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How to Grow Hydrangeas in Containers

How to Grow Hydrangeas in Containers

By Kristina Howley, Proven Winners® ColorChoice®
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®

For unbelievable beauty anywhere you want it, pop a hydrangea in a pot and put it where you need it to go! Porch, driveway, balcony, sidewalk, deck. If you can dream it, chances are you can beautify it. No matter if your spot has full sun, dappled shade, or something in between, there’s a hydrangea you can display there.

There are a couple of key factors in successfully growing a hydrangea in a container and it starts with your approach. Consider if you intend for your hydrangea planting to be temporary or permanent. Temporary plantings are meant to perform for one season only. At the end of the season you might plant your hydrangea out in the garden or give it to a friend who has space in their landscape. Permanent plantings stay in the same container for several seasons before either getting transplanted into a bigger pot or to a spot in the garden.

Now let’s dig into the details!

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Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha® Reblooming Mountain Hydrangea – Full to part sun, 2-3 ft. tall and wide, USDA zones 5-9.

Container Choice

Temporary: Pretty much any container will work with a temporary planting! As long as it holds soil and has a big enough hole (or a few) in the bottom to release excess water, you are good to go. This means you can use troughs, vintage vessels from antique stores, or the DIY container from your Pinterest board!

If you’re more of a laid back gardener, consider using an AquaPot®! These high quality, self-watering pots make hydrangea container gardening a breeze. Not only are the pots themselves gorgeous, the constant supply of water keeps hydrangeas looking fresh and fabulous too. It’s no secret that container gardening takes a little extra effort with the setup of drip irrigation or frequent hand watering, so this system could really save you some time! Note that AquaPots® are only recommended for temporary plantings as they can break if planted and exposed to frost. 

Permanent: The container material is important if you live in an area that experiences frost. Choose a weatherproof pot; many will have a sticker that lets you know it’s frost proof. If you’re unsure whether or not your container will work, just avoid pots that are clay, terra cotta, or ceramic. Containers that aren’t frost proof often break or shatter when cold strikes, leaving the roots exposed to the harshness of winter.

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area that doesn’t freeze, you could use an AquaPot, as well as any clay, terra cotta, or ceramic pot that catches your eye.

The size of your container matters, since the roots will need room to grow into during its stay. We’ve found that pots measuring at least 16-24” wide and deep will often accommodate a good sized hydrangea nicely for a few years.

If you’ve got a heavy container, think ornate and old, move it into place before you plant the hydrangea. Also, if you plan to overwinter it in a more sheltered spot, plan to have a dolly on hand to move it easily.

Soil

You can use standard potting soil in both temporary and permanent plantings. Its lightweight nature makes it easy for the roots to grow out, plus it makes lifting the container easier. Make sure you have regular potting soil and not seed starting mix, as it may have little to no fertilizer added.

Watering

Attentive watering is the key to success! Containers dry out quickly, especially in the height of summer when it’s especially hot and sunny. Be sure to check your container every day and when it needs watering, do so thoroughly. Pour water around the entire base of your hydrangea (not just one spot), and do so until it starts coming out of the bottom. You’ll find that as your plant matures, it will need more frequent watering since the roots are starting to take up more of the soil space. If possible, you could consider a drip irrigation system, but hand watering is a great option since it gives you an opportunity to observe your plant closely and often.

Fertilizer

The fertilizer that comes in the potting soil is often enough to support temporary plantings, but for permanent plantings you’ll need to apply some each year after the first season. Plan to use an all-purpose flowering shrub formula or a rose fertilizer, as these will have the correct ratio of nutrients for any hydrangea. In early spring, put the fertilizer around the base of the plant, but not touching any branches, and water it in thoroughly. Be sure that you don’t apply fertilizer after late July, as this can promote growth and prevent the plant from going into dormancy correctly.

Plant Choice

Consider these few factors when choosing a hydrangea:

Zone: For a temporary planting, if you plan to transplant the hydrangea into your landscape, you’ll want to make sure it’s hardy in your zone. If the hydrangea will be used like an annual, there’s no need to worry about its zone range.

For a permanent planting, choose a plant that is hardy in your zone. If you plan to keep it in an area that experiences very harsh winter conditions, it’s a good idea to get a plant that is at least a zone or two hardier than yours. For example, if you live in zone 6, a hydrangea that’s hardy down to zone 4 would work well.

