Hydrangea care for winter

How to Care for Potted Hydrangeas in Winter

Do potted hydrangeas need to come inside for the winter? What’s a year-round care strategy for hydrangeas? I’ve been keeping them in the garage during the cold season

Hydrangeas, as you are probably well aware, are a great patio container plant.

You’ll also be happy to hear that winter care requires nominal effort. Now that you’ve moved your hydrangeas into the garage, you can lug them back outside again because that is the best place for them over the winter.

In most hardiness zones, you can leave hydrangeas on your patio unprotected, as they are very cold hardy. Some are even just fine in zone 2, which can get as cold as -40 C! Ouch. Every hydrangea has a different tolerance and even though they all can handle a certain amount of cold, ensure that you have a variety appropriate for your climate. And if you are planting in a container, zone up! (See below.)

Ensure that the containers they’re planted in have adequate drainage, as poor drainage can do serious damage to the plants. Otherwise your hydrangeas will be just fine, requiring the same maintenance and care as they would out in the garden.

Remember, too, that the best time to prune your hydrangea is in the fall.

Zone up those container plants

If you are planning to grow a perennial in a pot, zone up to ensure success! In a container, your plants have less protection from the cold than they would have in the ground. So if you live in a zone 4, for example, I would recommend that you select a plant variety that is hardy to zone 3.

Cold hydrangeas survive over the winter months with nominal effort.

Last Updated on July 18, 2019

Hydrangeas are an eager shrub. They start to push out new growth once warmer temperatures are felt, but then when the weather drops again, it can cause serious damage to that fresh growth. This is especially risky for bigleaf hydrangeas. That said, it is important to take care to protect your hydrangeas when unexpected frost happens.

Typically, with bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas you would prune the plants each year immediately after flowering in the summer. The reason for this is that the new blooms grow on old wood–the stems from the summer(s) before. For paniculata and smooth hydrangeas, you would do it in the late fall or winter as the new blooms grow on new wood. But frost can be problematic.

Should you prune hydrangeas after frost?

Frost can be detrimental to your hydrangeas insofar as it can damage them. Any nights where the temperatures drop below 32 degrees F, the plants lose heat in their leaves, the water inside the plant freezes, and the cells burst. When hydrangeas experience frost damage it turns the leaves and the new buds to a light red color. More serious damage turns them to a brown/black color. You will also notice they have wilted.

Bigleaf hydrangeas have weak dormancies and their flowers start to bud quickly come spring so these varieties are the most susceptible to damage from frost.

After frost keep your eyes peeled for any damage. It could take up to one week for damage to materialize. Once you find it, wait for the stem to mature to the point that it produces bark and then scrape it back to below the frost-damaged points. This should leave healthy wood with the green layer exposed. Any buds that are below this frost damage will still provide beautiful blooms.

Main Image by Helga Kattinger from

Image credits – .com

I have searched the Internet on the topic of trimming hydrangeas and am still a little confused. My plants are huge and I want to cut them back, but not lose the flowers this summer.

How you prune your hydrangeas depends on what type you have. The old-fashioned pompon variety (Hydrangea macrophylla) blooms on previous year’s growth, or what is referred to as old wood, while Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens set flowers on the current year’s growth.

Let me start with the old-fashioned type as they are the most popular. Also included in this group are lacecaps and oakleafs (H. quercifolia). Little pruning is required with these hydrangeas. In fact, improperly pruned bushes can result in bushes not producing any blooms. In late winter you can tidy up the plant by removing old flower heads and cutting back any dead wood to ground level. Now if you live in a region that experiences topsy-turvy springs with warm spells and cold snaps, wait to prune until after the last frost date. As you prune, cut the faded blooms back to the first set of leaves or leaf buds. If you have a mature shrub that has grown dense in the center, it is a good idea to remove about 1/3 of the oldest stems. This may sacrifice some of the coming summer’s blooms, but it will open the plant up to light and circulation, making it a happier and healthier plant.

Things get a little trickier when it comes to reducing the size of the plant. You have two options. The first option is to cut the plant back in late winter. This will mean that the hydrangea won’t bloom until next year, but I find it much easier to prune at this time because the bones of the shrub are more visible. Simply cut mature stems back by about 1/3. If the plant is completely out of control, cut all the stems back to about 1 1/2 feet tall. Over the course of the summer thin out the new shoots to avoid overcrowding.

The second option is to prune your old-fashioned hydrangea immediately after the flowers fade in the summer. The timing on this is important because the plant needs enough time for the new shoots to harden off before the first frost in fall. For this type of summer pruning, reduce the unwanted height by about 1/3.

