Throughout Southern California, for the past century at least, hydrangeas were a mainstay of the summer landscape. Then, like bell-bottoms, they nearly disappeared. Fortunately, over the past few years they have regained popularity and are again among the most planted shrubs in our coastal gardens.

Hydrangeas are hot, very hot. What has returned Hydrangeas to fashion status is the new breeding and new varieties that are now available. Varieties that bloom nearly year-round. Varieties that stay under two feet. Varieties with leaves that turn burgundy-red in the fall. Varieties with multi-colored flowers.

The biggest breakthrough in the history of hydrangea culture was the discovery, in the 1990’s, of a repeat-flowering plant growing in a garden in Minnesota. It was the Holy Grail of Hydrangeas. Until this chance discovery, all mop-head hydrangeas in the world, no matter how lovely, were once-bloomers. Hydrangeas were summer bloomers only. But a single plant growing in a Minnesota garden changed everything.

Hydrangeas differ from other popular plants like geraniums, hibiscus, roses and bougainvillea. These plants bloom nearly year-round because they set flowers as they grow; growing and blooming almost continually. Now, with the genes from this Minnesota plant, hydrangeas would forever change. Two years ago the first repeat-blooming hydrangea, appropriately named ‘Endless Summer’, was sold at Roger’s Gardens. ‘Endless Summer’ is now one of the top selling plants in the country.

I am fortunate to have grown ‘Endless Summer’ in my garden for five years now and it flowers at least eight to ten months of the year. It’s a breakthrough, and it’s just the beginning.

I am also testing ‘Blushing Bride’, another repeat-blooming hydrangea, which will be introduced to the public in about two more years. A very light pink, it may even out bloom ‘Endless Summer. I’ll keep you posted. ‘Penny Mac’ is another repeat-bloomer I’m trying.

For small spaces or small pots ‘Pink Elf’ is the hydrangea of choice. Growing about half the size of most varieties, it is a compact mound of flowers and is small enough that a few can be nestled into almost any landscape.

‘Lady in Red’ is another new hydrangea and offers a pleasant twist on an old favorite. In the fall, the foliage of ‘Lady in Red’ lights up the garden with a mild burgundy red. Along the coast of Orange County, the color holds for months. A whole other season of interest. Although this is the first year ‘Lady in Red’ is being sold, I have been fortunate to have grown ‘Lady in Red’ in my garden for two or three years and the fall color is beautiful.

No discussion about hydrangeas would be complete without a few words on pruning. Improperly pruned hydrangeas are common in Orange County, if not the norm. Last week I visited home gardens in the communities of Laguna Beach, Tustin and Corona del Mar. These were extraordinary gardens, many with big, leafy hydrangeas present. Unfortunately, there were very few flowers or buds on most of these. The reason was improper pruning. Specifically, pruning at the wrong time of the year.

Most gardeners reading this probably still don’t have the re-blooming variety ‘Endless Summer’ in their garden. Other than ‘Endless Summer’, mophead type hydrangeas must never be pruned during the fall, winter of spring. Unfortunately, most gardeners, wanting to tidy up their plants during the winter months, give a little trim. A cut here and a cut there doesn’t appear to do any serious harm, but you’ve just eliminated most of next years flowers.

During the fall, hydrangeas begin setting buds in the tips of their stems. You won’t be able to see these buds until the following year when they become the season flowers. Trim your hydrangea in November, December or January and what happens? A big leafy plant next summer; the only flowers from the few stems that you missed when you pruned.

Hydrangea pruning is surprisingly simple, it’s really just a matter of timing. As soon as this summers flowers fade, cut the stem below the flower to just above a healthy set of dormant buds. To keep the plant a bit smaller, cut further down the stem. For a bigger plant, cut higher. That’s it. Now leave the plant alone until it blooms again next year; then repeat the process. Remember, since ‘Endless Summer’ re-blooms, you can prune this variety almost anytime. That’s another reason why it is unique.

How about a re-blooming hydrangea that stands only 18” tall? It’s called ‘Mini Penny’ and it may be on the market by 2009. How about a re-bloomer with bi-colored flowers or one with brilliant fall color? How about yellow flowers? Hydrangea breeders are working on these now.

What was humdrum is now one of the hottest plants in the world of gardening.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar