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When to prune hydrangeas for best bloom

Hydrangeas are one of the most popular blooming woody shrubs in Minnesota landscapes and, as you’d expect, people often ask how and when to prune these beloved shrubs.

Illustration of three stems with buds with text. From left: Stem with a cut made about 1/4 inch from above a bud with caption "Good cut!" Stem with caption "Too close to bud, angle too tight.” Followed by a stem with caption "Too far from bud, left a stump.”
Heading cuts redirect growth or shorten small branches. The high point of a heading cut should be about 1/4" above a bud.

Hydrangea paniculata, panicle hydrangea

Prune back stems to just above a fat bud — called a heading cut — in fall, late winter or spring. These plants have conical-shaped flower heads. I recommend leaving the dry, tan flower heads on the plant to provide some winter interest in your landscape, so I wait to prune these until late winter or spring. Some favorite panicle hydrangeas:

  • Quick Fire® (H. paniculata ‘Bulk’ PP16, 812)
  • Limelight (H. paniculata ‘Limelight’)
  • First Editions® Berry White® (H. paniculata ‘Renba’ PP28, 509)

Hydrangea macrophylla, big leaf hydrangea

Pink round flower heads on a green hydrangea shrub planted against a tan stone wall.
This original Endless Summer inspired a large series of other H. macrophylla developed by Bailey Nurseries.

These plants produce buds in late summer to early fall (August-September) that will form next year’s flowers. So prune these shrubs after they finish blooming before August (again, make a heading cut).

An exception is the Endless Summer® The Original Bigleaf Hydrangea (H. macrophylla 'Bailmer' PP15,298) and other cultivars in the Endless Summer series from Bailey Nurseries such as Blushing Bride, BloomStruck® , Summer Crush®, and Twist ‘n’ Shout®.

The H. macrophylla bloom on last year’s wood and new wood that grows this year. So it will bloom whether you prune it or not. Protect H. macrophylla in winter from rabbit browsing on the stems with a large, 4-foot tall ring of hardware cloth.

The Endless Summer hydrangea made a huge splash on the Minnesota landscape plant scene because of its pink to blue color flowers (achievable with proper soil amendment) and because it blooms on old and new wood.

Hydrangea arborescens, smooth hydrangea

Let these plants grow a season or two before doing any serious "hard" pruning. Once the shrub is established and has a couple of growing seasons under its belt, prune these hydrangeas in the spring down to the ground, or not at all if you want a larger shrub. Flower buds will grow on this season’s growth or new wood.

Some favorite smooth hydrangeas: 

  • Invincibelle Mini Mauvette® (H. arborescens 'NCHA7' PP30,358)
  • Incrediball® (H. arborescens 'Abetwo' PP20571)
  • Annabelle (H. arborescens 'Annabelle')

Hydrangea petolaris or climbing hydrangea

This tough, gnarly vine needs little to no pruning ever, except for removing any dead wood that develops.

Plant this vine in full sun on a solid trellis or fence where you want a long-living, dense screen. It is a dickens to get rid of once it gets established.

Hydrangea shrubs with pink and white flower heads.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’
Mauve hydrangea flower head against a mauve stone wall.
Quick Fire® hydrangea. Notice the wall color matches the late summer bloom color. This was intentional!
Green hydrangea shrub with large, round white flower heads.
Annabelle, a tried-and-true fixture in Minnesota landscapes

Author: Julie Weisenhorn, Extension educator, horticulture

Reviewed by Debbie Lonnee, product development manager, Bailey Nurseries

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