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Pruning Hydrangeas

Knowing if your shrub blooms on old or new wood will help you make timely cuts

Fine Gardening - Issue 115
Although hydrangeas do not require annual pruning, occasionally snipping these plants can improve their performance. Photo: Melissa Lucas

I know people are confused about how to prune hydrangeas because I get asked about it all the time. The three most common reasons for their confusion are the plant’s dead-looking appearance in winter, its failure to bloom in summer, and the reasoning that because it’s a shrub it needs to be pruned. But these popular woody plants can live long, floriferous lives without ever feeling the cold blade of a pair of Felcos. Hydrangeas, though, can handle pruning (which, if done at the wrong time, may be the cause for the lack of flowers), and sometimes you might want or need to cut them back a bit. For example, you may not like the look of the fading blooms, or your shrub may be a bit too tall. Pruning hydrangeas can also improve a shrub’s vigor and increase the size of its flowers.

Not all of these shrubs should be pruned at the same time. Those that bloom on old growth should only be pruned after flowering. Others bloom on new growth and should be pruned before they wake up in spring or as they are going dormant in fall.

More on hydrangeas and pruning:

Blooms on old wood

Bigleaf hydrangeas
Bigleaf hydrangea. Photo: Steve Aitken

Bigleaf hydrangeas
Bigleaf hydrangea. Photo: courtesy of hydrangeasplus.com

Oakleaf hydrangeas
Oakleaf hydrangea. Photo: Melissa Lucas
  1. Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 6–9)
  2. Bigleaf hydrangeas (H. serrata cvs., Z 6–9)
  3. Oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia cvs., Z 5–9)

Prune after the flowers start to fade in late summer

blooming hydrangeas illustration

To determine if your hydrangea blooms on old wood, think about when it flowers. Shrubs with this characteristic generally begin blooming in early summer and peter out by midsummer, though sporadic blooms may appear afterward. These shrubs form next year’s flower buds in late summer or early fall as the days get shorter and temperatures cool off. To reduce the risk of removing these buds, prune just as the flowers begin to fade. Often, the earlier you get it done after bloom, the quicker the shrub can recover, producing more and larger blooms next season.

1. To tidy up, remove old blooms

snipping off spent blooms

Gardeners who want to maintain a tidy appearance can snip off spent blooms just below the flower head and remove any wayward or straggly canes at the soil line.

old and woody hydrangea stems

2. To improve vigor, remove the oldest canes

When a hydrangea gets old and woody, it can produce smaller blooms. Regular removal of a few of the oldest canes at the soil line can keep the shrub vigorous, producing large and abundant flowers. The same method can keep a shrub from getting too tall by targeting the tallest canes for removal.

 

Blooms on new wood

Panicle hydrangeas
Panicle hydrangea. Photo: courtesy of provenwinners.com

Smooth hydrangeas
Smooth hydrangea. Photo: Michelle Gervais
  1. Panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata and cvs., Z 4–8)
  2. Smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens and cvs., Z 4–9)

Cut back these shrubs in late winter before new growth begins

cutting shrubs illustration

Because they need to grow and set buds the same year that they bloom, shrubs that flower on new wood generally start blossoming later than old-growth bloomers, beginning in midsummer and continuing until the first frost. These shrubs are forgiving if pruning is not done at a certain time as long as you avoid pruning when the flower buds are opening.

1. To get bigger flowers, cut them all the way back

cutting shrubs all the way back

In late winter or early spring, these shrubs can be cut all the way back to the ground. Smooth hydrangeas will produce much larger blooms if pruned hard like this each year, but many gardeners opt for smaller blooms on sturdier stems.

all stems cut back

2. To reduce flopping, leave a framework of old growth

Some hydrangeas’ branches often fall over under the weight of their blooms, especially after overhead irrigation or after a good rain. One way to alleviate this flopping is to cut the stems to a height of 18 to 24 inches to provide a sturdy framework to support new growth.

