When I was running through what is flowering in the back garden at the moment, I forgot to mention the hydrangeas. I do not think it was a case of the Freudian process of repression as a factor in forgetting: it was late and I was tired. I am extremely fond of hydrangeas, and if I had a larger and damper garden I should grow more of them.
They are stalwarts of the large garden for late summer colour. Go to many of the great British gardens that were originally designed for peak impact in the spring or early summer, and you will see banks of hydrangeas being planted out as their owners and managers realise that July and August are important holiday and tourist months, and that by then not only are the naturalised daffodils a distant memory, but the rambling roses planted up the trees are over. Hydrangeas are classic season extenders. They sit happily in a woodland garden, and are far less demanding of time and maintenance than a herbaceous border.
Outside the conservatory is 'Ayesha' Mk II. The real thing is a flat headed pink hortensia type, with unusually fleshy petals. It enjoyed the wet June, and has made a great deal of growth, so much so that it is starting to crowd in on the tree peony next to it, and may need some careful editing soon. In the hierarchy of garden occupants, Paeonia rockii rates well above mophead hydrangeas. Sorry, Ayesha. Next to it is Ayesha Mk I, which was sold to me as 'Ayesha' although as soon as it bloomed it became clear that it was no such thing. The petals are pink but not at all fleshy, and fundamentally undistinguished. I once tried to dig it out, broke my fork on it, and gave up. It is harmless, and now looks quite pretty with a couple of self sown wild ferns growing up through its feet. I would have no hesitation in razing it to the ground if it started growing into anything else.
Next to the nameless pink is a paniculata type hydrangea with pointed domed heads of flowers. The variety is 'Vanille Fraise': the freshly opened flowers are currently a dead shade of white, but will turn pink in due course. It is rather crammed in against a dark leaved Podocarpus, which is growing like billy ho following the wet spell, and rose 'Sally Holmes', which is looking distinctly sorry for itself (herself). The hydrangea would probably like to have more space, and may yet make a growth spurt and start fighting back against the conifer. Shrubs in this garden that don't die in the couple of years after planting often speed up later on, once they have got their roots right down.
In the sloping bed along the southern boundary of the back garden are an oak leaved hydrangea and another paniculata. Hydrangea quercifolia is a lovely thing, with tall, pointed domes of flowers that are (from memory) individually larger and more widely spaced than the paniculatas. I think of them as being opulent but less dense, without being precisely sure how they achieve that effect without looking at one. The large, oak shaped leaves colour well in the autumn and remain on the bush for a long time. This is my second plant. The first suddenly died but I was never sure why. Winter cold, perhaps? The replacement is still quite small. Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' nearby is another form whose flowers start off white before changing colour, in its case to a pale lime green.
Hydrangea paniculata flowers on the current year's wood so in March you can prune it fairly hard to a lowish framework. After several anxious weeks in which nothing seems to happen at all it will suddenly produce a lot of strong straight shoots which will start flowering around the last week of July. You could not prune it, of course, in which case it would make a larger shrub with more but individually smaller panicles of flowers. With pruning mine makes it to about five or six feet in a season, which is plenty. As Christopher Lloyd pointed out, most shrubs only flower on their outsides so if you let them get too large they occupy a great deal of space to no good purpose. Do not try this pruning regime on mopheads if you want flowers in the same year. If you need to reduce the size of a mophead the best way is to take out some of the oldest and longest stems at the base annually, renewing the plant over several years.
At the bottom of the sloping bed lives Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle', a shrub of mildly suckering habit whose lax stems are scarcely up to the job of supporting the vase domes of white flowers. 'Annabelle' was very trendy a few years ago, which I suppose means that in due course she will go out of fashion, if she hasn't already. Like the paniculatas she can be pruned quite hard in the spring, and one of these years I may buy mine a smart rusted iron plant support to stop her flopping at what should be her moment of glory.
Around the corner in the ditch bed is a variety of Hydrangea aspera. They have huge felty grey leaves, and make imposing shrubs if happy and gaunt, sad ones if not. Mine was looking great a few years ago, then just as I was preening myself that it was so much better than the one in the Beth Chatto gardens it went abruptly off the boil. They hate dry summers, and while they like some shade they don't like too much, as far as I can work out. Watch out for encroaching trees, as corners that seemed just pleasantly shady can become oppressively dark after a couple of seasons without your really noticing. My plant is the variety 'Mauvette' which flowers in a pleasantly subfusc shade of purple. Pruning at the moment is limited to trimming out the dead wood.
Nearby is a lacecap whose identity I'm not sure about off the top of my head. I had more hydrangeas along the ditch in the early years, but some died of winter cold or summer drought, others were shaded out as the trees grew, and a couple drowned after a very wet winter when the water table rose under them and turned their bed to mud soup. I know I still have 'King George', a mophead which flowers in a rather beetrooty shade of red and which has made prodigious growth in the past fifteen years since being liberated from a pot. You can grow hydrangeas in containers, but they need plenty of water and feeding and are probably truly happier in the ground. Most shrubs are. H. macrophylla 'Selina' still battles along in a pot since I fell for her cherry red lacecap flowers at the plant centre. I'd like to get her into the ground but really have no more space. She is looking happier this year since I moved her into a bigger pot, and have been remembering to feed her.
There are lots more I'd grow if only I had space. There are some fabulous bright blue forms, while 'Zorro' in addition to electric blue flowers has black stems. I'd love one of those, as I would the wonderfully named 'Merveille Sanguine' with its plum red flowers and bronze coloured young leaves. But there is no more room until something dies or is evicted.