There are many vaunted harbingers of spring. Depending on your degree of optimism or downright determination to shrug off the gloom of the dark days of winter, these glimmers of hope that the seasons are shifting can be as early as December. More so if you are immersed in the outdoors, working through the dark mornings, the light barely improving as the short day turns, you will notice even the slightest shift. To those hardy souls the cycle is perceived as it continues, albeit at a slow pace, by the fattening of a bud, the change in tone of the branches of a tree, catkins beginning to stretch, all very subtle. Then we have the emergence of the first flowers, the winter aconites, snowdrops, early Narcissus, the Hellebores, Daphne, Sarcoccoca, and Witch Hazel. Suddenly there is momentum. That’s it, winter is done, and spring is here.
Now every year I am chomping at the bit for the growing season to start. To put into action all those plans made, rectify mistakes and failures, try new things, witness new plantings grow. These wonderful hardy plants, a joy that they are, trigger this response, this impatience to get on with the growing. But a calmness is needed, tis early days after all. Now to combat this urge to sow, plant, dig, there are certain tasks to be done in the garden that over the years I now use as my measure of the seasons rather than those lovely diminutive flowers, those lovely spicy scents.
One of these tasks is the pruning of Hydrangeas. I know that when the pruning of the Hydrangea is being carried out that spring is not far away, the sun is definitely higher in the sky, the days are beginning to stretch out and the birds are getting vocal.
There is a lovely double border that runs down the centre of the upper garden here at Lismore Castle, aligned with the spire of the cathedral adjacent, and backed by an old yew hedge. It runs for over 100m and is in three sections as it drops down the terraces. The eastern end section has a nice variety of hydrangeas as well as a few Magnolias, Myrtles and Abutilon vitifolium seeding itself amongst them. Credit goes to the previous gardeners to plant them in a block where they did as an antidote to the busy herbaceous planting further up the border and for something that adds scale and structure as well as flowering interest later in the season, holding the spent flowers through the winter.
Now, it is easy to be dismissive of these fantastic plants seen somewhat as old fashioned as a blue rinse. But if you look beyond the mop heads of Hortensia Hydrangea macrophylla and the swim cap blooms of blue to dirty pink sterile flowers (not that I am not a fan of them) there are other species and their cultivars that are well worth growing in your garden. Hydrangea paniculata is a particular favourite of mine. A well behaved plant with a great shape that looks as good in winter as it does in summer. It flowers on the current season’s growth so a nice framework can be maintained by cutting back the previous season’s growth to within a few buds in late winter; this will also help produce larger flowers. The panicles of flowers consist of small fertile flowers and larger sterile flowers (florets). The flowers range in colour from white to lime green to blushed pinks and reds, many changing colour as they mature. The conical flowers range in size from 3”- 10”. There are cultivars that flower from mid-summer like ‘Praecox’ and some that flower late summer into autumn like ‘Tardiva’. Their size can vary also from the relatively diminutive ‘Dharuma’ at 5ft to ones like ‘grandiflora’ that can get to 10ft or more. There are large flowered showy ones like ‘Limelight’ and ‘Pinkywinky’ but I’m more drawn to the less showy, subtle ones like ‘Kyushu’ or ‘Greenspire’. Hydrangea paniculata will grow happily in full sun and colder areas where other types of hydrangeas do not thrive, although avoid windy sites, and will be happy in a normal soil, ideally the illusive humus rich, moist but free draining one, but hey, we don’t all have that.
A great plant to add to the border, H.paniculata has a quiet manner about it, a patient calmness. There is no rush, but as I prune back last season’s stems I know that spring is definitely round the corner.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’