 

—Janet Carson is the horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Photos, except where noted: Steve Aitken

Illustrations: Chuck Lockhart

Next: How to Prune Hydrangea Bushes
View Comments

Comments

  1. angeladugan 11/22/2014

    We had blooms here in Seattle as late as October. We have now had a frost and they are dead. One week beautiful blooms and the next brown. I assume I need to cut them now? They are all big leaf hydrangeas.

    1. jackscht 03/09/2017

      Prune in spring and enjoy the flower heads in winter, they are also a safe warm place for the insects.

  2. user-7007541 04/26/2015

    Different hydrangeas need pruning at different times as depending on the type, some don't really need pruning while others can be pruned hard to near ground level. This website has some detailed information in pruning which may help. http://www.hydrangeaguide.com/pruning-hydrangeas/

  3. user-7007950 02/19/2016

    Riccardo our hydranbgeas plants were not pruned back after they bloomed. I will take your advice above an prune them when winter is almost over which is soon here in the midsouth. How close to the ground should I cut back the old wood. Thanks

  4. susan_board 04/21/2016

    The Grounds keeper at our apartment complex cut my nikko hydrangeas all the way back...? will they come back this year and will they bloom? I just about died when I saw what they did.

    1. Goldendog1234 09/02/2016

      Please let me know what happens. .We had a similar experience and my 12 year old son d pruned our Annabelle hydrangeas severely, , in a good- hearted but perhaps misguided effort to get a more trimmed and neatened appearance.. There are a fair of branches cut to the ground!

      1. susan_board 09/02/2016

        Suffice it to say they did not bloom this year.. I told the head of the grounds keepers to put in his notes for next year to not touch my hydrangeas...grrrr ..when they are in bloom they are gorgeous. .

  5. claudspencer 07/05/2016

    Ours bloom early because of the heat here in southern Italy. Last year I pruned after they flowered and we have had a magnificent show this year. Just pruned them after this years flowering.

  6. Goldendog1234 09/02/2016

    Please help! It is early September so we are heading toward fall. My 12 year old son did a great job weeding and cleaning our garden beds without suoervision and then pruned the back sides of our Annabelle hydrangeas, in a good- hearted but perhaps misguided effort to get a " neater " looking garden. There are a fair number of stalks cut to the ground!

    Will this kill the remaining plant? . Please advise.

  7. user-7008462 04/12/2017

    It's April, I didn't get a chance to prune and my stems are budding. The dead blooms are on top. Should I just prune the tops or prune down to bottom and start over???

    1. missbaconhawk 04/12/2017

      I have the same question!

    2. thepaintedchairshop 04/17/2017

      it sounds like the new blooms are growing in old wood with dead blooms on top. i found this article a day late and have pulled off just the old blooms and sticks that easily pulled off when i was raking leaves over the weekend. lets just hope for lots of flowers. for you the directions say to wait for new blooms to open then pull off the old ones.

  8. thepaintedchairshop 04/17/2017

    diy craft tip. the old dried flower blooms and rhe old dead sticks that pull easily off the bush are great for dried flower arrangements wreaths and crafts. ?

  9. CJC444 09/08/2017

    Our Nikko is about 25 yrs old and has become huge. I have cut back to about 3 ft and discovered a jungle of branches inside. My plan is to cut dead wood back to the ground and cut off any side branches from main stems and thin out as well. Not sure what I will have left and assume no bloom this next spring. Does this sound ok?

    1. paul_duca 10/10/2017

      As long as you have fun with them...

      1. CJC444 10/11/2017

        I am not so sure what you mean by 'fun'. do you mean, fun 'killing them' or what? Thanks

        1. paul_duca 10/13/2017

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  10. user-7008958 10/18/2017

    I have a hydrangea tree - it has a solid trunk and then multiple branches coming out of the top. It bloomed in late August or September and now has dead flower bunches all over it. Should I trim off those dead flower bunches or leave them?

    1. user-7008988 11/11/2017

      I have a hydrangea tree also and each year I cut the dead blooms off of them and they come back the next year double! I do use fertilizer spikes (3 of them) in the spring and fall.

  11. smurthey 10/21/2017

    I hope this thread is active enough to get some help..

