In this article I show you how to prune hydrangeas, with a simple step by step process.
There are multiple species of hydrangea and many different varieties or cultivars within each species. This means, it is pretty easy to find a hydrangea to suit your garden.
Hydrangeas are grown for their showy flowers. When we prune hydrangeas, it is generally so as to ensure that we get the best flower displays each summer. Therefore it is important to understand all about hydrangea flowers before we learn about the pruning techniques.
Hydrangea species tend to have flowers of different shapes. This is one of the distinguishing features. Thus:
- Hydrangea microphylla (hortensia) or Hydrangea arborescens have round ‘mophead’ flowers;
- Hydrangea microphylla, Hydrangea serrata, Hydrangea villosa or Hydrangea aspera have ‘lacecap’ cultivars, which have flatter flower heads with mini flowers in the centre and larger flowers on the outside, and
- Hydrangea paniculata or Hydrangea quercifolia have cone-shaped flowers.
One of the other distinguishing features of hydrangeas is their flower colours. We typically see pink, blue, mauve, white or green flower colours on hydrangeas. The pink/blue cultivars tend to have blue flowers where the soil is acidic, pink flowers where the soil is alkaline and mauve flowers where the soil is neutral.
Flower colours of hydrangeas also change over the growing season – white flowers frequently turn pink and blue and pink flowers often fade to shades of green and red.
In fact, what we think of as the flower petals on hydrangeas are actually sepals – outer bracts that protect tiny flowers within. It is the sepals that are coloured and therefore the primary feature of dahlia blooms.
Another important point to remember is that most of the flowers on most hydrangeas are sterile and therefore don’t produce seeds. On mophead dahlias, there are a few fertile seed-bearing flowers in the centre of the bloom, but most of the flowers are sterile. On lacecaps there are more fertile flowers. These are the small inner flowers. The larger outside flowers are sterile.
Hydrangeas – how to prune, step by step
Time needed: 15 minutes.
There are some variations in how to prune hydrangeas according to the different species. Steps 1 to 4 below apply to mophead and lacecap dahlias. Other species are covered in Steps 5 and 6.
- Understand how hydrangeas flower
The important point to remember is that hydrangeas flower on shoots that extend from the previous year’s growth. So if you cut hydrangea stems back too hard you will lose the next season’s flowers.
It is generally best to prune mophead and lacecap hydrangeas in late winter or early spring. It is a good idea to leave the spent flower heads on the plant over winter as this tends to protect the buds of the flowering shoots that are developing lower down on the stem.
Lacecaps are a little bit hardier, so if preferred their blooms can be removed after flowering. But many people prefer to leave all the dead flower heads on the plant over winter as they provide more visual interest that than the bare stems.
- Cut out dead or congested stems
Before you cut back the dead flowers in late winter or early spring, it is best cut back any dead stems right to the base. It is also a good idea to take out 1 or 2 stems from the centre of the bush each year to let in more light and encourage fresh growth that will flower in the years to come.
If a specimen is old or very congested, you can cut all the stems back hard to regenerate the whole bush. But be aware, there won’t be any flowers that year. Instead flowers will come the following year on the current year’s growth.
- Remove spent flower heads
After you have thinned out the shrub a little, you can remove the spent flowers. Cut the stems just above a pair of healthy buds.
As the buds begin to break, feed the plant with a balanced fertiliser and mulch it well. This should encourage the new shoots to grow away strongly.
- Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens
Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens flower better if given a slightly more vigorous pruning. So, as well as removing any dead or damaged stems, you should prune these back to the lowest pair of healthy buds in spring. Do this across the whole plant, creating a framework of stems 2-3 feet high (30 to 60 cm). This should produce strong healthy branches and large flower panicles.
- Climbing hydrangea – Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris
Flowers on the climbing hydrangea mainly appear at the top of the plant, so it is best to leave as much of this unpruned as you can. However, prune back any unruly shoots you do want to remove immediately after flowering.
Follow these steps when pruning your hydrangeas, especially giving them a good feed and mulch at the start of the growing season and you should find you are rewarded with strong healthy plants and beautiful flowers.
What you need
All you really need are a good pair of secateurs. I always use Felco Number 2 secateurs which I have always found to be the best secateurs for any pruning job.
- Bundle – 2 Items: Felco F2 Professional Pruning Shears with Leather Clip or Belt Holster
- Reliable: comfortable, light, sturdy handles made of forged aluminium with a lifetime guarantee* / blade and riveted anvil blade made of high-quality hardened steel / clean, precise cut / all parts can be replaced
- Efficient: easy, durable cutting adjustment / wire cutting notch / sap groove
- This size is for medium to large hands
- Ergonomic: hand protection is provided by the cushion-shock absorber / non-slip coating
- Anvil blade with a sap groove
- A hardened bolt and nut to assure exact adjustment of both the cutting and anvil blades
- Rubber cushion and shock absorber
- Ideal pruner for light applications and easily adjustable
- Features strong blades with a wire cutting notch
Last update on 2022-09-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Felco Professional Model 2 Secateur
The Felco model 2 bypass secateur is a popular and high quality product, used and highly recommended by gardening professionals. It features:
- comfortable lightweight, easy to grip handles,
- a hardened steel blade with a wire cutting notch,
- riveted anvil with sap groove to allow plant fluids to drain away
- a toothed centre nut mechanism which easily aligns the blades for a clean precise cut
- a rubber cushion shock absorber that protects the wrists.
Felco No 2s carry a lifetime guarantee and all parts can be replaced, so it is easy to see why these are the secateurs of choice for many horticulturists and serious home gardeners.
21.5cm/8.5" overall length can cut stems up to 2.5cm/1" in diameter.
Felco Leather Secateur Holster
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Hydrangea arborescens 'Strong Annabelle
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Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer - Bloomstar
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Hydrangea macrophylla 'Blue Danube
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Martin Cole has been an avid gardener for more than 20 years and loves to talk and write about gardening. In 2006 he was a finalist in the BBC Gardener of the Year competition.
He previously lived in London and Sydney, Australia, where he took a diploma course in Horticultural studies and is now based in North Berwick in Scotland. He founded GardeningStepbyStep.com in 2012. The website is aimed at everybody who has been bitten by the gardening bug and wants to know more.
Gardening Step by Step has been cited by Thompson and Morgan, the UK’s largest mail order plant retailer, as a website that publishes expert gardening content.
Check out my comprehensive step by step guide, with plain language explanations and ultra-useful images and illustrations. This is for you if you love dahlias and want to the best out of the dahlias you grow.