Strong, sturdy and ever so lovely, climbing hydrangeas wind their way up the trees and walls at my home. Let's look at how to grow these vigorous and easy-to-care-for plants.
“First it sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps.” This old gardeners’ saying fits the climbing hydrangea perfectly. And gardeners take heed, because this excellent vine, which can add tremendous beauty and lushness to your property, can become an addictive feature in the landscape. It should be used carefully — not overly lavishly — because once established (which takes two to three years), a single vine covers a very large area!
I first saw climbing hydrangeas at Frank Cabot’s wonderful Stonecrop Gardens, in Cold Spring, New York, now a public garden. Verdant, massive vines climbed up many of the giant trees, which looked like a new species because their trunks were completely covered with green leaves and white flowers. I asked Frank about them and whether it was wise to grow such large species on and up trees. He told me they were appropriate, and did not hurt the growth or the health of large trees as long as the vines didn’t weigh down the higher, smaller branches.
I planted my first climbing hydrangeas on my farm to cover the trunks of the large sugar maples and spruce trees growing near the houses. In several years the trunks were totally concealed, and they now look like how I envision the woodland did in William Henry Hudson’s novel “Green Mansions.” Five years ago, after a hurricane cleared off the tops of six enormous spruces by the entrance to my property, it occurred to me during cleanup that these “stumps” would be ideal climbing stakes. We planted one vine at the base of each. Today, due to the lush growth of the vines, the stumps are 6 to 7 feet wide and 20 feet high. All year long they just look like huge shrubs.
The vines are most beautiful in bloom during the early summer. By autumn, the leaves turn a vibrant yellow, another lovely landscape enhancement. They also have great winter color once the foliage has fallen. The exfoliating bark is a rich brownish-red hue, and often the flowers dry on the vines, adding an ethereal beauty.
Climbing hydrangeas love rich soil and do well in full sun, partial shade and even deep shade. Because they are hardy growers with strong aerial rootlets that cling to all surfaces, you can plant them on sturdy structures, like stone or brick walls, chimneys and houses; avoid wooden shingles and clapboard, which can be damaged by these rootlets or “holdfasts.” Be prepared to prune the vines annually to keep them off windows and frames, and even from spreading like a ground cover in the garden. Their enthusiasm to grow knows no bounds.
GROW THEM AT HOME
Native to Asia, climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) thrive in shady and in sunny conditions, and are suited to the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. They flower in late spring and early summer, and show off their exfoliating reddish bark in winter. I love how they grow up tall mature trees, and have planted dozens throughout the farm. Here’s how to plant them.
STEP 1: Dig a hole approximately 2 feet away from the base of the tree. Loosen the earth 6 inches deeper than the height of the pot. Mix in a scoop of organic time‐release fertilizer with the loosened soil.
STEP 2: Remove the plant from its container, and score the roots with a sharp tool, like a hori hori (a Japanese soil knife) or a transplanting knife, to help the roots spread out in the ground.
STEP 3: Position the plant at a 45- to 60-degree angle, so the tops of the foliage are touching the trunk and the roots are pointing away. Fill in with a blend of compost and the soil that was dug from the hole. Tamp down lightly.
STEP 4: Give the plant a good, long soak with the hose for several minutes. Climbing hydrangeas are initially slow to take off, but once established (in a couple of years), they will grow quickly and vigorously.
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