    What do we do if we’ve never gotten blooms? One is a Forever and Ever Red Hydrangea. Three are Cityline Mars #2. I tried cutting them back at the base one year, that didn’t do anything. I’ve left them alone, and that hasn’t done any thing. All are in partial sun / little more shade, as called for for these varieties. I planted them about 4 1/2 years ago. Location: Boston

    Side note: I potted two Cityline root sprouts in the spring, which are now 8” plants. I have planted them in a sunny location even though they are supposed to be full/part shade, so we’ll see...

    Thanks for any help!

    1. user-7008988 11/11/2017

      I have three plants.... I forgot which kind they were though. It has been 4 years now and I have only gotten one single bloom on one of the plants. They are in full sun for 80% of the day and I live in Michigan. I cut them down one time, and just this past year I had them on old wood (they are about 3 feet tall) and I am in Michigan.

    2. user-7008995 11/19/2017

      I think Hydrangeas in Boston (Im on the north shore) are like teenagers. They do whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to, regardless of what we say! Good luck! There is NO rhyme or reason to when or why they bloom. None. Trust me, Ive tried it all - different types, different soil, different amounts of sun, different ages . . . Ive kinda just gotten used to looking forward to the surprise blooms each June . . .and July and August . .. and this year . . .October.

      1. user-7009048 01/26/2018

        Thank you for the giggle, I have a teen and boy is that the truth! Lucky for me my hydrangeas love it here, and grow like weeds. Zone 9.

  12. user-7009025 01/06/2018

    My Mom cut hers back completely (almost to the ground) about 3 years ago and it has never really recovered. Did she do it permanent harm? (She lives in San Diego and it was a beautiful, long producing flowering bush before that.)

  13. User avater
    ShondraLFrazier 10/10/2018

    Very nice flower

  14. User avater
    DeloresRDaniels 10/11/2018

    Nice plant

  15. JamieRGrath 10/17/2018

    Very nice flowers

  16. User avater
    EdythPierre 10/20/2018

    I am not so sure what you mean by 'fun'. do you mean, fun 'killing them' or what? Thanks

  17. User avater
    EmiliaHCole 10/23/2018

    wow nyc flowers

  18. User avater
    AntoinetteRSell 10/25/2018

    i have same ques

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  20. User avater
    DianeCPfarr 10/29/2018

    As long as you fun with them

  21. User avater
    PamDTodd 11/05/2018

    Excellent

  22. User avater
    user-7223059 11/14/2018

    Those that wonderful bloom on old growth should only be pruned after flowering.

  23. DoloresECraig 11/19/2018

    Very interesting post! Keepsharing

  24. User avater
    BerrySVickers 11/21/2018

    VERY NICE FLOWER

  25. User avater
    DavidANeal 11/21/2018

    Very intersting flower

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    EllaKCarter 12/11/2018

    This flower fragrance is very nice

  27. User avater
    VivianCFifer 12/19/2018

    I like this tiny flowers.

  28. User avater
    DonnaRFlores 01/13/2019

    I have issue with hydrangeas in front of my home.....my landscaper cut them back too far and now they don't flower. Did you find and answer?

  29. User avater
    LauraWilliams 01/15/2019

    wow!! it's so pretty!!

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    I love flowers!

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    Yeah!! It's excellent!

  32. User avater
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    These bloom are really nice. Shrub bloom's gardening their fragrance are really nice. Thank you for sharing this post!

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    beautiful flowers

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    nice

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    its really so beautiful

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    marvellous

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    delightful

  38. User avater
    RaymondPHouse 01/29/2019

    I really like your post about how you maintaining your garden's shrubs and nice pruning.

  39. User avater
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    amazing

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    fabulous

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    fantastic

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    amazing

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    Love it!

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    fantastic

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    fascinating

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    Too good!

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    It`s really beautiful flowers

  48. User avater
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    gorgeous

  49. User avater
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    Too good!

  50. User avater
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    Good Management!

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    Beautiful flowers!

  52. User avater
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    It's great!

  53. User avater
    AshlieDPerron 11/06/2019

    Great!

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    Beautiful!

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