Landscape Problem Solved

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

20120724-154006.jpg‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Incrediball’ smooth hydrangeas massed at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

Three things came together recently to help me solve a landscaping problem that had bothered me for years. First, I was reading one of my favorite blogs called Conrad Art & Glass Gardens authored by Larry Conrad. In a recent post he talked about his favorite combinations including one achieved by massing white and pink smooth hydrangeas. I have been interested in smooth hydrangea, H. arborescens, because it is very shade tolerant. I also like it because it is a native plant found through out much of the eastern United States, including Pennsylvania. The well known cultivar ‘Annabelle’ with very large white mophead flowers was discovered in the wild in the 1960s. It grows well in Maine and has proven to be quite deer resistant on the island where my family vacations.

20120724-185734.jpgWhite and pink smooth hydrangeas massed in Larry Conrad’s Wisconsin garden.

The second thing that brought me to this post was a landscaping dilemma at my family’s house in Maine. There is a perennial garden planted by the previous owners next to the front door. However, no one who uses the house wants to garden there. The native landscape is so beautiful we don’t need any added ornamentals. I had been wondering where to try Larry’s beautiful combination, and this neglected garden seemed the perfect place. I bought three pink and two white smooth hydrangea with the intention of emptying the bed and letting them fill it in.

20120724-195423.jpgSmooth hydrangeas at the entrance to the children’s garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

The third contributor to this post was a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Donna from Garden Walk Garden Talk came to visit me in Maine, and I had to show her this gorgeous garden (among other Maine delights). In the fall of 2010 I wrote about my first visit to CMBG, and I will write a longer post about my recent visit later but right now we are discussing hydrangeas. Imagine my delight when we approached the CMBG children’s garden and found the hydrangea combination I intended to use lining the entrance. My project now had a professional seal of approval, and I couldn’t wait to get home and start digging.

20120725-113605.jpgInvincibelle Spirit’ smooth hydrangea at CMBG

There was a choice of which smooth hydrangea cultivars to use. The biggest determining factor was which plants looked the healthiest at the nursery where I bought them. Although smooth hydrangeas are extremely tough, taking both dry and wet soils, clay, drought, heat, shade, rocky soil, and almost anything else you can throw at them, I have found them difficult to establish if you don’t start with vigorous specimens. There are two pink-flowered cultivars: ‘Bella Anna’ and ‘Invincibelle Spirit’, which has been on the market longer. I have been told that ‘Belle Anna’ is an improvement on ‘Invicibelle Spirtit’, but the plants looked weaker and I don’t think you can improve on the ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ specimens at CMBG in the photo above.

20120725-113851.jpg‘Incrediball’ smooth hydrangea at CMBG

For the white smooth hydrangeas, I had a choice of tried-and-true ‘Annabelle’ and an improved version called ‘Incrediball’, which has even larger, to 12″, globular flowers. Although I wasn’t after larger flowers, I chose ‘Incrediball’ because the flowers are whiter than ‘Annabelle’, which has some lime in it, and because ‘Incrediball’s’ stems have been selected for thickness to avoid flopping when it rains.

20120725-120518.jpg‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Incrediball’ at CMBG

All the smooth hydrangea cultivars grow to around 3 to 5′ wide and 3 to 5′ tall in zones 3 to 9. They flower from June to September, but the dried flowers heads are quite beautiful through fall. They perform best in part shade, but will grow in full sun with consistent moisture. The straight species grows in full shade. They bloom on new wood so pruning in late winter is recommended to encourage vigorous new stem growth.


20120725-122305.jpgMy newly planted smooth hydrangeas

As you can see from the two photos above, my new hydrangeas have been planted. I anticipate that they will fill in the whole bed and crowd out weeds. I am still working on the wall but am quite happy with it so far. I hope the trench along the front will allow us to keep the nasty, tenacious grass out of the bed. If I get really ambitious, I am going to fill the trench with mussel shells from the beach.

* * * * *

This post is my second experiment with publishing a post directly from my recently acquired “new” iPad. Although it was a little easier this time and I mastered bold captions and links, I still had to call Donna in Niagara Falls to help me. I also took the final two photos with the iPad, and I think they turned out quite well. I am very impressed with the camera function on the new iPad, but you can’t truly appreciate the incredible resolution unless you have a very good screen on your computer, which I don’t. I think I would recommend an iPad just for looking at photos, that is if you can afford it. We don’t have internet access at the house in Maine so portability was a big factor for me. But the major reason I got it, 3G/4G capability is a huge disappointment, which I will explain at a later date.


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55 Responses to “Landscape Problem Solved”

  1. That’s really a fabulous combination Carolyn. I’m thinking off adding these to a corner in my back shade garden. I think Hydrangeas lift dark areas beautifully, their foliage is wonderful too.

  2. Hi, Carolyn, I’m a new subscriber to your site and am enjoying it very much – beautiful and informative; however, I was very surprised to read that you found the Annabelle smooth hydrangea to be deer-resistant – I live in New York State and I can assure you the deer here loving Annabelles – I had to move them into my fenced-in pool area where they are thriving after two years of disappointment – I surely hope you have better luck than I did!

