How To Plant hydrangeas

General Introduction

With immense flower heads, hydrangeas flaunt an old-fashioned charm in summertime that’s hard to resist. While these flowering shrubs are low-maintenance, proper care will keep them blooming. Our Hydrangea Guide provides summer plant care tips for all you need to know about growing hydrangeas—from watering to fertilizing to pruning to winter care.

Unrivaled in the shrub world for beautiful flowers, these elegant plants are easy to cultivate, tolerate almost any soil, and produce abundant blooms. Colors beguile with clear blue, vibrant pink, frosty white, lavender, and rose blossoms—sometimes all blooming on the same plant! 

Hydrangeas are excellent for a range of garden sites from group plantings to shrub borders to containers. Varieties abound (every year, it seems, breeders present us with more options!), and gardeners’ expectations of bloom size and color are boundless. To know how your hydrangea will grow, pay attention to the types, defined below. When you know what to expect, delights will be magnified.

Enjoy this ode to the beautiful of hydrangeas and learn how to grow hydrangeas in our guide below.

Planting

  • Plant in spring after the last spring frost or in fall before the first fall frost. See local frost dates.
  • Plant before the heat of summer arrives.
  • Most hydrangeas will thrive in fertile, well-draining soils that receive plenty of moisture. Add compost to enrich poor soil.
  • Generally, hydrangeas prefer partial sun. Ideally, they will be given full sun in the morning, with some afternoon shade to protect from the hot midday sun. This is especially true for the Bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla), which is prone to wilting. Some varieties are more tolerant of full sun.
  • Space hydrangeas anywhere from 3 to 10 feet apart, depending on type. 
  • Dig a hole as deep as the root ball and 2 to 3 times as wide.
  • Set the plant in the hole and fill it half full with soil. Water. After water is absorbed, fill the rest of the hole with soil.
  • Water thoroughly again.

Care

  • For the first year or two after planting and during any drought, be sure hydrangeas get plenty of water.
  • Water at a rate of 1 inch per week throughout the growing season. It’s better to deeply water 3 times a week than sprinkle water in a shallow manner. This encourages root growth.
  • Bigleaf and smooth hydrangeas require more water, but all varieties benefit from consistent moisture.
  • Leaves will wilt if the soil is too dry, and flowering will be hampered by a lack of water. 
  • Use a soaker hose to water deeply and keep moisture off the flowers and leaves.
  • It’s best to water in the morning to prepare hydrangeas for the the heat of the day and to avoid disease.
  • Add organic mulch underneath your hydrangeas to help keep the soil moist and cool, add nutrients over time, and improve soil texture.
  • Bigleaf hydrangeas can benefit from several light fertilizer applications in March, May and June.
  • Oakleaf and panicle hydrangeas do best with two applications in April and June.
  • Smooth hydrangea plants only need fertilization once, in late winter.
  • In the fall, cover plants to a depth of at least 18 inches with bark mulch, leaves, pine needles, or straw in the fall. If at all possible, cover the entire plant, tip included, by making cages out of snow fencing or chicken wire, and loosely filling the cages with leaves. (Do not use maple leaves, as they tend to mat when wet and can suffocate the plant.)
  • Flower buds actually form in the late summer and flower afterwards the following season, so avoid pruning after August 1. 
  • Only cut away dead wood in the fall or very early spring.
  • To prune, cut one or two of the oldest stems down to the base to encourage branching and fullness. 
  • If the plant is old, neglected, or damaged, prune all the stems down to the base. You’ll lose the flowers for the upcoming season, but also rejuvenate the plant for future years.
  • It’s best not to deadhead (remove faded blooms) on the big Mopheads; leave them over the winter and cut them back in early spring (to the first healthy pair of buds). It’s fine to deadhead the Lacecaps; cut down to the second pair of leaves below the flower head.
  • When growing H. macrophylla (and H. serrata) varieties in Zones 4 and 5, do not prune unless absolutely necessary, and then do so immediately after blooming. Otherwise, remove only dead stem in the spring.
  • Prune in the late winter when the plant is dormant. This means that if the buds are killed during the winter, the plant will produce new buds in the spring which will produce blooms. 
  • In general, prune only dead branches, and do not prune to “shape” the bush. 