Pruning H. paniculata and H. arborescens is a much less complicated task because they bloom on new wood.

‘PeeGee’ is a popular variety of H. paniculata. It produces large cone shaped, creamy white blooms that fade to a nice coppery pink in the fall. ‘PeeGee’ is often grown in a tree form or what is referred to as a standard. This is a single stalk with growth weeping from the top. In late winter cut the stems back to two buds above the base of the stems.

I grow H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ in my garden. It produces huge, white, pompon shaped blooms in late summer. ‘Annabelle’ is a good choice for people living in both cold regions and warm climates. It is less finicky than H. macrophylla, which is only hardy to zone 5 and also doesn’t do well in areas that don’t experience a dormant season. In late winter I simply cut the plant back to varying heights of 1 to 3 feet from the ground. This will help the plant to maintain its informal shape.

Nicola Stratford

I planted two hydrangeas in the fall, and as winter arrived they appear to have died. They have bare limbs and are brown-looking. What did I do wrong? I live in Zone 9.

Ellen Bartrum, Georgia

Dear Ellen,
Most hydrangeas are deciduous, and it is quite normal for them to lose their leaves in the late fall to winter. As soon as the spring days warm up, you should see the buds starting to swell and to leaf out.

Pruning your hydrangeas is an important step in their care. Although you do not say which type of hydrangea you planted, most of the large-leaf (H. macrophylla) types commonly sold as potted plants in bloom and the oak-leaf (H. quercifolia) varieties bloom on growth made the previous season. These varieties should be pruned immediately after they have finished blooming, to avoid cutting off next year’s developing flower buds. H. arborescens and H. paniculata bloom on new wood from the current year. They are best pruned in late winter or very early spring and can be cut to the ground each year with no damage. I would suggest that you do not prune the bare, brown limbs this year. Observe your hydrangeas carefully and decide if they are blooming on new wood or on the old wood from last year. This will help you decide when and how to best prune them.

Prune ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangeas in Spring or Fall/Winter?

Thank you for the photos. They help a great deal. Based on our previous emails, I understand you are looking for a uniform, bushier shrub form with good blooms. Now that I see the planting site, I clearly see reasons that can be affecting your plant performance and will become issues in the future.

The size of the planting bed is really too narrow and it is overplanted. The standard Annabelle Hydrangeas can grow to a mature size and form to 5’ H x 6’ W. The previous owner most likely pruned these shrubs like small trees to eliminate lower stems from cascading over the bedline and onto the lawn, interfering with mowing and shading out the turf. As you allow the plants to grow to their more natural form, they will most likely begin to block your utilities. By pruning these shrubs like small trees, the previous owner could access to the water spigot and meters, and the plants, for the most part, didn’t block the A/C unit. (Heat blowing from the A/C can dry plants and potentially stunt growth).

The above is commonplace because people often plant for an “instant landscape” meaning they don’t space plants based on the mature size / form of the plant, resulting in plants that grow too close together, block access to utilities and structures, and create additional maintenance such as extra pruning and lawn repair.

These are things you’ll want to consider as you encourage the plants to grow wider and bushier vs. upward.

Re: the lack of bloom and weak stems you mentioned in earlier emails – foundation plants are commonly shaded by the building which can also cause the plants to be less robust and could affect blooming as well. Foundation plantings also often have drier soil because of building overhangs and grading, and the soil is usually more of a construction quality. Even when topsoil is brought in, we commonly see it simply laid down over the existing soil and not properly incorporated. This can create layers that can result in poor soil conditions for plant roots. While the rock is a fine mulch to use, older plantings may have plastic underneath the rock which blocks moisture from reaching plant roots as well and hampering plant performance. Hopefully, your rock mulch has permeable landscape fabric. Just some things to look out for as you work on this area.

To answer your original question to the best of my ability and based on the information, you could cut the “trunk” to the ground and allow new stems to grow up and around it. Like Gertens, I believe the shrubs may need a season or two to recover and would only prune the other “non-trunk” new stems to about 12” this spring to give you some growth right away. You may also want to investigate the quality of the soil in this area – a soil test would be helpful if you haven’t had one done in the past 3-4 years. http://soiltest.umn.edu However, be aware that as your plants grow larger and bushier, you’ll still need to do some selective pruning to keep your utilities clear of plant material, your lawn along the bedline from being shaded out, and thus you may end up reducing some blooming.

