Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just starting out, mastering the art of hydrangea pruning can elevate your garden’s beauty. Understanding the intricacies of when and how to prune these stunning flowering shrubs is essential for proper care. Correct pruning techniques will keep your plants health and ensure maximum blooms.

collage of photos of hydrangeas at various stages in growth cycle including getting pruned

Winter may be the best time to prune your hydrangeas, but there’s much more to it than just a time frame. Want to learn the right techniques to ensure beautiful blooms season after season? Then you’ll want to read on for everything you need to know about pruning these gorgeous perennial flowers for shade!

Understanding Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas are an excellent addition just about anywhere. They make a beautiful statement in the front yard and add a splash of color and elegance to any garden. You can also enjoy their beauty indoors as they make beautiful cut flowers. Those flowers can be dried and preserved for years, too.

Photo source: tsuchikure / Getty Images

Before you start growing hydrangeas, it’s important to understand which hydrangea variety you want to grow. Among the various varieties, four most popular types stand out: the mophead, lacecap, panicle, and oakleaf hydrangeas.  Different types require different pruning techniques, as some hydrangeas bloom off “old wood”, while others bloom on “new wood”. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated, we’ll explain more down below!

When is the ideal time to prune your hydrangeas?

Just like pruning roses and pruning most trees, winter is often assumed to be the best season to prune your hydrangeas. They do tend to be dormant during this period, however, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t just prune based on the season. Correct timing also depends on where what stage of growth your hydrangea is in.

Photo source: patty_c / Getty Images

Most of the time, pruning during winter allows plenty of time for the plant to recover and develop new buds before the blooming season. It’s a period of reduced growth activity for the hydrangea, minimizing the stress caused by pruning and positioning it for a vigorous comeback in the upcoming growing season. However, the variety will determine the optimal pruning time and the technique you’ll need to use.

The old wood vs new wood distinction

It’s important to understand that not all hydrangea types should be pruned in winter. Varieties that bloom on old wood are best pruned right after flowering, in late summer or early fall. This is because they begin to form flower buds soon after the current flowers die off. So, If you prune them in winter, you might accidentally remove the flower buds for the upcoming season. Here’s a quick list to reference:

  • Varieties that bloom on old wood: oakleaf, big leaf, mountain, and climbing hydrangeas
  • varieties that bloom on new wood: smooth and panicle hydrangeas (seen below)
panicle hydrangeas
Photo source: 49pauly / Getty Images

You may notice from this list, the reality is that there are more varieties better suited to late summer pruning than winter! Those “old wood” category hydrangeas are best suited to pruning right at the end of their bloom season, when the blooms start to look like the ones pictured below.

hydrangea blooms that are beginning to die off
Photo source: PhotoStudioMCD / Getty Images

Don’t worry if you get the timing wrong though, your hydrangeas are likely to be pretty forgiving. You can still prune old wood category hydrangeas in winter, just know to look out for flower buds- cutting these away will result in fewer blooms next season.

When to Prune Hydrangeas in Winter

When it comes to hydrangeas that bloom on new wood, the best time pruning is usually in late winter or even early spring, just before the plant starts its new growth cycle. This timing strikes a balance between allowing the hydrangea to benefit from the dormancy period before the plant directs its energy towards flowering.

dormant hydrangea plant in winter covered in snow
Photo source: MNstudio / Canva

Your climate may also play a role in the best time for winter pruning. In regions with milder winters, where temperatures remain above freezing and the hydrangea remains dormant for a shorter period, the ideal time for pruning might lean towards early winter or the onset of spring. This adjustment ensures the plant is pruned while it’s still in its dormant state, avoiding any interference with the onset of new growth.

In colder climates where winter lingers longer, waiting until late winter ensures the hydrangea benefits from the maximum dormant period. This delay also minimizes the risk of any late frost damaging freshly pruned stems.

Reasons to prune your hydrangeas

Before heading out to the garden with your shears, determine what your goals are for your hydrangea bushes. Have they become a bit overgrown for your garden? Consider thinning the plant. Do they need a bit of shaping up? Pruning is your answer! Or are you simply looking to clean up unsightly dead stems and dried flowers. This sounds like they just need some deadheading.

