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How to Prune Hydrangeas

I have searched the Internet on the topic of trimming hydrangeas and am still a little confused. My plants are huge and I want to cut them back, but not lose the flowers this summer.

How you prune your hydrangeas depends on what type you have. The old-fashioned pompon variety (Hydrangea macrophylla) blooms on previous year’s growth, or what is referred to as old wood, while Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens set flowers on the current year’s growth.

Let me start with the old-fashioned type as they are the most popular. Also included in this group are lacecaps and oakleafs (H. quercifolia). Little pruning is required with these hydrangeas. In fact, improperly pruned bushes can result in bushes not producing any blooms. In late winter you can tidy up the plant by removing old flower heads and cutting back any dead wood to ground level. Now if you live in a region that experiences topsy-turvy springs with warm spells and cold snaps, wait to prune until after the last frost date. As you prune, cut the faded blooms back to the first set of leaves or leaf buds. If you have a mature shrub that has grown dense in the center, it is a good idea to remove about 1/3 of the oldest stems. This may sacrifice some of the coming summer’s blooms, but it will open the plant up to light and circulation, making it a happier and healthier plant.

Things get a little trickier when it comes to reducing the size of the plant. You have two options. The first option is to cut the plant back in late winter. This will mean that the hydrangea won’t bloom until next year, but I find it much easier to prune at this time because the bones of the shrub are more visible. Simply cut mature stems back by about 1/3. If the plant is completely out of control, cut all the stems back to about 1 1/2 feet tall. Over the course of the summer thin out the new shoots to avoid overcrowding.

The second option is to prune your old-fashioned hydrangea immediately after the flowers fade in the summer. The timing on this is important because the plant needs enough time for the new shoots to harden off before the first frost in fall. For this type of summer pruning, reduce the unwanted height by about 1/3.

Pruning H. paniculata and H. arborescens is a much less complicated task because they bloom on new wood.

‘PeeGee’ is a popular variety of H. paniculata. It produces large cone shaped, creamy white blooms that fade to a nice coppery pink in the fall. ‘PeeGee’ is often grown in a tree form or what is referred to as a standard. This is a single stalk with growth weeping from the top. In late winter cut the stems back to two buds above the base of the stems.

I grow H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ in my garden. It produces huge, white, pompon shaped blooms in late summer. ‘Annabelle’ is a good choice for people living in both cold regions and warm climates. It is less finicky than H. macrophylla, which is only hardy to zone 5 and also doesn’t do well in areas that don’t experience a dormant season. In late winter I simply cut the plant back to varying heights of 1 to 3 feet from the ground. This will help the plant to maintain its informal shape.

Hydrangeas Not Blooming

My Hydrangeas did not bloom last year and it looks like they will not bloom again this year. They are in a mostly shaded area. Please help, I want blooms!

Everyone loves old fashioned hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) and why not? What’s not to love about those showy blooms?

Although hydrangeas are easy to grow they don’t always bloom as expected. And there are some common reasons for that. Let me review some of them.

The number one reason is improper pruning. Old-fashioned hydrangeas set their flowers on previous year’s growth, or what is referred to as old wood. So, in late summer and early fall, your shrub is preparing blooms for next year. In early spring, just as new growth appears, you can tidy up the plant by removing any dead wood and old flower heads. Learn more about pruning hydrangeas.

Other causes for lack of bloom include harsh winter temperatures, warm spells followed by cold weather, and late freezes. All can damage or kill tender flower buds. If you site your plants in a north or east facing area of your garden, you can reduce the chances of the buds opening during aberrant warm winter weather. These areas of the garden warm up slower than south or western exposures. Northern gardeners who know that they are in for a long cold spell can wrap their hydrangeas in burlap for winter protection. Planting the shrubs near house foundations also offers some refuge from cold temperatures.

Too much nitrogen fertilizer will result in an abundance of lovely leaves at the expense of blooms. In my Mid-south garden I fertilize my hydrangeas twice during the summer with a slow release fertilizer, usually in June and then again in August. In cooler climates this can be done once, usually in June. Follow the directions indicated on the fertilizer package.

Re-Blooming Hydrangeas

I have a follow-up question to your recent article about hydrangeas not blooming. While the explanations offered are helpful for old-fashioned varieties, I’d appreciate some advice for the hydrangeas that bloom on both old and new wood. These varieties should bloom regardless of harsh winter weather or late frosts & freezes. If the proper type of fertilizer is used and still no blooms come, what other variable can explain the absence of bloom? I really want my hydrangeas to be the beautiful, showy shrubs they are promoted and advertised to be, but I am pretty frustrated at this point. Thanks for your help.

The re-blooming hydrangea is a wonderful plant whose powers perhaps got a little distorted in all the excitement when it was introduced. There seems to be confusion between the terms re-blooming and ever blooming. Given the right conditions these shrubs will repeat bloom after the first flush, but they do not bloom continuously. There is also a misconception that re-blooming hydrangeas are ideal for any climate. To uncover the mystery behind why your hydrangeas are not performing as promised, it’s good to know how re-bloomers behave compared to the standard, old-fashioned varieties.

Old-fashioned, bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) flower from buds formed on the tips of the stems the previous year. The buds are produced in response to the shorter days and lower temperatures as we approach fall. These hydrangeas bloom the next summer in one glorious show unless the buds are damaged by fall pruning or an especially cold winter or late spring freeze.

Some hydrangeas form buds up and down the stems the previous season, not just at the tips. Because the buds are lower down the stem, closer to the earth, and protected by the foliage of the shrub they can survive lower temperatures than the buds on the tips. They often also escape late season pruning that can eliminate the upper bloom buds. These hydrangeas are called perpetual or free flowering because these lower buds may mature weeks after the first flush of bloom. This makes the blooming period of the shrubs longer.

The beauty of a re-blooming hydrangea is that it will produce flower buds during both the previous season and the current season. If last year’s buds are destroyed by inadvertent pruning, winter temperatures below 10 degrees or a late spring freeze, you can still count on the plant to set new buds on the current season’s growth. This is good news for gardeners in regions where, because of winter hardiness, getting hydrangeas to bloom is difficult.

They are ideal for the Midwest where the winters are usually cold enough to kill the flower buds formed the previous season and yet the warm season is long enough for the shrub to grow, set new bud and bloom before the first fall freeze.

However, in areas where summers are exceptionally short even the re-blooming varieties are not always successful. Typically re-blooming hydrangeas need 12 weeks to produce blooms on new wood. If last fall’s buds are killed over the winter, the growing season may not be long enough for the plant to grow, mature, and bloom before the first autumn frost.

How to Grow Old-Fashioned Hydrangeas

One of my favorite summer flowers is the old-fashioned, pompom shaped Hydrangea macrophylla. I can remember as a child being drawn to the cool shaded area on the north side of the house where my mother had a bank of blue hydrangeas planted. The giant blooms were as big as my head and such a clear, deep blue they seemed to belong in a velvet lined jewel box rather than casually hanging about the garden.

Old-fashioned hydrangeas are easy to grow if you follow a few simple guidelines. Most varieties are cold hardy to zone 5, which means they will tolerate minimum winter temperatures between -10 and -20 degrees F.

Hydrangeas are traditionally known as shade garden plants, but too much shade can result in reduced bloom production. Ideally they should be situated in areas of light shade to partial sun. If you live in a cool climate you can even plant them in full sun.

Old Fashioned HydrangeasHydrangeas are woodland plants so they prefer to be in consistently moist, well-drained, humus rich soil. A generous application of mulch will help keep the roots cool and retain moisture. Little pruning is required with old-fashioned hydrangeas. In fact, improperly pruned bushes can result in bushes not producing any blooms. Old-fashioned hydrangeas set their flowers on previous year’s growth, or what is referred to as old wood. So, in late summer and early fall, your shrub is preparing blooms for next year. In early spring you can tidy up the plant by removing any dead wood and old flower heads. Learn more about pruning hydrangeas.

In my Mid-south garden I fertilize my hydrangeas twice during the summer with a slow release fertilizer, usually in June and then again in August. In cooler climates this can be done once, usually in June. Follow the directions indicated on the fertilizer package. Just remember that too much nitrogen will result in an abundance of lovely leaves at the expense of blooms.

Over the years I have broadened my selection of hydrangeas to include H. paniculata ‘Tardiva’, H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’, H. quercifolia (oakleaf), and H. paniculata ‘Limelight’, but I still treasure the old-fashion varieties for their colorful, long lasting flowers.

Forced Hydrangeas

I received a blooming hydrangea for my February birthday. How do I care for it while I have it indoors and can I plant it outside after it blooms?

What a wonderful gift, hydrangeas are such a fresh breath of spring! They are one of my favorite plants because they’re so versatile. You can enjoy them indoors as a long lasting houseplant and them shift them outside and enjoy them as a flowering shrub for years to come.

The name hydrangea will tell you a lot about what this plant likes. Hydra means water and these guys love plenty of it. To keep your plant in top shape make sure the soil stays consistently moist, if not wet. Keep it out of direct sunlight. This will help the blooms last longer and prevent the leaves from scorching.

Once the flowers fade, just clip them off and when temperatures are mild, plant it outside. And if you’ll put it on a shady side of the house, you’ll find it will be very happy.

An interesting thing about old-fashioned hydrangeas is the color of the bloom is dictated by the soil pH. For pink flowers you want an alkaline soil and for blue flowers you need more acidic soil. Regardless of your soil’s pH you want to make sure that it’s rich with humus so put some of that compost to good use. And of course you want to make sure your hydrangeas are kept consistently moist.

Hydrangea Wreath

Materials:

  • 12 or so large to medium hydrangea blooms
  • 12 or so chartreuse carnations
  • 3 types of evergreen (Arborvitae, photinia and eucalyptus was used on this wreath)
  • floral foam wreath (Look for one that sits in a paper mache base. It’s perfect for deep soaking.)
  • Bundles of Hypericum berries (available at florists)
  • Bundles of white spray roses
  • Floral snips or pruners
  • Optional: Floral wire

Directions:
Before you start on the project place your cut flowers and evergreens are in a bucket of water so they?ll stay hydrated.

Deep soak the floral foam wreath.

If you are going to hang this wreath, loop some floral wire around the form before you start inserting your plant materials. It’s going to be heavy, so make sure the wire is secure.

Hydrangea Wreath
Create a base with your evergreens. Gently insert the stems into the floral foam. Work your way around the wreath, inserting each stem so that they all point in the same direction, overlapping the previous row in a fish scale fashion.

Next cut hydrangea bloom stems to about 2 inches long and press them into the wreath form.

Cluster bundles of carnations, roses and hypericum berries around the hydrangeas.

This wreath can also be used as a centerpiece.

Drying Hydrangeas

It’s interesting how certain flowers evoke a sense nostalgia: roses, hollyhocks and dahlias to name a few. There’s no question these are beautiful in the garden but if cared for properly you can also use them inside. A good flower to dry for indoor arrangements is the hydrangea.

One method of preparing hydrangeas is simply to air dry them. All you do is remove the leaves along the stem and bundle 5 or 6 of them together and hang them in a cool, dry place. And if that is too much trouble, you can also dry them upright in a vase. Place the stems in a vase with a few inches of water, out of direct sunlight. When the water evaporates add more, repeating the process until you feel the blooms are sufficiently dry.

You can also preserve hydrangeas with glycerin and water. This process makes the bloom more soft and supple to the touch, and it also helps to preserve the shape of the bloom longer.

Materials for Drying Hydrangeas

  • hydrangea blooms (Old-fashioned French, PeeGee and Annabelle hydrangeas do well, but I’ve never had much luck with Oakleaf or Tardiva.)
  • glycerin
  • water
  • vase
  • colored dye (optional)

Steps for Drying Hydrangeas
Drying HydrangeasGather the hydrangeas blooms. When cutting the blooms keep in mind that the length of your stems need to be about 18 inches or under. And while it is tempting to try drying those full, lushly colored hydrangea blooms mid-summer, it is best to allow them to mature on the shrub before you cut them. Fresh blooms tend to wilt and turn brown. You can tell that they are ready because as they age, they will turn either green/pink in warm climates, or blue/purple in colder areas, and their texture is paper-like rather than soft.

Cut the stems at a right angle and crush the ends with a hammer. This will help with the uptake of the solution.

In a vase prepare a solution of 2 parts water and 1 part glycerin. You can find glycerin at your local pharmacy. Now the way this works is that the water and the glycerin are drawn through the stem of the plant, and the water evaporates through the petals leaving the glycerin. The glycerin will turn the petals a rich, golden brown. I like this natural look but if you prefer a little color add a small drop of dye to the solution.

Add your hydrangeas to the vase.

In two to three weeks you will have a beautiful bouquet of summer hydrangeas to enjoy through the fall and winter