Now is the time to think about hydrangea companion plants you can add to your garden. Why now? Despite the arrival of spring, if you go out and start working in the garden you can do more harm than good. When you walk on “spring wet” soil, you can crush the crowns of your grass or compact the soil. So stay out of the garden until it is well thawed and somewhat dry. Use the time to consider your companion plants for this season.
So Many Options
First, know that there is a wide array of options. Space will only permit me to touch on some of the most popular/easy/successful ones. Take into account some elements of design to make your selections, e.g., color, texture, size, and function.
Let’s start with woodland/smooth hydrangeas (arborescens). Remember they need some shade and moisture to thrive. You can use plants like astilbe for color and textural interest as shown in the foreground in this photo. Both plants enjoy the same part sun and moisture. Notice the ferns in the background that add textural interest.
How about using rhododendrons or maybe some clumping bamboo? The fine foliage of the bamboo contrasts nicely with the bold foliage of the hydrangea. Even better is the winter protection the bamboo and rhodies can provide if you’re thinking of using them with a big leaf hydrangea.
Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) is a very popular choice that can be used in any number of ways. In this photo, it shares the spotlight with a large rock outcropping, some ornamental grasses, and a dwarf spreading spruce. It’s a great low maintenance look!
Use Other Hydrangeas
You can also use other hydrangeas as companion plants. This stand of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Haas’ Halo’ is growing in the protection of Hydrangea paniculata Vanilla Strawberry™ and lovin’ it. The panicle hydrangea provides much needed relief from the afternoon sun which would cook ‘Haas’ Halo’.
The dark foliage of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) makes a striking contrast with the white flowers of Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle Wee White®. Use this photo as your inspiration to add any number of dark foliaged plants. Heuchera and Liriope are just two to consider. Even the dark foliage of annual begonias will do the job.
Hydrangea macrophylla options
What about your big leaf hydrangeas? Among the numerous options are this large-leaved blue-tinted hosta. It shows up in lots of gardens. The scale of the hosta matches that of the hydrangea beautifully while the shades of blue make for a very calming effect. The blue hosta needs the shade from the hydrangea since it would lose its color in the sun.
The Usefulness of Daylilies
You can successfully marry daylilies (Hemerocallis) with hydrangeas. They will flower a little less vigorously if they are on the shady side so site them as best you can. This photo is a classic Van Gogh scheme of orange and blue. Check out the hydrangea arborescens in the background where there is more shade. It provides color contrast to set off the flowers of the big leaf hydrangea.
That Van Gogh combo gets better when you add the variegated foliage of Phlox paniculata ‘Nora Leigh’ (on the right) to the mix. The phlox brightens the shade and sets off the orange daylilies and blue hydrangeas. The large, hydrangea-like flower clusters of this phlox create a spectacular show in the garden. You’ll get fragrant white flowers with a contrasting pink eye, and boldly variegated leaves, splashed with green and creamy-white. Even when it’s not in flower, it makes a great garden accent.
For a dramatic combo, try a white flowered hydrangea like this Hydrangea macrophylla Double Delights™ Wedding Gown with a dark flowered daylily. Here you see the impact of daylily ‘Midnight Raider’. The daylily has stunning, large reddish-purple blooms with luminous yellow centers surrounded by white flares. It will re-bloom in late summer for a spectacular color accent. Unlike other daylilies, its grass-like foliage stays green throughout the season.
You could also “box your hydrangeas in” using boxwood in any number of ways, e.g., as a border. The best part is that boxwoods can provide winter protection for tender hydrangea buds. And, they add winter interest to the landscape when hydrangeas lose their leaves.
Japanese Forest Grass and Clematis
As mentioned earlier, using Japanese Forest Grass with a blue-flowering big leaf hydrangea is a popular combination as shown below.
Things get more interesting later in the season when the clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ comes into flower on the trellis. Its deep purple flowers contrast nicely with the golden grass and blue hydrangea flowers. Any deeply colored vine can be substituted for the clematis.
