By: Molly Lavins
Proper hydrangea winter care will determine the success and quantity of next summer’s blooms. The key to hydrangea winter protection is to protect your plant, whether in a pot or in the ground, prior to the first frost of winter through the last frost the following spring. Let’s look at what you need to do for your hydrangea in winter.
The first step in hydrangea winter care is to cut away the old wood at the base of the plant, and remove any dead or weak branches by cutting them off at their base. Be careful not to cut off healthy wood, as this wood will be where your hydrangea will bloom from next year.
Protect your in-ground hydrangea in winter by making a frame around the plant by using stakes. Wrap chicken wire around the stakes to form a cage. Fill the cage with pine needles and/or leaves to fully insulate your plant.
Oak leaves work well because they do not settle as easily as other materials. Keep a bag of leaves from your fall leaf raking pile so that you can fill the cage throughout the winter as the insulation settles.
Be careful not to snap off the ends of the branches as you fill the cage or all will be for naught, and you won’t have those gorgeous blooms next summer.
The best hydrangea winter protection for potted plants is to bring them inside prior to the first frost. If they are too cumbersome to move, they can remain outside and be protected by covering the entire pot and plant. One method is to use foam insulation to protect your potted plants.
How to protect hydrangeas from winter cold and wind can seem labor intensive. However, once you have your plant’s winter home in place, the remainder of the winter only will require a little housekeeping to maintain successful hydrangea winter protection.
Whether you’re deciding how to cut back hydrangea plants for the winter or how to protect hydrangeas from winter cold and wind, keep in mind that taking a little care of your hydrangea in winter will grace you with lush bushes and beautiful flowers next summer.
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Read more about Hydrangeas
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.
The plant is native in both Asia and the Americas – which just a slight difference in varieties. Compared to the US however, Asia has a greater diversity of these plants – to the point where you can easily confuse a type of hydrangea into a completely different genus. For example – while most types are shrubs, there are those that can form into trees, while others are actually vines. The term “hydrangea” is actually derived from a Greek term which means water vessel.
The plants love the heat, growing well in areas falling in Heat Zones of 6 to 9. As for hardiness, the Bigleaf blooms well in Zones 5 to 9. They can grow well in areas that experience the winter season – but they have to be protected during that time as the branches dry up and the plant loses their blooms.
These plants can be grown directly onto the ground or inside pots. Due to their adult size however, it’s often easier to start them off on the soil and simply protect them during the winter season.
Last Updated: March 13, 2021 References Approved
This article was co-authored by Steve Masley. Steve Masley has been designing and maintaining organic vegetable gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. He is a Organic Gardening Consultant and Founder of Grow-It-Organically, a website that teaches clients and students the ins and outs of organic vegetable gardening. In 2007 and 2008, Steve taught the Local Sustainable Agriculture Field Practicum at Stanford University.
There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
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Hydrangeas are woody shrubs with beautiful white, blue, pink, or purple blooms. Although these plants are hardy, special care should be taken to prepare hydrangeas for winter. No matter what climate you live in, you should offset the cold weather and loss of moisture by watering the soil and adding compost to it. In climates where winter temperatures do not dip below freezing, a layer of mulch will suffice to protect your flowers. If you live in a climate with winter temperatures below 0 °F (−18 °C), you will have to build hydrangea shelters before the first frost of the season to protect your plants.
If your hydrangeas live in a cold climate, late fall weather is the perfect time for them to harden off, you can use this same time to prepare them to make it through the coming winter.
Exactly what you do depends on what kind of hydrangea you have and where it lives. But the good news is the only ones you really have to worry about are your hydrangeas that flower on old wood. Their flowers have been forming on the plants since August and those are the buds that you need to protect.
For the most part, climbing and oakleaf hydrangea flower buds are more winter hardy than those of bigleaf plants. In my zone 5 gardens, when my bigleaf hydrangeas have suffered winterkill, my oakleaf and climbing have flowered profusely with no protection.
What this all comes down to is the one kind of plant that needs your intervention: bigleaf hydrangea (macrophylla). I call it the troublemaker.
Snow can be a protective blanket in some cases or it can break and distort the stems when it is heavy and wet. In view of that, one thing to consider is an A-frame to shunt off the snow. It still allows the snow to build up at the base of the plant which can be a good insulator. You can build an A-Frame from a discarded pallet as shown in the photo or buy one. There are lots of DIY plans online.
You can protect your plant by erecting some kind of temporary windbreak. Hydrangea macrophylla buds are killed by icy winter winds which desiccate tender flower buds.
Many people wrap their plants to insulate them. The idea is to make your plants think they live in a warmer growing zone. You can use a tomato cage or build a cage with chicken wire/garden fleece/burlap and fill it loosely with leaves. You can even bubble wrap the exterior of this cage, adding even more insulation. I have seen some structures with a Styrofoam cover (purchased from craft stores and cut/fitted to the structure), secured to the top with wire/twisties. It depends on how much protection you think you need.
Some lovers use a large plastic leaf bag filled loosely with leaves with a closed top and no internal structure. However, be aware that moisture build-up is a potential pitfall with any plastic and heavy snow can crush the closed bag – and your plant.
When you wrap your plant, it’s imperative that the removal of your protection in spring is well executed. Do it on a cloudy day when all chances of late season frosts have passed. Remember that the plant might have broken dormancy beneath the leaves so be careful of the tender buds. You might have to provide artificial shade for a few days as the plant adjusts to bright daylight.
True confession time: I don’t do any of this anymore. All of this old-wood blooming angst was too much for me. I wanted to simplify my life so I donated all of my old wood hydrangea macrophyllas. In came newer reblooming cultivars and hydrangea serratas which are much more bud hardy. Voila! Now when old man winter deals me a bad hand, I still get flowers, albeit a little bit later than June. Plus I think the newer introductions are stunning and are better plants on all counts. As always, the choice is yours.
