Endless Summer: Loving the Showy Hydrangea

Durell Godfrey

The hydrangea just might be the East End’s favorite flower – beloved for producing unending armloads of color, from blue and pink Nikkos to vanilla-cone PeeGees. I love them for the bouquets that grace many places in and out of my house in the warmer months. That I am not alone can be witnessed on a drive through the South Fork in summer, when you will see big, showy blooms waving from the smallest backyards to the expansive grounds of multimillion-dollar mansions. In some neighborhoods hydrangeas are also as ubitquitous as privet.

As a young, stay-at-home mother of three, I hit upon the idea of selling dried flower bouquets at craft fairs as a way of bringing in a little money. Although I used roses as well as hydrangeas, I kept up my inventory by planting many hydrangeas. I have 10 to 12 different varieties on my small home plot in Montauk to this day.

Over time, I have learned quite a few things about hydrangeas, including a few ways to keep the deer from eating the blooms when they are at their finest.  I used to do landscaping for others in those days, too, and, from one of my clients, I discovered that clippings of human hair scattered about the base of a hydrangea couldn’t be beat as a deer repellant. This made me think deer were pretty dumb, but whatever works (right?) — and that includes human urine. Yes, there have been times when I’ve chased my husband outside in darkness to do his business near my hydrangeas. Female urine would probably work as well, but it’s a little harder for gals to spread the gold.

Moth balls tucked into the foot end of a pair of panty hose, when tied to the middle of a bush and left to tumble within its branches, are also a natural deterrent. That is, if you can stand the smell of Grandma’s closet near your beloved garden. And mothballs do smell!

One problem I’ve had is that the big blue blossoms of the Nikko Blue hydrangea, which I’ve wanted to grow over the years, seem to be easy — for everyone else. I can’t complain, though, because the ones I do grow in a small entryway garden have flowers that turn a deep, unusual purple and are easy to dry. Neighbors ask for cuttings.

I soon found out that even if you buy a Nikko Blue from the best nursery, its color can change to pink depending on the pH level of your soil. Local nurseries sell pH test kits, which calculate the amount of alkaline in the soil so that you can adjust it and stabilize the soil. But don’t be dismayed if flowers on the same bush start coming out pink again. As the years go by, most soils will eventually convert back to a natural state and require another treatment.

That’s where the deer droppings come in. The methodology of this deterrent is self-evident. If you’ve got ’em, use ’em.

Another natural method of protecting hydrangeas from deer, which often is suggested in garden magazines and in online forums, is to spread wood ash from the fireplace or wood stove around the base of the plant, although that didn’t work for me. When I tried it, the plant flopped and died within a week. 

There are various hydrangeas whose color will never change from white or cream, and they include the old-fashioned white Annabelle, the oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), and the popular PeeGee (Hydrangea paniculata), which grows into a tree and can get very large if left to do so, as is evident by the large PeeGee that shoots blooms over the fence bordering the gravestones in the old cemetery on Route 27 at the Sagaponack traffic light.

PeeGees are easy to grow. Unlike other hydrangeas, whose pruning must be done at the end of the growing season to prevent cutting off the next year’s bloom, PeeGees can be cut back whenever you get to them. They also emit a sweet smell that will fill a room.

The flowers of a PeeGee are large and conical in shape and blossom on woody stems. They make a nice bouquet but don’t last long in water. The best tip for drying PeeGees came from a woman who used to sell her dried flowers from a backyard in Montauk. She told me, and it’s worked beautifully, to wait until the flowers start to dry on the tree and turn pinky-sage before cutting them for drying. Indoors, place them in a vase with just a small amount of water, which will evaporate over time. I’ve also had luck cutting PeeGees and other varieties late in the season and hanging them upside down in a cool, dry place.

If dried properly hydrangeas keep on giving all winter long. Since fall I’ve had a bouquet of PeeGees in a vase with no water in the bay window at the front of my house. Even though the window faces southwest and gets a strong blast of afternoon sun, they’re still tinged pink and remind me that summer will be back.

Big, floppy hydrangeas make a perfect base for a flower bouquet in a large vase. You can surround the big blooms with wispier flowers or leaves if you like to round out the bouquet. A bunch of one variety plunked in water looks as good, however. Just keep them indoors so the deer don’t think of them as hors d’ oeuvres put there for their enjoyment.