural features, as a stone wall or flight of stairs.  Their sheer bulk, strong presence and white flowers makes them ideal for expressing a long sweep, or directional line in a landscape.  The white flowers make a great backdrop for other flowers, either perennial or annual.  Their height, which can be somewhat controlled by pruning, makes them ideal for facing down other larger landscape elements, like trees.

hydrangeas.jpgA hedge of Limelight hydrangeas is a soft way of defining a space.  You need the room to let them grow up to be what they are destined to be.  A long run of them can enclose a space, in a friendly way.

hydrangeas.jpgA landscape dominated by evergreens, and deciduous trees at a distance, can be leavened, brightened, by hydrangeas.  The leaf is a medium green, and the white flowers can be seen from blocks away.

hydrangea-border.jpgHydrangeas develop woody legs, over time.  Face them down with shorter growing ornamental grasses-or in this case, Honorine Jobert anemones.  Your design may ask for layering.  A design is not about this plant, or that plant.  It is about a community of plants, the interaction of all with the weather and the seasons.

hydrangeas-and-yews.jpgGreat design is intimately associated with the relationship a designer assigns from one plant to another.  The relationship of the plants to the space.  What defines that relationship?  Color, mass, texture, line, volume, weather-all of these design elements figure into the design of a landscape.  A design that accommodates, makes use of, and features the habits of the plants involved is design that is visually sensitive.


The most important element in design?  The gardener in charge.  It is easy to grow hydrangeas.  It is much harder to design successfully with them.  But when the design plan is well done, a beautiful shrub goes on to help create a breathtakingly beautiful space.

Other Hydrangeas

Dutch-blue-hydrangea.jpgThere  are lots of other hydrangea cultivars available besides Limelight and Little Lime.  I would have no problem growing this electric blue Dutch hydrangea, but it is only available to me as a cut flower.  My zone is noted for its unspeakably cold winters.  Hydrangeas that would prosper in California or Virginia would sooner or later succumb to the cold.  I routinely see landscapes that have what I call “florist’s hydrangeas”-presumably purchased from a greenhouse at Easter time-planted in ground.  These hydrangeas rarely bloom again once planted in the ground here.  The plants can survive the winters, but the flower buds are killed by the cold.

pink-hydrangea.jpgThere has been a lot of interest and a lot of hybridizing of hydrangeas going on in recent years-especially in the area of hydrangeas other than white.   It is no mystery why.  People buy shrubs that have showy flowers, leaves or fruit.  The sales of rhododendrons in my zone must be considerable.  In the spring, I see newly planted shrubs in full bloom in plenty of yards.  But few gardeners in my area have success with them.  They like acid well drained soil, and regular moisture.  They like sun, but protection from winter winds.  A case in point? I have tried, on more occasions than I care to admit to, added to the established rhododendrons on the north side of my house without success. Where am I going with this?  People are more likely to buy showy blooming shrubs that come with the promise that they are easy to grow.  It is hard to argue with success.  This pink hydrangea recently photographed in a client’s yard-I have no idea the name.  I have to admit it looked great.

Nikko-blue-hydrangeas.jpgI have planted lots of Nikko blue hydrangeas.  The places where they thrive and bloom heavily-just a handful.  This property-I have not one clue why they do so well, year after year.  Just down the street-big green shrubs with a few flowers here and there.  Sparsely representing is not a good look for a summer blooming hydrangea.

Nikko-blue-hydrangea.jpgA community on Lake Saint Clair, where I do a fair amount of work, those hydrangeas other than white are summer swell.  This is one old Nikko blue hydrangea, blooming to beat the band.  What it is about this environment that favors this hydrangea-I have no idea.  I do have clients who faithfully acidify their hydrangeas in hopes of those prized blue blooms.  Has this shrub had that level of care, or does it succeed on the strength of its location and the composition of the soil?  I wonder.

pink-hydrangea.jpgThe same neighborhood is all abloom with pink hydrangeas.  This is a pair of shrubs.  I have no idea of the cultivar.  It cannot be a new variety, as these shrubs are old.  On my side of town, the west side, I never see pink hydrangeas that perform like this.  There are lots of new cultivars.  All Summer Beauty, Endless Summer-and so on.  I will admit I shy away from them.  Any plant material I design into a landscape needs to have a reasonable chance of success.  A client who has success may decide to move on to being a passionate gardener.  Part of my my pleasure in my job is to see this happen.  Sometimes I install a landscape, and I have to persuade a client to take ownership.  When there are successes, they brush me off, and move on.  I like this.

annabelle-hydrangea.jpgThis discussion takes me back to the white hydrangeas.  Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle”  is an old stand by.  Plagued by giant flower heads, and weak stems, this cultivar weeps.  It is not unusual to see them hang over to the ground.  I rarely plant them anymore-I much prefer the Limelights.  They are so easy, in every regard.  But Annabelle planted on top of a wall is a really great look.  Those flowers soften an elevated garden space.