    • Pamela, H. arborescens is written up in all the literature as being the most deer resistant species of hydrangea. Where I am in Maine, the deer pressure was intense–between 100 and 200 deer on an island that could support 6 total (culling has since occurred)—and this type of hydrangea remained untouched. But deer resistant does not mean deer proof: a lot of other factors go into whether deer will eat a specific plant including location, time of year, available alternatives etc. That is why I said it has proven deer resistant on my island in Maine instead of saying it was deer resistant generally. Carolyn

  3. Love the soft colours and good luck with your newly planted Hydrangeas!

  4. What an inspiring post. I have H. arborescens ‘White Dome’ and have been impressed by its toughness — it grows vigorously in almost full sun in a relatively dry position but with clay soil. The flowers attract a lot of interesting pollinators, but they of course don’t have the full mop-head look of the cultivars you are writing about. I’ve been toying with the notion of getting ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ but haven’t found the right spot. I will be interested in hearing if it does hold up well — I originally chose to get ‘White Dome’ instead of ‘Annabelle’ mainly because I find floppy plants really annoying.

    • Klaus, I have read that Annabelle only does well in the full sun in the northern parts of its range. It does have a reputation for floppiness so that drove me to Incrediball. Let’s hope its claims are justified because I don’t like floppy plants either. I planted an Invincibelle Spirit in a public garden on the island last summer, and it is doing quite well. Carolyn

  5. I like the mixing of the pink ones and white ones to form a lovely hedge of H. arborescens. Look forward to seeing it as it grows and fills in.

  6. wifemothergardener Says:

    Looks great Carolyn! I like that pairing a lot. I once saw H. ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ planted with some white daisies and those large pink astilbe plumes. Very cottage.

    Happy vacationing!

  7. I really had a laugh at your last sentence. I can bet a rant is coming on that one. I have to totally agree with you on it too. The post turned out good. The only difference now is the justification.

    The hydrangea are a beautiful combination and will look splendid when they fill in you new bed. Your wall looks great, and I know the work involved in building it.

  8. I’m fascinated – I thought deer ate ALL hydrangeas?

  9. I hope your combo fills in and works there. I have a bad taste in my mouth over Invincibelle Spirit. When they first came out I thought these will be a great seller, and I brought in many from several different growers. Every one of them were weaklings, the color was insipid and the stems flopped. Needless to say I had many left over, but I do not blame the plant, rather I blame a rush to market from the wholesalers. The few I had left from last year were beautiful this summer, and I am guessing the extra root growth was key.

    • Les, I agree with you. I bought an IS last year too and it was weak and died. Plant breeding has become so much more about the money that I think sometimes the quality suffers in the rush to sell. However, the IS I planted last year in Maine is beautiful, and the specimens at the CMBG are thriving. Carolyn

  10. They look lovely Carolyn. I grow Annabelles here and adore them. They are a hardy lot even in my garden. I’ve not tried the pink arborescens yet but will certainly be on the lookout. I’ve never visited CMBG but Mr. Cullina spoke to our PPSMT and really made it all sound wonderful. Of course just about all gardens in Maine are wonderful IMHO.

    • Tina, I agree with you about gardens in Maine. Although the season is short, the plants thrive due to the weather and the relative lack of pests and diseases. When I moved from ME to PA, I was shocked by the numbers of problems that plagued my plants. Bill Cullina is a very engaging speaker. Carolyn

  11. Carolyn, This was very helpful to me. I’ve long loved hydrangeas, but had given up on the idea of growing them in my Maine garden because of the sandy soil. Your description of how tolerant these plants are of a variety of conditions once they’re established has me reconsidering. Thanks!

  12. Hi Carolyn, I think the mix of white and pink hydrangeas is very striking. I may have to copy the idea myself.

  13. paulinemulligan Says:

    Your hydrangeas will soon fill in your bed and cover the ground, they will look wonderful in a couple of years time. The hydrangea family are good for providing colour for such a long time, you have made a good choice!

  14. Hydrangeas are planted in almost all gardens here in Italy even though they are maybe the single most unsuitable plant for the climate. Unless they are planted in deep shade they need watering twice a day! In pots it’s the same issue. I love them in the right places (your shade garden being an obvious example but I hope this won’t encourage others to plant them in incompatibel climates.

    • Christina, I am writing about a particular type of hydrangea, smooth hydrangea, and its use in a particular location, the mid-Atlantic to north eastern United States where it is native. I am sure that readers realize that they shouldn’t rush out and plant any old hydrangea anywhere. Just like any plant, you should research how it does in your particular location. Carolyn

  15. Carolyn I adore these hydrangeas as they are so reliable. I have Annabelle in my white garden and the deer do a bit of damage early in spring. My deer eat everything. I have not tried ‘Incrediball’ but think I will now. I do have ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ although it has taken a long time to establish. A bit bigger this year and I hope it will really grow in next yr, yr 3 for it. It is in a drier area. I like the idea of these hydrangeas massed. Great post from your iPad.