Pests/Diseases

  • Powdery mildew, leaf spot, wilt, and bight can all appear on hydrangeas.
  • Pests are rare, but can appear when plants become stressed. Common pests include aphids and red spider mites.

Recommended Varieties

  • Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) ‘Grandiflora’ is a big, old-fashioned, floppy variety, ‘Tardiva’, ‘White Moth’, and ‘Pee Wee’ fit the scale of small gardens. ‘Limelight’ produces cool-green flowers and grows to a height of 6 to 8 feet.
  • ‘Grandiflora’ is a big, old-fashioned, floppy variety, ‘Tardiva’, ‘White Moth’, and ‘Pee Wee’ fit the scale of small gardens. ‘Limelight’ produces cool-green flowers and grows to a height of 6 to 8 feet.
  • Smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens) ​​​​Look for the cultivars H. arborescens ‘Grandiflora’ and ‘Annabelle’, which produce many large (up to 14 inches across), tight, symmetrical blooms in late summer. 
  • ​​​​Look for the cultivars H. arborescens ‘Grandiflora’ and ‘Annabelle’, which produce many large (up to 14 inches across), tight, symmetrical blooms in late summer. 
  • Oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia)  You can expect exceptional fall color from ‘Snow Queen’, ‘Snow Flake’, and ‘Alice’.
  • You can expect exceptional fall color from ‘Snow Queen’, ‘Snow Flake’, and ‘Alice’.
  • Bigleaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla)  We love ‘All Summer Beauty’ (Mophead), which has profuse, dark blue flowers—turning more pink in soils with near neutral pH. If its buds are winter-killed, the plant will form new ones in spring and still bloom. ‘Nikko Blue’ (Mophead) is vigorous, with large, rounded, blue flowers. ‘Blue Wave’ (Lacecap) produces rich blue to mauve or lilac-blue to pink flowers. ‘Color Fantasy’ (Mophead) has reddish or deep purple flowers and shiny, dark green leaves. It grows to about 3 feet tall.
  • We love ‘All Summer Beauty’ (Mophead), which has profuse, dark blue flowers—turning more pink in soils with near neutral pH. If its buds are winter-killed, the plant will form new ones in spring and still bloom.
  • ‘Nikko Blue’ (Mophead) is vigorous, with large, rounded, blue flowers.
  • ‘Blue Wave’ (Lacecap) produces rich blue to mauve or lilac-blue to pink flowers.
  • ‘Color Fantasy’ (Mophead) has reddish or deep purple flowers and shiny, dark green leaves. It grows to about 3 feet tall.
  • Mountain hydrangeas (H. serrata) Examples are ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Diadem’. In acidic soil, ‘Preziosa’ produces blossoms of an extraordinary blend of pale shades of blue, mauve, violet, and green.
  • Examples are ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Diadem’. In acidic soil, ‘Preziosa’ produces blossoms of an extraordinary blend of pale shades of blue, mauve, violet, and green.
  • Climbing hydrangeas (H. anomala ssp. Petiolaris)  ‘Firefly’ is a newly-patented variety exhibiting variegated foliage. 
  • ‘Firefly’ is a newly-patented variety exhibiting variegated foliage. 

Wit & Wisdom

  • The word “hydrangea” is derived from Greek hydor meaning “water” and angeion meaning “vessel,” referring to the plant’s seed pods, which look like small water jugs.
  • In the language of flowers, hydrangeas symbolize gratitude for being understood, or frigidity and heartlessness. See more flower meanings.

How To Plant hydrangeas

Botanical NameHydrangea spp.
Plant TypeShrub
Sun ExposureFull Sun, Part Sun, Shade
Soil TypeAny
Soil pHAcidic, Neutral, Neutral to Slightly Alkaline, Slightly Acidic to Neutral
Bloom TimeSummer, Fall
Flower ColorBlue, Green, Pink, Purple, Red, White
Hardiness Zones3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Special FeaturesAttracts Butterflies

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