The white hydrangeas- Limelight, Little Lime, hydrangea paniculata, Annabelle-and the strikingly foliaged oak leaf hydrangea- they prosper in my zone.  Pictured above, a framed herbaria from a gardener,  and her artist husband in Italy.  Rob bought a series of framed hydrangea herbaria from them. It is a good thing to have a big love for the garden.  The design, the planting, the care, the years-magical.  I only grow Limelight hydrangeas.  It is enough for me-how willing they are to grow and bloom profusely in my garden.  This framed herbaria captures what I could not write in words about hydrangeas in summer.  Beautiful.

The APLD International Design Conference

Marti-Neely.jpgNot familiar with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers?  This is taken verbatim from their website: The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) is an international organization founded in 1989. Our mission is to advance the profession of landscape design and to promote the recognition of landscape designers as qualified and dedicated professionals.   APLD members adhere to a code of professional standards, encourage continuing education, and stay up to date about new developments and latest trends throughout the field.  We offer members a certification program – the only one of its kind – that provides professional recognition to those designers who can pass a rigorous peer review program. Who are we looking at here?  Marti Neely, the current president of the APLD, and owner of DMS Landscape in Omaha Nebraska.

Susan-Cohan.jpgWho’s this? Susan Cohan,  President elect of the APLD for 2014.  Susan has a landscape design practice in the metro New York City area.  Via her website, I can see she has a special gift for landscape design.  She writes a blog-Miss Rumphius Rules.  She has an art background, a passion for the landscape, a love of great architecture-I have admired her work for some time, from afar.  She wrote a few months ago to say that she and Marti would be in Detroit a few days ahead of the yearly APLD conference-did I want to meet?  Oh yes.  Meet, we did. A late dinner this past Wednesday, a day spent touring on Thursday, and dinner together Thursday night- the pleasure was all mine.

landscape-plan.jpgRob and I spent the day with them-touring Woodward from Pontiac to downtown,  Palmer Park, the Boston Edison district, Campus Martius, the Rouge plant, the old Packard plant, Pewabic Pottery , the conservatory on Belle Isle-an overview tour of the good and exciting, and the astonishing decay.  Both Marti and Susan were keenly interested in everything they saw.  Both of them have an astonishing ability to absorb, and inquire.  They commented, and they listened.

landscape-drawing.jpgLandscape design has been the focus of my career for going on 28 years.  I find that the design process is endowed by every effort I make to be educated.  I collect books on landscape design, and I read them.  On occasion, the photographs are more compelling than the read.  No matter the vehicle, anything a designer has absorbed informs their work.  The drawing is about the hope represented by the future.  And the knowledge accumulated from the past.  These two women educated me about how important it is to be connected with one’s peers.  One day with the two of them was a big education.

landscape-design.jpgWhat I write about via Dirt Simple is an effort to discuss my design process.  My design process?  It may be good, it may be average-it may be of no use to anyone else.  But that process has enabled me to communicate with my clients-those people known to me who have a love of the natural world.  There are always two of us.  A client with a house and property-and an idea about how to live.  Me-I have an idea about what is graceful, and beautiful.  The interaction produces a design. A good design is never about one, or another.  It is the product of a relationship.

landscape-design.jpgThe APLD is a group about which I knew nothing, until I became interested in the work of Susan Cohan.  This organization of landscape designers has been active since 1989.  Where was I?  I have never been so much interested in participating in group efforts.  No doubt I black out when I am asked to serve on a board.  Part of what enchants me so much about the garden is that solitary experience.  The birds singing.  The rain falling.  The change of the seasons.  That very engaged and solitary time known as weeding.  The peace, and the quiet.  But both Marti and Susan have made me rethink that.

landscape-plan.jpgThe time I spent with Marti and Susan made a dent in me.  They had lots to say.  They spoke up.  Susan remarked that she valued the APLD, as it made a place for her to talk to and engage other landscape designers.  She was passionate about sharing.  Marti-as patient and willing as she is sharp.  It was a very good thing for me, to meet the both of them-face to face.

landscape-plan.jpgIf you are a professional landscape designer, I would recommend that you consider joining the APLD.  If you are a homeowner who is thinking about hiring a landscape designer, review those designers who are affiliated with the APLD.  Marti and Susan-I was delighted to meet the both of them.

