ShareThis Page
Here are the secrets to getting those big, blue hydrangea blooms |
Home & Garden

Here are the secrets to getting those big, blue hydrangea blooms

Doug Oster
| Friday, February 22, 2019 12:00 a.m
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
It’s these beautiful blue hydrangea flowers that gardens long for, says Lorraine Ballato.
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
Lorraine Ballato is the author of “Success With Hydrangeas.”
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
‘Preziosa’ is one of Lorraine Ballato’s favorite hydrangeas. She is the author of “Success With Hydrangeas.”
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
‘Bloomstruck’ is one of Lorraine Ballato’s favorite hydrangeas that reblooms. She is the author of “Success With Hydrangeas.”
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
‘Tuff Stuff’ is one of Lorraine Ballato’s favorite hydrangeas.
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
‘David Ramsey’ is one of Lorraine Ballato’s favorite hydrangeas.
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
‘Blue Billow’ is a H. Serrata, known for its toughness and reliable bloom.
Photos: Lorraine Ballato
’Lady in Red’ is one of Lorraine Ballato’s favorite hydrangeas.

Hydrangea expert and author Lorraine Ballato has just spent 10 minutes telling me how difficult it is to make the plant bloom in a northern climate. Asked then why her property was filled with countless varieties of the shrub, she laughs and says, “Because my heart belongs to them.”

The No. 1 garden question in many cold climates is “Why won’t my hydrangea bloom?” Ballato, the author of “Success With Hydrangeas,” has heard that query several thousand times — or more — over the course of her lifetime.

“Because you live in Pittsburgh, not Atlanta,” she remarks in regards to a lack of flowers. “It’s old man winter. They are fickle.”

It’s not all hydrangeas, she says, but the culprit is the most popular variety. Hydrangea macrophylla is commonly called the mophead type, and their flowers are what most gardeners long for:

“People lust after those big blue flowers that we go gaga about and people don’t get them, especially in the Northeast.”

What to do

It’s certainly not impossible to see those blooms, as many gardeners see them annually on mature plants. For those of us who aren’t that lucky, Ballato says protecting the plant can keep the buds from freezing.

“Protection can take many forms,” she says. “Moving existing plants near the house, a shed, fence, windbreak or a plant with persistent winter foliage will help. For plants that can’t be moved, they can be surrounded with a cage filled with shredded leaves during the winter, even bubble wrap can work.

“You try to make it believe it lives in a warmer zone,” Ballato says. “You insulate it. You have to be very careful when you remove that insulation, when all danger of frost has passed.

“I have too many, I don’t do this,” she adds with a laugh.

The thing is, H. macrophylla blooms on what’s called old wood. After the plant is done flowering, it puts on buds that sit and wait all winter to bloom the next summer. If they freeze out, then there are no blooms.

Prune the right way

Another problem can be improper pruning. If the plant is cut back when the buds are forming, then the flowers are lost for the season.

There are other varieties of hydrangeas that are tougher, produce flowers on new growth and even some that bloom first on the old wood and then can rebloom on new wood.

H. Serrata, called the mountain hydrangea, is one of the tough ones.

“It is better in the colder climates because of its ability to withstand the challenges of winter. It comes out of the mountains of Japan,” she says. “It’s being used in breeding programs because of that capability.” ‘Preziosa’ is one of her favorites because the flower changes color as it matures, going from pale light pink with a dark pink edge to a wine color.

Foolproof variety

H. arborescens or smooth hydrangea blooms on new wood and is foolproof. ‘Annabelle’ is an old-time favorite with white flowers, and the Invincibelle series offers reliability with red, pink and green hues.

“The climbing hydrangea (H. petiolaris) is another magnificent plant,” Ballato says. “It’s fragrant like you can’t believe.”

It’s the perfect plant to grow vertically in a semi-shady location. Most hydrangeas prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. ‘Firefly’ and ‘Miranda’ have gold and green variegated foliage on their trailing vines.

Rebloomers like ‘Bloomstruck’ and ‘LA Dreamin’ are more reliable at flowering on their new wood for a second set of flowers than earlier introductions, she adds.

H. Paniculata blooms easily on new wood.

H. quercifola, or oak leaf hydrangea, is also a good bloomer. Many have conical white flowers that fade to deep pink, exfoliating bark the color of cinnamon and great deep red fall foliage.

Try Rosetone

Fertilizing will help, too. She recommends a rose fertilizer like Rosetone, as well as compost and even shredded leaves as a mulch that will rot down and release nutrients.

“As soon as the leaves start to come out is the first time you are going to fertilize,” she instructs. “The second time is going to be when you see buds on the plant. If it’s a rebloomer, then you’re going to give it a third round of fertilizer.”

She likes organic fertilizers as they allow the plant to take up what it needs when it needs it as opposed to a sudden chemical jolt.

Watering is also a critical part of assuring good blooms.

“Too much water will have the plant make lots of leaves and no flowers,” Ballato says. “If the plant looks to be wilting, give it time. Once the sun is off the plant, if it rebounds, it should be fine. If not, it needs water.

“Put the hose at the base of the plant and let it run for a while,” she adds. Hydrangeas are susceptible to fungal issues, so try to keep the leaves dry.

“It’s a persnickety plant, it’s not like a rose or a forsythia,” Ballato says. “Everybody loves them; it’s that big blue flower that breaks everybody’s heart. I think it’s because it’s so elusive, that’s why people really want it, because they can’t get it.”

She says though, with the right care and choices, gardeners can get what they want.

“If you don’t want to play with them, don’t get them,” she says of H. macrophylla. “The carefree ones are the ones that bloom on new wood, they are foolproof. You just can’t get them in the blue color.”

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or via email. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at

Categories: Lifestyles | Home Garden
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.