hydrangea macrophylla

How to protect your hydrangea for the winter

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I’ve been hosting a radio program on KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh for ten years, and the most common question my co-host and I are asked on-air is “Why doesn’t my hydrangea bloom?”

Upon further inquiry, we always come to learn the caller is asking about a big-leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla. While these old-fashioned hydrangeas bear gorgeous balls of pink or blue flowers, they’re notorious for their unreliably here in the northern U.S. Some years they bloom beautifully, while other years there’s not a single bud in sight. If you’re a USDA zone 5 or 6 gardener who has faced this experience yourself, here are a few tips you can use right now to get better blooms from your hydrangea.

1. With few exceptions, Hydrangea macrophylla varieties (like the double-flowered cultivar ‘Paraplu’ featured in the main photo of this post) form their flower buds on old-wood. This means that next year’s flowers are already formed inside the buds of those seemingly dead sticks. If you prune off any branches now – or in the spring – you’re cutting off future flowers. My radio co-host and I like to tell our callers that the best pruning technique for big-leaf hydrangeas is no pruning at all.

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2. The dormant flower buds housed inside those brown sticks are prone to damage from cold temperatures and drying winds. Of particular harm are the late-spring freezes that occasionally occur. To protect your hydrangea’s dormant buds, surround the plant with a layer of protection. Hammer four 1″x1″ hardwood stakes around each plant, and use a staple gun to attach a perimeter of burlap or black landscape fabric to the posts. Make sure the fencing is as tall as the shrub itself. Do not cover the top; the weight of any accumulated snow can send the whole thing toppling down on top of your plant. Leave this protective fortress in place until late spring, when the hydrangea’s buds start to swell.

3. Big-leaf hydrangeas tend to perform better when located in a more sheltered spot. If possible, relocate any non-blooming specimens to a nook that’s protected from high winds and located near a heat-absorbing wall or driveway. Hydrangeas are best moved in the early spring, before the foliage emerges, or in the autumn, a few months before the ground freezes.

Related post: It’s pruning time for spring-blooming shrubs

4. For more reliable bloom production, you may want to consider adding a few different types of hydrangeas to your landscape. Hydrangea arborescens is a slightly hardier species that produces massive, white, snowball-like flower clusters. ‘Annabelle’ is my favorite cultivar. H. quercifolia, the oak-leaf hydrangea, is another uber-reliable bloomer with a stunning fall color and white conical blooms. There are, however, a few H. macrophylla cultivars currently on the market that have been selected to produce blooms on both old- and new-wood. I’ve had the most success with a newer introduction called ‘BloomStruck’.

Hydrangea macrophylla

Hydrangeas like this one may need a little help getting through the winter.

Tell us about your favorite hydrangea and how you help protect it for the winter. 

Grow hydrangeas in containers with this book.

Pin it! Use these quick tips to get more blooms from your hydrangeas.







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17 Responses to How to protect your hydrangea for the winter

  1. Melissa Pawley says:

    I have a hydrangea plant that I purchased at a grocery store and planted. It is now large, but I have never gotten a bloom since I planted it. I get nice leafy green foliage. When I bought it, it had large dark plum/green blooms. From what I read this must be a fall blooming hydrangea? Am I pruning at the wrong time? Is it just not meant to bloom more than once. The plant itself looks quite healthy. I live in Kentucky. It had blooms similar to whats in the photo below, but I do remember a bit more green on the petals too.

  2. Michelle says:

    The same thing happened to me until someone told me you are not supposed to prune them! If you already have pruned it’s too late for next years bloom. You have to leave all the dead wood for them to bloom. Next years blooms are inside the dead wood. Don’t prune and you will have beautiful blooms the following year:)

  3. Yep. Pruning properly is very important. See tip 1 in the article for more information about pruning hydrangea. Timing is everything.

  4. Lupe says:

    Be sure your hydrangea is getting enough sunlight. One of my hydrangea was in too much shade. The other hydrangeas around it were blooming. Once I moved it to an area where it got more sunlight it began to bloom.

  5. Kristi says:

    My mop head looks like it is burning up. I just planted it like a month ago. It has little leaves on the inside. The flowers all wilted and dried up. What should i do?

  6. Becky says:

    I have big white hydrangeas. I pruned them in fall to about 6 inches. They grew too big. How do I prune them so they won’t be too big next year. They were prefect the first year about 4 ft. high.

    • Joyce says:

      If your big white hydrangeas are Annabelles, they should be cut back in the fall to about 18 inches, giving new spring growth a sturdy foundation. They should grow to about 4 ft. or so, but if they are taller the first heavy rain will pull them down somewhat.

  7. Rachel says:

    Hello Jessica,

    I was wondering if after the plant blooms and the flower dry up in the late fall, should I cut them off before the winter?
    Thank you

    • You can cut them off if you’d like, but you don’t have to. They look quite lovely covered in snow and will probably fall off the plant on their own by the time spring arrives.

  8. Liz says:

    Hi there!
    I covered my hydrangea with burlap when the temp. went down below freezing, but did not use stakes. I read an article that said I didn’t need stakes if I covered it loosely. I removed the burlap today as the temp went up to 55, to give the plant some sun. But all the leaves have wilted. The plant was covered for a few days, during which time it rained. Have I killed it? I have since read other articles that indicate I should have staked it and give it a lot of space. 🙁

    • You haven’t killed it. Hydrangea leaves are frost sensitive so they’ll wilt and eventually drop off when cold temperatures arrive, regardless of whether or not the plant is covered. There’s no need to remove the burlap even on warm days. Just keep it covered until spring-time. Staking the burlap is better than just draping it over the plant because it puts a layer of insulating air between the plant and the burlap and helps break cold winds.

  9. Susan M says:

    Contrary to what I see here, my father cut our bushes down to stubs every Fall and those things grew back huge and with tons of blue flowers. These were very old bushes that just kept on cranking them out. My grandmother had a row of them and put a penny in the soil with every other bush so they grow pink. She had them up against a wall; blue, pink, blue, pink.

    • Johnna says:

      Ya’ll are making this alot harder than it has to be. My grandmother had a ton of these lined up all down our drive, past the carport, to the back yard when I was a kid. I remember her cutting them completely down every year and the next year they were huge and beautiful!!! She also put a penny in the ground and they did change to pink or blue. I always said she did her magic 😊. Don’t take the fun out of gardening by stressing over your hydrangeas.. do what works for you!

    • Hi Johnna. Thanks for your comments. I’m guessing your grandmother lived in a relatively warm or coastal climate, where hydrangea are easier to grow than they are in the north, where winters are cold and winds can be quite harsh. I’m also guessing she grew a variety of hydrangea that bloomed on new wood because if you cut down a species of hydrangea that blooms on old wood, you’re cutting off the flowers for the coming season. Do not prune a hydrangea to the ground unless you know exactly which species you’re dealing with. Sounds like your grandmother had a lovely stand of hydrangea; I bet it was a sight to see when in bloom!

  10. Rheda says:

    Which side of your home should hydrangias be planted?

    • Which side of the house you plant it on is not as important as the light levels the plant receives. Morning sun and late afternoon sun are best. If you live in a hot climate, avoid bright afternoon sun. You should also avoid planting hydrangeas in dense shade as that can reduce blooms.

  11. Vickie says:

    This was a very helpful article 🙂 I now know why our Hydrangeas aren’t blooming. We cut them for bouquets to take to the cemetery for my Mom. She loved them.

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