    • Donna, Since these hydrangeas bloom on new wood, early spring deer damage is not as much of a problem as with plants that bloom on old wood. The Invincibelle Spirit that I planted last year, is looking good this year, and I expect it to be thriving next year. Carolyn

  16. Really enjoyed this post. I just planted ‘Invincible Spirit’ this year, partly because I was looking for a continually blooming Hydrangea, and partly in honour of my sister who has been battling Breast Cancer this year with ‘invincible spirit’! But, I am curious as to what you mean, when you say ‘smooth’ Hydrangeas? I’ve never heard that term before.

  17. I think hydrangeas must really love dull, wet weather because the mopheads in the UK are bigger than I remember them. I would be tempted to add a few blue ones too but I understand they need different soil. Looking forward to seeing your carefully thought out planting when it’s filled out.

  18. Carolyn, your idea of a trench in front of the wall is brilliant. I have a bed next to our house lined with a native rock wall and the grass is a constant problem. When I decide to finally fix that bed digging a trench will be first on my list.

  19. I love the combination! In fact, I am planning to plant Invincibelle Spirit along my hydrangea walk to complement the Annabelles already growing there. I can’t plant them now, but I hope to find some for fall planting so they will be established by next year.

  20. Those really are impressive photos with the iPad–I never would have guessed! Larry has so many amazing combinations, doesn’t he? The massing of pink and white together is stunning! Good luck with your new Hydrangeas.

    • PP, Yes, I am quite happy with the iPad camera. Now I just need to remember to bring it with me (or my regular camera for that matter). I went on a house tour on another island filled with charming gardens and antique houses and failed to bring my camera. Carolyn

  21. nwphillygardner Says:

    One of the reasons “Annabelle” is so appealing is the slowly evolving color of the blooms from white to pale lime to chartreuse (and with enough sun) some tinges of pink, then drying to khaki beige.
    Do the dull pink flowers of “Invincibelle Spirit” remain as appealing through the late summer and fall?
    Also pretty successful in a mostly shady garden, H. paniculata ‘Limelight’ is opening nicely right now. Even though I cut it back annually, it’s about 8′ tall.

    • Eric, I am not sure what ISpirit does through the seasons because this is the first time I have planted it. However, I would not characterize the blooms as dull pink based on seeing the established plants at CMBG. Even my new shrubs are a lovely shade of pink. Incrediball seems to age to lime like Annabelle but it starts out bright white and the stems are remaining upright through the recent rains we have had. I have ‘Limelight’ in the shade in PA, but it isn’t native, one of my requirements for Maine. Carolyn

  22. Your new garden bed looks like mine right now too. I planted 5 Invincible Spirit in a new bed earlier this summer and of course looks a little sparse for the time being. I have been adding smooth hydrangeas to corners of our newly reno’d yard (from last summer) simply because they are so carefree, especially with a shady garden.

  23. I just bought two of the pink Annabelle’s called ‘Bella Anna’ and I’m so excited as they seem to be pretty stout plants.

  24. Hi Carolyn. I still love ‘Annabelle’ the best — for all its attributes, including the way the flowers turn lime green at a certain stage. Enjoyed seeing the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. I’m trying to talk my husband into retiring to that area. Wish me luck! Maybe I’ll have to settle for just visiting again….

    • DJ, Incrediball ages to lime too but it starts out whiter. I will have to plant Annabelle too and compare them. Mid coast Maine is a great place to live as long as you are good with the long winters and no spring. There is nothing like summer and especially fall in Maine. Carolyn

  25. I have a white one probably Annabelle. I love the white and pink together! We have had very little rain this summer and with the heat this shrub does not look it’s best but it has bloomed away, so I’m impressed with its performance. I hope that I can find the ones you mentioned. Living in a rural area can make finding newer plants challenging.

    • Sue Ellen, I haven’t tested H. arborescens cultivars in drought conditions, but all the literature certainly says they are tough and drought tolerant. It is nice to hear from someone who has one doing well, if not perfectly, in drought. Carolyn

  26. Hi Carolyn, its good to see Hydrangeas gaining popularity once again in the UK. I have never heard of the smooth ones although a Google search shows that they are available over here. The pink and white look really good together.

  27. Barbara DeGrand Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful and highly informative (and technically accurate) blog.
    I find myself referred to it often as I research everything from Hellebores to Hydrangeas…
    I particularly appreciate your comments on Hydrangea arborescens. I have been working to enclose some private space in a SMALL city backyard — under a WALNUT tree… Yikes! I discovered that arborescens hydrangeas are Juglone tolerant!! Your photos helped me picture my wooden gazebo (under the walnut tree) surrounded by Incrediball Blush hydrangea, nicely linking my sunny perennial bed on one side with my shady woodland garden on the other under the tree’s dappled shade. THANKS!!
    Your writing and photos are always superb.

  28. Thanks great bllog post

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