IF I were starting over with this site myself, I would renovate the bed. I would remove the rock mulch (ugh – yes I know), the edging and plants, widen the bedline to a minimum of 8 feet deep (distance from the house to the edging, and replant with fewer hydrangeas and some perennials. I attached a quick sketch to demonstrate. You could also just dig up the existing hydrangeas and replant the area with appropriately sized plants that can grow to their mature size and form without the extra maintenance and frustration. You’ll want to measure the planting and choose plants that – at mature size – leave a minimum of 18″ of space to access the building and space them so the plants just touch. Just some ideas …..!

Feel free to reply or call me with additional questions 612-625-1925.

The Gift Hydrangea – What To Do With It

Managing The “Foil Wrapped” Hydrangea

Quite often we hear questions similar to the following:

“My daughter gave me a beautiful hydrangea for Mother’s Day. It has done so well that I would like to know if I can plant it outside or should I grow it inside as a house plant?”

Whether it was a gift or whether it was bought by you, hydrangeas that are purchased with foil around the pot are often different from those purchased at a nursery. The foil wrapped hydrangea has usually been grown for a one-time, spectacular show. The plant has been fed specifically to produce many large blooms quickly, quite often at the expense of the future health of the plant.

In addition, the hydrangeas chosen for this purpose are grown entirely in a greenhouse and may not be winter hardy in the areas in which they are purchased.

Q. You may ask, “If the area I live in is not warm enough to grow hydrangeas outdoors, can I grow them indoors like a houseplant?”

A. Growing hydrangeas indoors in a home setting is not very satisfactory for a number of reasons. Hydrangeas do best when they can have a period of domancy, brought on by freezing weather. Except in a greenhouse, hydrangeas, indoors, draw insects, lose their leaves and seldom set bloom. They tend to dry out quickly and wilt, causing them to lose their vigor.

However, as you can see from the pictures below, some gift/florist-type hydrangeas can be grown very successfully in the landscape.

Even though it is not an ideal solution, if one lives in an apartment or in an area where hydrangeas cannot survive, it’s possible to grow them indoors under certain conditions:

1) Place the hydrangea in the coolest room in your home; an unheated room is ideal.

2) Place it next to a window where it can get as much light as possible.

3) Most important: do not overwater it by allowing it to stand in water or by watering it too often. In the winter, it’s best to keep it on the dry side, although it should never dry out so much that it wilts.

It is always best to plant the potted hydrangea outdoors whenever possible. It should only be planted outdoors in early to mid summer as it needs time to acclimate to outdoor conditions before winter arrives.

In summary, foil wrapped hydrangeas are best used as a temporary plant in ones home unless it can be planted in the garden.

Growing “Gift Hydrangeas” Outdoors

I have planted many foil wrapped hydrangeas outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. The number of blooms I’ve had on all of these plants put together can be counted on two hands. From the email I receive, I don’t think my experience is unusual, but I am hearing from more and more people with success stories about these type hydrangeas. Below are two.

The pictures of the pink mophead, to the left, was sent to me by Laura from north Louisiana. It is an example of a foil-wrapped hydrangea from Walmart that has been a complete success in the landscape. It has been in the ground in Louisiana for 4 years at the time of this picture. It even survived a killer ice storm in ’99.

The picture on the right of the pink and blue hydrangeas was sent to me by Belinda from Greenville, SC. She says that her Mother-in-law loved hydrangeas, and these two plants were sent to her funeral. Belinda took them home and planted them next to each other near her porch.

She says that the plants “have flourished, and each summer I am pleasantly reminded of how much my Mother-in-law would enjoy the sight of them. One was pink and the other was purple. They have come together as one bush and bloom in a variety of shades from deep violet to almost magenta.”

IDEA: Beth, is a “hydrangea afficionado” from Roanoke, VA. She writes that she’s stumbled across an idea for continuing to enjoy hydrangeas she receives as a gift.

She says, ” After they have been enjoyed inside, I plant the hydrangeas in terra-cotta pots and put them outside on my front covered-porch in late April. They seem to love the shaded area by day and the cool nights. I fertilize and water them often. The terra cotta pots keep them from being too wet…Some of the store bought ones from this year are actually growing new leaves and getting ready to flower again.

After awhile, Beth plants these hydrangeas in her yard. She now has a whole row of them – happy and healthy.

An Alternative to “Gift Hydrangeas”

If a foil wrapped hydrangea has stimulated your interest in growing hydrangeas, visit our online selection, and purchase a hydrangea that is sold for the landscape. The cost is similar to a “gift hydrangea”. If you live in an area where mophead hydrangeas can be successfully grown, you will enjoy this nursery grown hydrangea for years and years.

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