A few of the newer Hydrangeas from NGB members include Hydrangea Diamond Rouge™ and Hydrangea Miss Saori
Here’s to a benign winter and hydrangea happiness!
My hydrangea has started looking like it is dying with the colder weather. Do I need to pull it up and plant a new one after winter?
Thank you for your question. We asked Lorraine Ballato, the author of this blog and she said:
“I can understand why you might think your plant is in trouble. Many gardeners have the same concern this time of year. But you can rest easy. What’s happening is the plant is in a dormant stage as it rests up for next season. If you want to test this, scratch any stem with your fingernail. The ones that come up green are alive. If you find no green beneath the outer layer, then it is dead. So the best thing to do is nothing and let it sleep: isn’t that great?
I strongly advise you to wait until spring arrives in your area of the country before you do anything. At that time, your plant’s live stems will begin to show green at the point where the leaves emerge (node). Only then will you be able to accurately determine if your plant died and needs to be replaced. In many cases, even with significant winter kill, a hydrangea that is well cared for will bounce back and produce new stems. If your plant is a rebloomer, those new stems can be the source of magnificent later season flowers.
I discuss much of this throughout my popular hydrangea blog https://www.lorraineballato.com/blog/ which is available free of charge to anyone who signs up. I also address similar issues in my best selling book, Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide.”
A few years back I literally killed a gorgeous blue hydrangea by cutting it all back as there were dead flowers and leaves. Then 2 years ago I re-planted and they made it through their first winter. Beautiful flowers in summer/fall. They have big leaves. Deer would come by at night and eat the plant. I am left with old wood but plant is alive, though its big leaves are brown and so are the remaining dead flowers. We are in the Smokie Mountains. Temps will drop to mid-20’s at night and up to mid 40’s during the day. What should I do to save them?
We asked Lorraine Ballato, the author of this blog post and book on Hydrangeas your questions, and here is her response:
“Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants, including hydrangeas. Your plant should survive, i.e., live under most conditions. The best way to figure that out is to go to the USDA hardiness map at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ and plug in your zip code. That will give you a GUIDELINE re a plant’s ability to survive.
Assuming you’re in at least zone 5, your hydrangea macrophylla will live through a few cold nights so you don’t need to take extra steps to protect it. A recent blog post on how to protect your plant can be found here: https://www.lorraineballato.com/time-to-prepare-hydrangeas-for-winter/
However, for a better chance at flowers, you might want to consider donating that plant and replacing it with one of the newer varieties that rebloom. That means that if the plant loses its first pass at flower buds to weather or deer, you have a second chance for flowers in the current season from mid-summer on. Those rebloomers — unlike the hydrangeas of old — have the ability to grow new wood in the current season which don’t need a cold set period for those flowers. Unless of course, your deer decide to snack on them. Then all bets are off.
I would strongly urge you to use one of the many deer repellent sprays on the market. They all work, some better than others. None are harmful to the plant, the environment, pets, etc. But you do have to hold your nose and be sure to be upwind of the spray. The key piece here is to start retraining your deer to go elsewhere for their meals.
The other recommendation is that you go to a dedicated hydrangea blog for other info on how to protect plants, how to prune them., etc. That can be found at https://www.lorraineballato.com/blog/. There’s a convenient search bar that will let you go directly to your area of interest to get answers, recommendations, etc.
I believe hydrangeas are magnificent plants and are worth whatever we need to do to get the benefit of their presence in the garden. It doesn’t take much and the breeders are continually giving us new and better options. So keep at it and you will be rewarded handsomely!”
If you live in Louisiana, where it sometimes gets to 32 degrees. We have 2 hydrangea plants in 2 pots. Do we still have to cover them?
We asked Lorraine Ballato, author and Hydrangea expert your question and here is her response, hope it helps:
That answer will depend on several factors:
First is the growing zone. The USDA map says LA is zones 8a-10a. Generally speaking, all hydrangeas should be fine within that range and all will survive 32 degrees F. The ones in zone 8 might burp every now and then, but for the other zones, heat is the enemy.
Second is what kind of hyd is it?
If it is an oak leaf or mountain hyd, those buds should be able to survive one or two freezing events with no protection as the buds are more hardy.
A gardener is completely safe from winter temps if their plant is a panicle or woodland/smooth hyd since they flower on new wood only. There are no buds on the plant for ol’ man winter to attack.
If it is a big leaf hyd (macrophylla) it might need some help, not to live but to flower. Let me explain: that particular species flowers on old wood (stems that were formed in the previous growing season) so those buds must make it through the winter unscathed. If that plant is exposed to icy, prevailing winter winds, the buds could get frozen off. When they are most susceptible is when the dormant buds open early (from a winter thaw, for example), and THEN freezing temps arrive.
One of the best things a gardener can do is make sure their big leaf hyd are repeat bloomers. In that case when buds get frozen off, the plant has the ability to form new buds and flowers before the end of the current season. So you can still get flowers, albeit later in the season with those plants.
During this Hydrangea Check Up, take a hard look at where in your garden you have your plant. Hydrangeas don’t like icy winter storms and drying winds. Both conditions risk killing the precious flower buds. If the prevailing winter winds and storms expose your plants, figure out where to move them when transplant time comes later this season. Your ideal location would be some place that has persistent winter protection. Think needled conifers, rhododendrons, azaleas, fences, sheds—you get the idea. Even shrubby deciduous plant hedges (like Spiraea) can work. Deciduous plants that hold their foliage through the winter like oaks, beeches, and parrotias can make effective sheltered planting pockets. All of those options block the wind, ice, and snow and will provide critical cover for your plant.