Using Small Trees
If you’ve got too much sun for your big leaf hydrangea, plant a small tree like a Kousa dogwood or a sumac. This one is Tiger Eyes® Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac. It has that fabulous fine golden foliage all season long and can provide much needed shade for your smaller hydrangeas. Like all sumacs, it tolerates a wide range of soils as well as urban conditions. It will even work in either poorly drained soils or very dry soil. As magnificent as the summer colors are, the dramatic effect of the sumac comes in fall. It is something to see as it turns yellow, orange and intense scarlet in the cooler temps of autumn.
Hydrangea serrata companions
Hosta ‘Guacamole’ is a stunning companion for any blue flowered hydrangea. Here you see it with mountain Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Billow’ as its yellow tinted foliage sets off the flowers. The bold foliage of the hosta contrasts well with the delicate look of the lacecap hydrangea flowers to create a garden show-stopper. The hosta’s huge, glossy, apple green leaves are surrounded by streaked, dark green leaf margins just like an avocado. Leaf centers become a brighter gold in summer and when exposed to more sunlight while the margins remain dark green. The hosta’s pale lavender flowers are very fragrant late summer additions to the garden.
As long as we are talking about mountain hydrangeas, this combination is an attention grabber. The delicate lacecap hydrangea flowers are accented by the bold foliage of the Japanese Forest Grass (once again). But then we have the added contrast of the purple Heuchera and variegated foliage of the Lamium.
What about companion plants for your panicle hydrangea? This photo shows an annual planting of scarlet colored petunias at the base of the white flowers of a panicle hydrangea. Any deeply colored flower will do as long as it can take the sun. Or plant your favorite shade lover on the leeward side of the hydrangea to get the same effect.
You can see the fragrant flowers of Garden Girls™ Glamour Girl Phlox paniculata peeking out in this photo. This phlox is just the right companion for dwarf Hydrangea paniculata Bobo®. Large panicles of hot coral pink flowers bloom on strong dark purple stems. The phlox is a butterfly and hummingbird magnet in addition to being extremely mildew resistant. Add to that its bright green foliage that stays attractive all season.
Oakleaf hydrangeas need companion plants on a different scale to match their size. At the New York Botanical Garden, this grouping of a purple leaved ninebark, and golden threadleaf cypress highlight the magnificence of the hydrangea.
But you can just as easily go with a dwarf Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’) to provide the contrast of color and texture.
What to do in lieu of plants
Maybe your site won’t accommodate another plant. That opens the door to use ornaments to serve the same purpose of highlighting your hydrangeas. A well placed small statue or a bench might be just what is needed.
Or maybe even an artfully arranged fence corner.
Find the right companions for your hydrangeas
When choosing companion plants or ornaments for your hydrangeas, think about maximizing color, adding textural interest, and extending bloom time in your garden. With the right pairings, hydrangeas can help you do just that and provide months of beauty.
Upcoming Public Talks/Presentations
This is a new year and I am continuing to book talks, both virtual and live (HOORAY!!!). If you are interested in having me speak to your group, just click HERE and you will be taken to the “Contact Me” page of my site to begin our dialogue. I cover lots of other topics besides hydrangeas, as you will see when you click on “Speaking Topics.” All my talks are 5-star rated, so you won’t be disappointed.
Here are three public presentations that may interest you:
March 30, 10 am – noon: Safe Solutions to Gardens and Landscapes, UConn Garden Master Class. Format: Virtual. Fee based depending on your Master Gardener status. Learn how to manage your garden without poisoning yourself or the planet.
April 9, 9.30-11.30: Shrubs, The Backbone of the Garden, New York Botanical Garden. Format: Virtual. Cost: Member – $55; Non-member – $59. Learn how to use shrubs in your garden.
May 7, 10.00 am – 1 pm: Shady Characters, New York Botanical Garden. Format: In person. Cost: Member – $65; Non-member – $69. Learn about shade gardening, what to do and how to do it.
For longer range planning, I am pleased to tell you that I am speaking on July 7 at this year’s Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival. The details of the full program are still being developed, but if you want to be on the Cape for its prime hydrangea season, now is the time to get your ducks lined up and maybe make hotel arrangements.
I look forward to seeing you. Tell/bring your friends
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