Caring for Hydrangeas

Growing hydrangeas? Brush up on hydrangea maintenance tasks with our seasonal checklist.
By: Julie A Martens

Botanical Names: French hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangeaquercifolia), smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), panicle hydrangea (Hydrangeapaniculata)

Tackle caring for hydrangeas with confidence by mastering the seasonal basics. Growing hydrangeas really isn’t too demanding. Once you get the plants settled in the right spot, these are low-maintenance plants that bring on the floral fireworks with little ongoing care. Hydrangea maintenance depends in part on where you garden. In northern regions, you may need to worry more with hydrangea winter protection, while in southern zones hydrangea watering is more of a priority. Learn what you need to know about caring for hydrangeas.

No matter where you garden, the most important aspect of hydrangea maintenance is providing the right growing conditions. Caring for hydrangeas starts at planting time. Give your plants what they crave in terms sunlight and space, and you’ll find that caring for hydrangeas is rather easy. These bloomers become demanding when they are growing in the wrong place. That’s when hydrangea maintenance becomes more of a chore.

Start your hydrangea maintenance in spring, when plants are awakening from their long winter’s nap. While plants are still dormant, tackle transplanting hydrangeas. This is also the right time to check plants for any winter damage. Sometimes stems die back from ice storms, heavy snows or severe cold. Wait to tackle pruning hydrangeas to remove dead stems until leaves start appearing. That way it’s very easy to spot problem stems. 

With the exception of removing dead stems, avoid pruning hydrangeas that flower on old wood — French types (Hydrangea macrophylla) and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). If you prune these in spring, you’ll remove flower buds. Go ahead and tackle pruning hydrangeas that flower on new wood. This includes smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and paniclehydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata). Prune to shape or remove any wayward stems.

As leaves start to appear, it’s a good idea to fertilize hydrangeas. Use slow-release fertilizer, applying it according to package directions. Once soil warms in mid- to late spring, apply mulch around the base of plants. This is especially critical with French hydrangeas, which need lots of water to do their thing. Adding a mulch layer helps to reduce hydrangea watering later in the growing season.

In summer, prune hydrangeas that flower on old wood as soon as the new blossoms fade. This group includes French hydrangea and oakleaf hydrangea. If you’re planning on drying hydrangea flowers, monitor their progress and clip when the blossom color starts to change. At this point, the blooms should be somewhat brittle. Hang hydrangea flowers to dry or display them in vases with water and allow them to dry until the water evaporates.

In colder regions when fall arrives, many gardeners take steps for hydrangea winter protection. A common method is to surround hydrangeas with a burlap screen to help protect flower buds that have already formed on oakleaf and French hydrangeas. Above all, make sure your hydrangea is winter hardy for your region.

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