The 2023 American Hydrangea Society (AHS) Tour did not disappoint! Many members had been sharing stories about the damage their gardens suffered in the 2 late freezes that we experienced this year and I wasn’t sure how this would impact the 2023 tour. The host gardeners did a remarkable job and each of their Atlanta area gardens were a thrill to behold.

Oak Leaf and “Annabelle”(arborescens) Hydrangeas Were the Stars of this Tour

Laurie Wakefield, GardenZeal Creator, Master Gardener, American Hydrangea Society Member, also a member of the Norcross Garden Club

Bigleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) were impacted by the freeze and didn’t have many blooms, however for the most part, their foliage was lush and beautiful. This is true for my own Hydrangeas as well. I covered mine during the freezes but my Bigleaf hydrangeas haven’t bloomed this year. All of the gardens were spectacular and I only heard a few people express that they missed the more colorful blooms. I do love blue and purple mophead and lace cap blooms but I didn’t miss them much this year. I thought the predominantly green and white displays were quite elegant and they were a magnificent backdrop for colorful perennial flowers. I loved hearing many gardeners express their appreciation for such a beautiful and different season.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dörte Schmieta’s garden to produce a video and blog article for Soil3 (a link is at the bottom of this article). Dörte is on the board of the American Hydrangea Society (AHS). Her garden was stunning and the information she shared was wonderful. She and Hillary Thompson, Communications Director for Soil3 (also a member of the AHS) provided great information about the different types of Hydrangeas, how to care for them and how soil acidity can effect bloom color. In the video, Dörte talked specifically about how she divided her Annabelle Hydrangeas and developed a spectacular hedge along her driveway. She identified several other types of Hydrangeas in her garden and talked about her planting challenges and techniques. Dörte’s garden had been featured in an earlier AHS tour.  I’m so glad that she encouraged me to come to a meeting, join the AHS and not to miss the next tour.

An enormous "Snow Queen" Oak Leaf Hydrangea

“Snow Queen” Oak Leaf Hydrangea in one of the gardens on the 2023 American Hydrangea Society Tour

I have always loved Hydrangeas but I have to admit, I was surprised to learn that there was a society dedicated to Hydrangeas specifically. After spending time with Dörte and Hillary, I bought a ticket to the AHS Tour last year. My ticket included an annual membership and I have loved all of the meetings that I have been able to attend. I’ve met some great people and learned so much about the different cultivars and how to care for them. I can’t wait to keep adding more to our landscape.

"Peewee" Oak Leaf Hydrangea

“Peewee” Oak Leaf Hydrangea

Annabelle Hydrangeas are native to the East Coast of the United States and they really held up well in our recent freezes. The Annabelle Hydrangeas in my yard have been recently planted and they are very young and small. I was happy to hear a lot about them during the tour. It was interesting to hear different gardeners talk about their different pruning techniques for Annabelle Hydrangeas. The plants can droop over from the weight of the huge blooms. I heard several techniques for keeping them upright. One gardener uses tomato cages (which are placed in the winter, while the plant is dormant). The cages are discrete around the bare stems and the leaves cover the cages in the spring and summer. The Annabelles in the image below are 4-years old and this gardener never prunes them. She used Boxwood shrubs planted around the the Annabelles to support them.

"Annabelle" - Hydrangea Arborescens (sometimes called, smooth leaf) planted with Boxwood Shrubs surrounded a gorgeous fountain in one of the gardens on tour.

“Annabelle” – Hydrangea Arborescens (sometimes called, smooth leaf) planted with Boxwood Shrubs surrounded a gorgeous fountain in one of the gardens on tour.

This was my second AHS tour and this year, I also volunteered to work in one of the gardens. It was so much fun to spend the weekend with fellow Master Gardeners, AHS members and friends from the Norcross Garden Club. We were thoroughly inspired and learned so much. We love talking about gardening and we enjoyed meeting and visiting with so many Hydrangea experts and enthusiasts as we experienced 5 spectacular gardens. We all agreed that we could hardly call it “work” to volunteer!

Each garden had a different personality and style and I really enjoyed meeting all of the owners / gardeners. My mind is still whirling after taking in so many beautiful spaces and plants, meeting great people and learning so much.

These gardeners creatively incorporated gorgeous shade tolerant plants and beautiful hardscapes, fences, gates, borders and paths among their Hydrangeas. Their designs, plant groupings and arrangements were so inspiring. Each one shined with personality with trellises, garden art, ornaments and collections, including historic and reclaimed items. Some also had fairy gardens tucked in among the plants.

All of their gardens were fantastic and it was an absolute delight to spend several hours in the one that we were assigned, near Peachtree Battle.  Along with numerous Hydrangeas and stunning shade plants throughout the garden that surrounds the house, they have even nurtured an enormous Chestnut Swamp Oak tree that is believed to be the oldest and largest of it’s kind north of Macon, Georgia.

Volunteer members of the American Hydrangea Society and the Norcross Garden Club (including me on the right). We are standing at the base of the Chestnut Swamp Oak tree in the garden where we volunteered.

Volunteer members of the American Hydrangea Society and the Norcross Garden Club (including me on the right). We are standing at base of the the enormous Chestnut Swamp Oak tree in the garden where we volunteered.

This charming home and garden were established in the 1920s and the current owners have gardened and loved this property for 45 years! It was wonderful to hear how they have tended and developed the property through the years. Their garden spaces wrap completely around the house. Hydrangeas and beautiful perennial flowers are planted along the street on the side of their home on corner lot. There is no doubt that their neighbors enjoy their garden every time they pass.

When we arrived at our post, we were greeted by the owners precious granddaughters, raising money for charity at a Lemonade stand in the driveway.

When we arrived at our post, we were greeted by the owners precious granddaughters, raising money for charity at a Lemonade stand in the driveway.

So many of the plants in this garden were very mature, including the gorgeous sprawling Maiden Hair Fern shown below. The gardener said she planted 3 Maiden Hair ferns that she’d had inside her home and they have gradually and naturally sprawled through a huge planting bed. Indirect sunlight and good soil and water were the perfect formula for this stunning fern.

Lush Maiden Hair Fern that has been propagated over many years

Lush Maiden Hair Fern, propagated over many years

All of these gardens were excellent demonstrations of so many of the lessons we were taught in Master Gardening classes. Things I had learned but had forgotten or doubted were reinforced. I also learned many news things and came away energized, with lots of new ideas. A few of my key take-aways from the 2023 tour follow:

  1. Restorative Pruning Works – Don’t Give Up on Damaged Plants to Quickly! The late hard freezes that we experienced this year did damage to a lot of plants. However, these gardeners did some hard (“restorative”) pruning after the freeze. Many Hydrangeas were not blooming but their foliage had returned quickly and was absolutely gorgeous, lush and healthy. I learned about restorative pruning in Master Gardening classes but I have to admit, I’m an impatient gardener. It has been hard for me to believe that brown plants can be pruned back to life. It was really exciting to see how these gardeners rescued their Hydrangeas and other plants from the freeze damage, and how quickly they have recovered. I am sure that blooms will return next year.
  2. “Annabelle”, Hydrangea arborescens really stood up to the freeze! I knew about Annabelle Hydrangeas from Dörte’s garden but on this tour, I got to see everything she described in full bloom. We started 2 Annabelle cuttings in our own garden this year and although the plants are very small, they are covered in blooms. Nearly every garden on the tour this weekend had spectacular Annabelles on display.
  3. Oakleaf Hydrangeas also held up beautifully through the freeze. Most that I saw this weekend were not only standing tall but they were covered in gorgeous blooms.  “Snow Queen” and “Ruby Slippers” (shown with the Allium in the title image of this post)  are spectacular, I can’t wait to plant them in my garden.
  4. Shade plants are FABULOUS! There are so many incredible shade plants to discover and use along with Hydrangeas. I was thrilled by the sight of so many interesting varieties of Hosta, Ferns, Dogwood, Viburnum and other interesting shade plants. I loved seeing a magnificent spread of Maiden Hair Fern – evidence that with adequate shade and water, it can self-propagate and spread in Zone 7B! I can’t wait to try it!
  5. Proof that good soil, water and mulch are absolute essentials for successful gardens. If you want beautiful Hydrangeas, you can’t just stick them in the ground and forget about them.
  6. Time spent with other gardeners in the garden is good for my soul! I have been reminded again how much I love spending time with other Gardeners. Most gardeners that I meet are creative, generous with their knowledge and experience and lots of fun to hang around. There is always something new to learn.

If you want to learn more about Hydrangeas join the American Hydrangea Society and meet this friendly and enthusiastic group of people. You’ll enjoy learning from wonderful speakers at meetings throughout the year. Membership entitles you to a free ticket to the annual AHS Hydrangea Garden Tour, three full-color (emailed) newsletters with notes about recent lectures, articles, photos, and information of interest about hydrangeas as well as access to previous newsletters (only accessible to members) through the AHS Membership Toolkit site. Members also enjoy working together on volunteer workdays in the gorgeous garden at the Atlanta History Center.

A link to the article and video with AHS board member, Dörte Schmieta is on the Soil3 blog here.