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How to Prune Your Hydrangea

How to prune all the different types of Hydrangeas.

Contributors: Ryan McGrath

You prize your hydrangeas for their beautiful flowers. You also want to make sure you prune them at the right time to encourage the stunning blooms every season. But do you wonder whether or when to prune them?

“The first step is to determine the variety of your hydrangea,” said Tim Wood, new product manager at Proven Winners ColorChoice. “This is fairly easy to do. If your plant produces big pink or blue flowers, it is a Hydrangea macrophylla. If its flowers are round and white—or pink in the case of the new Invincibelle Spirit—the plant is a Hydrangea arborescens. Finally, if the plant has large, conical flowers, which are often white but may also be green or pink, you own a Hydrangea paniculata.”

Bigleaf Hydrangeas

If you have Hydrangea macrophylla, also known as Bigleaf Hydrangea, Wood says you can relax. This plant requires little more than a trimming and only immediately after flowering. You should never prune it in winter or spring, because it sets flower buds the year before and if you shear it back, then you will cut off all of summer’s flowers.

Newer reblooming varieties such as the Let’s Dance® series from Proven Winners® ColorChoice® will also bloom on the current season’s growth, but you still want to leave the plant intact through spring so you can enjoy early summer flowers.

Smooth Hydrangeas

Hydrangea arborescens, also known as Smooth Hydrangea, are beloved for their adaptable nature and reliable blooms. You should prune it back in late winter or early spring. These hydrangeas bloom on “new wood”—the current season’s growth. Pruning them back at that time encourages new growth, which produces flowers. Spring pruning will also result in a fuller, stronger plant that’s less likely to flop under the weight of its abundant summer flowers. Cutting the stems back to one or two feet will leave a good framework to support the blooms.

Today, there are two new “Annabelle” Hydrangea arborescens with stronger stems, so they won’t flop after being established. Invincibelle® Spirit Hydrangea is the very first pink-flowered form of “Annabelle.” Invincibelle® Spirit continues to produce new pink flowers right up until frost, providing a beautiful display across several seasons in your garden, from mid-summer to fall. Incrediball® Hydrangea has the biggest flowers and the strongest stems of any of the “Annabelle” hydrangeas. Incrediball® produces incredibly large white blooms as big as a basketball.

Hardy Hydrangeas

Hydrangea paniculata, sometimes called Hardy Hydrangea, also blooms on new wood. You should prune it back in late winter or early spring. You can cut it back to the ground or, if you want slightly taller plants, cut it back to one to three feet. This is a great job for one of those early spring days when everything is still dormant but it’s so beautiful and warm you need to be in the garden.

A new variety of Hydrangea paniculata won’t require as much pruning to keep it smaller. The new Little Lime Hydrangea boasts the same colors and benefits of the famous 'Limelight' Hydrangea though only reaching three to five feet fully grown. At one-third the size of other hardy hydrangeas, it fits well into practically any landscape. Little Lime produces bright cone-shaped lime-green flowers, later turning into pink, from mid-summer to frost.

Fortunately, even if you make a mistake and prune at the wrong time of year, these plants will forgive you. You may not have flowers for a season but, with proper timing, you’ll see them the following year. Just remember to start by correctly identifying which kind of hydrangea you have. With just a little work, you’ll get beautiful flowers from your hydrangeas year after year.

For general information on pruning other types of flowering shrubs, click this link.

Incrediball® Hydrangea arborescens 'Abetwo' USPP20,571, CPBRAF; Invincibelle® Spirit Hydrangea arborescens 'NCHA1' USPP20,765, CCOPF; Little Lime Hydrangea paniculata 'Jane' USPPAF, Can. 3914; 'Limelight' Hydrangea paniculata USPP12,874, Can. 2319;

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/21/2016 - 7:19am

I bought a macrophylla at Easter time in March. The flowers are fading and it is only mid-May. Should I trim the dead flower or let it go on it's own. I do see lots of new leaves growing and don't want to harm the shrub.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 05/24/2016 - 10:58am

It's really up to you - some hydrangeas age gracefully, with the blooms turning to handsome colors, while others not so much. There's no harm in cutting off the flowers if you don't like the way they look - cut them off just above the set of leaves immediately below the bloom. There's no harm in leaving them, either.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/14/2016 - 10:01am

Hi. I read an article that recommends early-spring pruning paniculatas back to a total height above the ground of 12" ideally or 24" max. The author said that the plants would then send out arcing stems from the point. This sounds easier that what I've been doing, which is pruning each bloom back to healthy buds. What do you think?
I have a Little Lamb, several Little Limes (my all-time favourite plants!), and a Limelight.
My Limelight got damaged by a fallen tree and is very spindly. It's also in a pretty shady spot, zone 3a. I'm wondering if I should relocate it to a sunnier spot? It's planted on the north side of a tall fence.
Thank you!