M-Cat.jpgExposure to a very powerful and compelling force-who knows what will eventually come of that.  I have the feeling that the time I spent with the two of them will be influential.  Marti and Susan-I am so lucky to have had the time to meet them.



The Roundabout

new-house.jpgBig houses on very small properties-a given, in urban areas.  A very small property that is hosting a very large house presents a special set of design considerations.  The entire space is  instantly visible.  This makes it very difficult to create a sense of mystery, or discovery.  There are few opportunities to create “rooms”, each with their own distinct atmosphere.  There is a single view, and few options to generate other views.  It is easy for a large structure placed in a small space to look uneasy or unsettled.  Big buildings loom over small spaces.  They block the light.  They are the dominant landscape feature with a capital L.

concrete-aggregate-driveway.jpgThis particular property is very narrow.  Critical to a successful landscape design is an assessment of how the house sits relative to the grade.  This house is set very high, given that the client wanted window wells that would add light to the basement level rooms.  This meant that a retaining wall and curb was necessary to create a driveway which is level.    A driveway would necessarily be a big feature of this landscape.  There is no room to make it a secondary feature.  Given the stone on the house, I designed a concrete aggregate driveway with a stone curb.  Why so much fuss over a utilitarian feature?  When the driveway occupies a big part of the front yard landscape, that driveway needs to be functional and beautiful.


landscape-design.jpgI like a front walk which begins at the sidewalk, and ends at the front door.  That route may be direct, or meandering.  It is also nice to have a walk from the driveway to the front door.  This is a matter of convenience.  The idea of pair of walkways in this small space seemed overpowering.  I was thinking about a landscape which would be based on an ellipse.  Much like a roundabout that enables traffic to flow, without stopping and starting.  Though I am nervous approaching a roundabout, I find the process goes smoothly once I am in it.  A gravel ellipse would touch the concrete aggregate drive such that a path from the drive to the front door would be visually unobtrusive.


The gravel ellipse would be bordered on each side by garden.  This would help to keep the gravel surface out of view from the street.  The elliptical ring with the blue handled  flat shovel pictured above would have a gravel surface.  The innermost ring would be grass.


The property had been overrun with trucks over the course of the construction of the house.  Given that the soil had been compacted to an extreme, we dug into it with pick axes and shovels.  We would eventually work some compost into the soil, but I subscribe to the idea that plants will thrive if they like the existing planting conditions.

elliptical-fountains.jpgA pair of half elliptical fountains would be installed in the center of the garden. As much sculpture as fountain, they provide a focal point for the landscape. They could be planted with water plants, or not.



The big gestures are strongly horizontal, in contrast to the strong vertical lines of the house.  Once the arcs of Hicks yews adjacent to the house have a chance to settle down and grow in, they will be maintained at a height below the ground floor windows. The gravel path from the drive to the front door is already invisible from the street. The yew, boxwood, and a pair of DeGroot Spires arborvitae will provide evergreen interest over the winter months.

lawn.jpgThe garden adjacent to the lawn features plants that grow three feet tall, or less.  This garden will be dominated by peonies.  Beautiful in bloom, the make compact and glossy leaved shrubs that look good all summer.  The plants are spaced such to permit the additional of taller growing annual plants.

landscape-design.jpgThere is a mix of plants. The outside garden will be taller, once it grows in.  The Little Lime hydrangeas grow 4-5 feet tall, as will the roses. Russian sage and shasta daisies are bordered in the interior by stachys hummelo and Visions in Red astilbe.    This garden will provide a sense of privacy and intimacy for the inner fountain garden.  Adjacent to the sidewalk, a buffer of lamb’s ears and moss phlox. On the lot line, a single Vanderwolf’s flexible pine, a few magnolia stellata, and a grouping of fothergilla gardenii.  A few lilacs, a favorite of the client, were placed where they would have room to grown.  The lilacs are faced down with lespedeza.   Euonymus “Moonlight” is planted behind the yews.  A stand of “Goldner’s Bouquet” daylilies were planted on the south side of the house.

elliptical-fountains.jpgBordering the fountains, a frame of sedum John Creech will help to keep the lawn mower at bay.  Interestingly enough, it is remarkably tolerant of the overspray from the fountains.  This landscape has only one organizing idea.  But rather than a beginning and an end, there is a roundabout.

schematic-=landscape-plan.jpgA schematic landscape plan is a simple series of shapes that indicate what goes where, and how one travels from one place to another.  If the landscape plan works well on a structural level, then the additional of the plants will bring a sculpture to life that is pleasing to the eye.