Contrary to popular advice, not all hydrangeas benefit from pruning and many will not flower if you do. Find out which species benefit from cutting back and those that should be left alone to ensure a good flowering season.
For more tips on growing hydrangeas, see What to Prune in Fall and What Should Wait.
Hydrangea Pruning Basics
Guess what? We have a communication problem!
Hydrangeas are commonly associated with pruning yet they are one shrub that can live without it.
So why the misunderstanding? I think it comes down to using the word prune when we mean deadhead.
Deadheading an old hydrangea bloom. This is not the same as pruning.Deadheading is the removal of old flowers. If your hydrangea has dry, old flower heads, you can remove those any time, no problem!
Just take some clean snippers (links to Amazon) and remove the individual flowers by cutting the stems just below the blooms. Done.
Pruning is a different beast and should be done with a specific goal in mind.
In general, pruning means removing branches.
If any tree or shrub has dead, damaged, or diseased branches, you can and should remove them at any time.
But, otherwise, there are only two types of hydrangeas where annual pruning is recommended—although not essential:
These two species produce flowers on new wood (current season’s growth). We prune in early spring to encourage stronger branches and good form. Otherwise, they can get floppy or leggy.
The rest, including the very popular Bigleaf Hydrangea macrophylla, produce flowers on last season’s growth (old wood) and tend to do fine without pruning. If this group ever needs trimming, it should be done immediately after flowering so you are not cutting off the branches that would provide next season’s blooms.
I’ve listed the two groups (Do Not Prune and Ok to Prune) with examples below.
And again, pruning is still optional for all of them. When in doubt, don’t!
It can seem overwhelming at first, but, as you get more experienced, you will get an eye for pruning.
And most importantly, always know WHY you are pruning. That goes a long way to guide your choices.
When ready and necessary, there is a video here showing how to prune hydrangeas.
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Quick Ways to Identify Hydrangeas
With approximately 49 species and numerous cultivars, there are lots of hydrangea variations!
And yes, you need to know which type of hydrangea you are growing to know if pruning is recommended.
Again, you can always snip off flowers (deadhead) by cutting the stem just below the bloom, but pruning is different. We prune to improve strength and structure and encourage new growth. And, there is no need to prune if you don’t want to.
Hydrangea ID Tips
With new cultivars on the market every year, it’s impossible to write hard and fast rules, but these tips can help you identify your hydrangea.
And there’s more help here: How to Identify and Prune Your Hydrangea
Between the description and photos, you will probably know if you’ve got it right.
Pink or blue flowers? It’s probably Hydrangea macrophylla (bigleaf hydrangea).White round flowers? Hydrangea arborescens (smooth or Annabelle hydrangea). There’s a pink one too: Invincibelle Spirit.Large, conical flowers? White, green, or pink: Hydrangea paniculata (peegee hydrangea).Climbing vine? Hydrangea anomala subsp. Petiolaris (climbing hydrangea).Leaves shaped like oak leafs? Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea). This one also has a distinct flower head shape (see below).Hydrangea Growing Tips
Do Not Prune These Hydrangeas
Do not prune hydrangeas flower on old wood (previous season’s growth).
The exception is, you can always remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches, and can lightly trim for shape immediately after flowering.
You can get a printable version of this plant list here.
1Bigleaf Hydrangea– Hydrangea macrophylla
Images: Proven WinnersAlso known as ﬂorist’s hydrangea, hortensia, mophead, or lacecap.Hardy to USDA zone 5.Bloom on old wood: do not prune, protect in winter.Proven Winners® varieties include:
Abracadabra® seriesCityline® seriesEdgy® seriesLet’s Dance® seriesParaplu™Related: How to Change Hydrangea Flowers From Pink to Blue
2Mountain Hydrangea – Hydrangea serrata
Image: Proven WinnersAlso known as tea of heaven.Hardy to USDA zone 5.Bloom on old wood: do not prune.Proven Winners® varieties include:
3Oakleaf Hydrangea – Hydrangea quercifolia
Image: Proven WinnersAlso known as oak-leaved hydrangea.Hardy to USDA zone 5.Bloom on old wood: do not prune, protect in winter.Proven Winners® varieties include:
4Climbing Hydrangea – Hydrangea petiolaris
Image: Proven WinnersHardy to USDA zone 4.Bloom on old wood.Plants that are at least 5 years old bloom best.Do not prune.
Ok to Prune These Hydrangeas if Needed
It is fine to prune hydrangeas that flower on new wood (current year’s growth).
Early spring is prime pruning time, when buds are forming but before leaves are opening.
1Smooth Hydrangea – Hydrangea arborescens
Image: Proven WinnersAlso known as Annabelle, wild hydrangea, or sevenbark.Hardy to USDA zone 3.Bloom on new wood.Proven Winners® varieties include:
Incrediball® seriesInvincibelle® Spirit IIPruning Tips
2Panicle Hydrangea – Hydrangea paniculata
Image: Proven WinnersAlso known as peegee hydrangea.Hardy to USDA zone 3.Bloom on new wood when plant is at least two year’s old.May not bloom if sunlight is insufficient.Pruning Tips
Prune in late winter/early spring with buds, before leaves.Can cut back to two feet to create less floppy plant.Can remove up to one-third of total height to encourage new growth and strong stems.See video (below) for instructions.Proven Winners® varieties include:
Little Lime®, HydrangeaBobo®, Fire Light™‘Limelight’‘Little Lamb’Pinky Winky®Quick Fire®Little Quick Fire®Ziinfin Doll®
How to Prune Hydrangeas
Once you know if and when to prune, this video shows you how to prune.
When: early spring when buds are forming but before leaves are opening.Look for damaged or broken branches and remove those first.Next, remove about 1/3 of shrub with clean pruners.Work branch by branch: from tip down, look for two sets of buds (nodes) on branch: cut just above 2nd node.Next, tidy up the plant: remove any weak stems.You should be left with nicely spaced, strong branches.Laura uses Rose-tone fertilizer by Espoma.Again, it’s not life and death if you do not prune any of your hydrangeas. You will hear plenty of gardeners say, ‘I just chop them back to the ground and they do fine each year’. Personally, I’d hold off trusting that until I was certain which variety they have and when and how they did it.
The prudent route is to proceed with caution, know what you’re growing, and get an eye for how the cuts are done, so, when it is an opportune time, you can prune (if needed) with confidence.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