Light Requirement: Your spot should get at least some sun or all day dappled light. In warm regions your hydrangea would benefit from afternoon shade, as this will reduce water loss.

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H. paniculata ‘Limelight’, trained as a standard.

Plant recommendations for both light situations:

Full sun (6+ hours of direct sun) - Panicle hydrangeas are the most sun tolerant hydrangea. Try Limelight Prime® (4-6 ft. tall and 4-5 ft. wide, USDA zones 3-8).

Part sun (4-6 hours of direct sun) or dappled shade - Anything but oakleaf hydrangeas*. This includes mountain, smooth, panicle, and bigleaf hydrangeas. Try Invincibelle Garnetta® (2.5 ft. tall and wide, USDA zones 3-8).

*We don’t recommend oakleaf hydrangeas because they don’t often look their best when grown in a container. They flourish when planted in the ground.

Size: For a temporary planting, pick a hydrangea that’s already the physical size that suits your needs. It will grow a bit throughout the season, but not very much. Quart sized hydrangeas look nice planted as a thriller, accompanied by annuals or perennials. Gallon sizes are often large enough to fill in a pot by themselves.

For a permanent planting, consider the eventual size of the hydrangea, since it will be living and growing in its spot for a few years. Choose one that is well suited for the space you’d like to display it. Here are a few recommendations:

Compact

1-2.5 ft. tall and wide - Invincibelle Wee White® smooth hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 3-8).

2 ft. tall and 2.5 ft. wide - Wee Bit Grumpy® bigleaf hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 5-9).

Mid-size

3-4 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide - Let's Dance Can Do!™ mountain hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 4-9).

2-3 ft. tall and wide - Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha® mountain hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 5-9).

Large

6-8 ft. tall and 5-6 ft. wide - Quick Fire Fab® panicle hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 3-8).

6-8 ft. tall and wide - Pinky Winky® panicle hydrangea (Full to part sun, USDA zones 3-8).

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H. paniculata Bobo®

Planting

Potting up your shrub is as easy as planting it in the landscape, but with a few minor tweaks. Starting off, if you’d like to prevent soil from escaping out of the bottom, you can cover the hole with a coffee filter, paper towel, or fine mesh. This will hold the soil in for a while, but still lets the water flow through. Next you’ll fill the container with soil, up to the level where the bottom of your hydrangea will sit. Place the hydrangea (pot and all) into your container and fill soil around it, firming it into place as you go. Once the soil level of the potted hydrangea and the soil level around the outside match, remove the potted hydrangea. Gently take the plastic nursery pot off your hydrangea and place the hydrangea back into the hole. Firm the soil in around the hydrangea. Water your new planting thoroughly! Come back an hour or so later and check that the soil is still level around the entire surface, since potting soil will occasionally settle and slightly expose the rootball. Fill in any low spots and lightly water again. Place a 2” layer of mulch on the soil surface and your hydrangea is ready to show off!

Preparing for Winter

Hydrangeas in pots can often overwinter in place, but you can move yours if you’re worried it might get blasted by harsh wind or suffer under piles of snow. The perfect spot would be next to your home, out of the wind, but still exposed to sun and able to receive precipitation. It’s important to overwinter hydrangeas outdoors, since they need to be exposed to the elements to stay on their natural rhythm.

Soil moisture is important whether you live in a cold or warm climate. For gardens that are warm year round, be sure to check your hydrangea throughout the winter. Make sure the soil is moist and give it a small drink if it’s on the dry side, but try not to soak it. For gardeners experiencing freezing winters, give your plant a healthy drink a couple of weeks before winter strikes, this will help it survive the drying winds of wintertime. In all climates, a layer of mulch around the base will help it retain water.

Transplanting

You’ll know your hydrangea needs to be transplanted once it starts to slow down. It will either flower less or put on less height and width than normal. This can happen anywhere from three to five seasons after you’ve planted it. You can either transplant it into a bigger pot with new soil or find a spot for it out in your garden. Either way, you’ll plant it in the same manner you’re accustomed to planting a newly purchased shrub, but this time be sure to scratch those close growing roots vigorously with your fingers to loosen them up and it will happily grow on in its new home!

Now you know that growing hydrangeas in containers is as easy as can be, it might be hard to keep from putting them absolutely everywhere!


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