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.

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.

4. For more reliable bloom production, you may want to consider adding a few different types of hydrangeas to your landscape. Hydrangea arborescent 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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34 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.

  12. Kim says:

    My hydrangea gets blooms but they look like the bottom right photo. The bloom only partially flowers. Any idea why? It does this year after year. Thanks!

    • Hydrangeas that have blooms only on the outer edge of the flower cluster are a specific type known as lace-cap hydrangeas. There is no way to make them larger; it’s just the way that variety blooms.

  13. Brenda says:

    My bigleaf hydrangeas haven’t bloomed for 2 yrs now and my lacecap (Bits of Lace) 5 yrs since we moved it! I haven’t cut them back and they should have adequate sunlight but my husband fertilizes 4 time a yr and goes right into the flower garden. I was just told that is why no blooms so I bought Holly Tone for acid loving plants. I have faith they will all bloom next year except I’m worried about my Lacecap! Any tips that would bring that beauty back to life. I’m in Zone 5!

  14. Jennene Hollingsworth says:

    My Annabelle’s get a big puffy green flower on it but they do not turn white like they were the year I planted them. I do not cut them the fall, or the spring. How can I get the flower to turn white?

    • Interesting. The genetics of your Annabelle must be slightly different than typical. If they continue to not turn white, you may want to swap it out for another Annabelle. There’s nothing you can do to change the flower color on Annabelles other than perhaps trying to give it more sun.

  15. i have a late summer blooming hydrangea – i don’t know when to prune? some say early spring – but when is that? March? we live in zone 3-4- near Canada – very cold winters, last year the hydrangea was huge, as we had a lot of rain – very tall, but still pretty. Should I just leave it from year to year and not prune at all?

    • It’s difficult to say without knowing exactly which species of hydrangea you have. If it blooms that late in the season, it may be a species that blooms on new wood (arborescens or paniculata grandiflora, as examples) in which case you can prune in the early spring. But if it’s a species that blooms on old wood, pruning in the spring would cut off that season’s flowers.

  16. Alice Wilson says:

    I have a big-leaf that I received as a gift. It was small, so I put it in a pot outside and it has done well this summer. Should I put it in the ground now (September) in NW Massachusetts, or bring the pot inside for the winter and plant in the spring? Thanks.

    • Yes. I would plant it in the ground as soon as possible. Another option is to sink the pot into the compost pile or veggie garden as a temporary holding area. This insulates the roots for the winter until you can plant it in the spring.

  17. Jean Schroder says:

    I live in Oklahoma and do not know what my zone area is. Can you supply me with
    what zone I live in?.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I moved into a house with four established very large hydrangeas. None bloomed until late in the summer, ONE bloom on the bottom of ONE plant. Now (in October) that one plants has many buds on it that are flowering. It seems super late for a hydrangea to bloom?

    J am in southern Ohio – so, if I do the burlap and stakes before first front, I leave that on until after last frost? And the old leaves will have fallen off? And then do I cut down or no? I believe mine grow on new growth because after they started growing this year, I went in and cut back the sticks inside the green. Did I mess up? I just want them to come back healthy!!

    • Yes, put the burlap on in the fall and leave it up until the spring. The leaves will all fall off, but the buds will (hopefully) remain viable. Do not cut the branches back in the spring, even if you think they’re dead. They could be holding the flower buds for later that season. Just leave them be. At the very least, the stems will form a support scaffolding for new branches.

  19. Ellen says:

    We have very little success getting our big leaf hydrangeas to bloom. We’ve mulched deeply for the winter (zone 5b) but still no luck. We are considering digging them up and potting them and bringing them into our unheated 3 season room for the winter. We do this with mums and it works great (mums don’t winter outside well here either). This room gets down into the 20’s at the worst part of winter. Any thoughts on how this plan might work?

  20. Chris says:

    Hi! My two Star Gazer lacecap hydrangea macrophylla bloom on old and new wood. I live in zone 6a and we had a mild winter which caused both shrubs to bud out early. Then we had two hard late spring freezes which killed the early buds. We tried putting up sheets to protect them but it clearly didn’t work. I got a few flowers from the new growth buds, but nothing like the year before. I’ve learned my lesson and now have stakes up wrapped with burlap just slightly higher than the bushes. I’ve read elsewhere that I should also fill the area with shredded leaves as high as the plants – but they are 4′ high and that’s a ton of leaves!! So we’ve just filled about 12″ high, knowing it will compact with snow. The bushes have a mix of green and burned leaves from the three freezes we’ve had in this odd fall – a week of upper 70s in November?! – just nuts. Sorry – so my question is, does it sound like I’ve protected them sufficiently or too much? These two have such gorgeous flowers – I want to keep them thriving! THANK YOU!

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