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How to Prune Hydrangeas

Think of pruning this billowy bloom as giving it an annual physical: It's essential to maintaining good health.

Contributing Writer
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Photography by: ANDREA JONES

A popular flowering shrub, hydrangeas are easily recognizable for their lush blooms and hardy leaves. These perennials do best in well-drained soil in zones five to nine and grow from three to six feet tall. Most species need pruning to maintain their shape and produce flowers every year, but even if yours doesn't need it, you may want to prune for aesthetic reasons. But before you get out the shears and start snipping, identify your shrub—different species have different pruning schedules. Prune at the wrong time and you could be inadvertently cutting into next season's flowers. 

 

Here, with help from the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), we explain how to properly prune the most common types of hydrangeas.

 

Related: 7 Show-Stopping Flowering Shrubs for Your Garden

 

The Big Leaf (hydrangea macrophylla)

Two popular varieties, Mophead and Lacecap, come in blue, pink, and purple, with thick, shiny leaves. Mophead produces large, ball-shaped flower clusters, while Lacecap's clusters are flat and delicate. They bloom on old wood (stems that have been on the bush since the summer before) and should be pruned in the summer when the flowers have started to fade but before August hits. A bush can be trimmed by cutting back stems close to a node. If a plant is overgrown, prune back about one-third of the older stems almost to the ground. 

 

Oakleaf (hydrangea quercifolia)

This species has leaves that look like they belong on red oak trees and flowers that open white then turn pink. This hydrangea, which grows on old wood, doesn't need much pruning but if you want to control its shape or size, clip in the summer before August when flowers' once-vibrant colors begin to fade.

 

Smooth (hydrangea aborescens)

One variety, Annabella, has big flowers that are actually made up of many small individual blooms. They start out green but turn white a few weeks later. This species' leaves are thinner than Mophead's and Lacecap's. Since it blooms on new wood (stems that have grown during the current season), prune in early spring before any flower buds have appeared.

 

Peegee and Limelight (hydrangea paniculata)

This white species, which blooms on new wood, is most often cone-shaped and sharply pointed. It comes in many varieties, from small shrubs to small trees. Its leaves are rough and thin. Prune in early spring before it starts flowering. 

 

Tree of Heaven and Mountain (hydrangea serrata)

It's got a similar look to Mophead but is a smaller shrub with narrower, pointed leaves. This flower, which blooms on new wood and can be pruned at any time after the new growth has started, is affected by a soil's pH: It produces lilac to pink flowers in alkaline soil and blue blossoms in acidic soil.