Photo source: Valeriy_G / Getty Images

Thinning

Take on this task carefully, as you don’t want to reduce the size of your hydrangeas to the point where you lose their beautiful fullness! This is mostly up to your preference. If your hydrangeas blooms seem to be smaller than they used to be, or some branches are too tall and can’t support themselves, it may be time to trim them back. Focus on removing the oldest stems to increase your plants vigor.

Pruning

Pruning is a common maintenance chore for many perennials. We get into the details on how to prune your hydrangeas next, so I won’t spend much time here.

Deadheading

If that last option sounds like what your plants need, you can do this anytime! A common chore in caring for many flowering plants, deadheading is the simple task of cutting away spent blooms that have become a bit messy.

a fading hydrangea bloom being cut off with a pair of garden shears
Photo source: Fine Gardening

How to prune hydrangeas

Ok, so you’ve determined it’s time to prune your hydrangeas… Let’s walk through the basics to make sure your pruning endeavors are a success.

Gather and prepare your tools

First you’ll need the proper tools. We recommend a basic set of bypass pruners. You probably already have some, so just make sure your pruning tools are clean and sharp. Sterilize your pruning shears or loppers with rubbing alcohol and repeat this process between plants to prevent the spread of any diseases.

Gradually prune the correct stems

Focus on removing dead, damaged, or weak stems first. Don’t know how to identify dead stems? Check by scraping at the stem with a fingernail. If you see green underneath the layer scraped away, it’s still alive. Once you start pruning, do so slowly, occasionally taking a step back to observe the effects on the general shape of your plant.

  • Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas (bloom on old wood): prune right after flowering by cutting back stems to just above a healthy set of buds. I think this diagram does a great job of visualizing where to make cuts.
diagram of a hydrangea with markings where to prune
Photo source: The Spruce

  • Panicle and oakleaf hydrangeas (that bloom on new wood): cut older stems down by up to a third of their length to encourage new growth. Some suggest cutting down to the base of stems to improve flower size, but I would try this sparingly one season before chopping down your whole plant.

Use clean, sharp tools to make angled cuts just above a set of healthy buds or a main branch. Cut at a 45-degree angle, sloping away from the bud. This will allow water to drain off, reducing the risk of disease. Gwen Wisnieweski has a great post for more in depth pruning techniques and tips.

Post-Pruning Care

After completing the pruning process, providing proper care to your hydrangeas is crucial for their health and readiness for the upcoming growing season. Mulch your plants, particularly if you live in colder climates. If frost or freezing conditions are expected after pruning, covering the plant with a cloth or burlap can shield it from potential damage.

Post-pruning, hydrangeas may benefit from a light application of a balanced fertilizer. Choose a fertilizer specifically formulated for flowering shrubs and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application. Water the plant thoroughly after fertilizing to help the nutrients penetrate the soil and reach the roots.

Common Hydrangea Pruning Mistakes

Hydrangeas are forgiving, so don’t stress out too much as you approach the pruning process. however, these are some easy mistakes to make. If you can avoid these, you’ll be well on your way to beautiful hydrangeas!

Photo source: Valeriy_G / Getty Images

One of the most common errors is over-pruning your hydrangea. Removing too many stems or cutting them back too severely can stunt the plant’s growth and diminish the number of blooms for the upcoming season. Start conservatively and gradually prune, stepping back periodically to assess the plant’s shape. 

Other mistakes include pruning at the wrong time for your hydrangea variety, pruning healthy growth instead of dead growth, and treating all hydrangeas the same when different varieties can have quite different needs. Always know what variety you’re dealing with before you start pruning! 

Prune Your Hydrangeas for Healthy, Happy Plants!

Mastering the art of hydrangea pruning sets the stage for a flourishing garden filled with vibrant blooms and healthy plants. So, embrace the seasons, understand your plant’s needs, and wield your pruning shears bravely! You’ll be rewarded with gorgeous blooms, healthy foliage, and the satisfaction of nurturing thriving hydrangeas in your garden. Next, check out our posts on English roses, great ground cover ideas, and fall garden cleanup to get your garden looking its best!

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