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 05/19/2016 - 10:17am

I would recommend you move your Limelight to a sunnier spot. It will recover faster and perform much better if it gets at least six hours of bright sun, ideally in the morning. Opinions about pruning panicle hydrangeas differ - you certainly can prune them that hard if you want, but in my experience, this deprives the plant of the chance to form a strong, supportive base. I prefer to cut the plants back by about one half to one third their total height in early spring. The plants should flower well in both cases, so I would recommend that you try the one-third method next year, then try the more severe method the following year. Take photos of the plants in bloom and compare them to see which effect you prefer!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/16/2016 - 11:32am

I have an incrediball that left alone all winter in Wisconsin so it is still all brown, dried brown floers. What should I do? I don't know what to expect.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 04/21/2016 - 6:47am

Your plant will burst back into green growth soon - for now, just cut the branches back by about one-third their length, which helps build up a strong, woody base while also encouraging abundant new growth for lots of flowers.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 11/02/2015 - 4:26pm

HI - I've read to cutback smooth hydrangea incrediaballs in early winter. However, I'm reluctant to do so to the ones that were just planted this Fall. We planted 7 new incrediballs in early september; they are the 3 gallon size, about 2 foot high, (as big as I could find) and I want them to grow to be about 4 foot high - Should we wait to until next winter to cutback -or- go ahead and cut them now?
thank you - Amy

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 11/04/2015 - 8:28am

I prefer to recommend cutting back in early spring, just as the new growth begins to emerge on the stems. In spring, when you see the buds begin to expand and turn green, cut the stems back to a large bud. You don't need to prune off a lot of stem; what you want to do is cut back to just above a set of big, thick, healthy buds - the larger the bud you cut back to, the bigger and more vigorous the growth that will come from it. Once it is established (probably about three years down the line), you can plan to cut it back by one-third to one-half each spring.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 10/04/2015 - 12:01pm

hi! My Incrediball is 6 feet tall and 12 feet wide & full of huge fading and brown flowers. It is October now. I really feel like I should hack it. Same with my strawberry vanilla that is seven feet tall. If I leave them like they are, the snow might damage them. Last years snow killed my little limes. ( and split the 7 foot strawberry vanilla) ( I always prune them in the spring, but this year they pruned themselves in half)
I feel like Edward scissor hands! Should I just quit and wait till spring?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 10/05/2015 - 9:37am

Hi Colleen - Yes, you can prune both of these types of hydrangeas in fall if you'd like. It's best to wait until they go dormant so that the plant can have the opportunity to take up the nutrients still in the leaves.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 09/27/2015 - 2:58pm

Hi, I have 2 Hardy Hydrangeas. One is a new Bobo shrub, the other one is a "Limelight tree". I live in Montreal's South Shore (Quebec, Canada). The first year I had the tree, I left the flowers during winter but we had so much snow that some branches broke under weight. Ever since, I cut the flowers after they turn kind of brown (mid-October), and the tree just looks great the next year. Should I do the same with the Bobo?


Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 09/29/2015 - 12:34pm

You can prune all hardy hydrangeas in fall (after they've gone dormant) or in spring. Both are equally successful, but fall pruning is often a good idea in snowy areas where, as you've discovered, snow may break the stems. In this case, fall pruning allows you to decide how much growth will be removed. If you've found this effective on your Limelight standard, I would recommend it for Bobo as well.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/26/2015 - 4:29pm

I understand that pruning should be done early spring. When pruning do I prune just under the old blossom or do I prune at the juncture of the stem?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 04/28/2015 - 12:46pm

If you have panicle hydrangeas or smooth hydrangeas, you can cut off one-third the length of the stem. If you have big-leaf or oakleaf hydrangea, cut off only last year's blossom.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 06/04/2014 - 6:49pm

Hi, I'm hoping someone could help me here. We bought a home last year with some beautiful limelights. Last year the plants bloomed beautifully at an acceptable height/width which didn't suffocate the surrounding plants. However, this year the plants really have shot up and out dramatically. Although I did prune them back to 18" stems during the winter, I think it was the compost I put down in late winter that really kicked them into gear. Without knowing, I pruned the plants back about 6-8 inches again a week ago just to reduce the plant size. I made an assumption that this would also encourage the plant to create new shoots from each stem and potentially more and somewhat smaller flowers. I guess I should have read this article first, because now it sounds like I cut all the stems that would have produced flowers (none had formed yet) and now there will be no flowers this summer. Is this accurate? If so, I have just broken my wife's heart.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 05/08/2014 - 8:58pm

I agree with another comment, this is a very straight-forward article. Thank you!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/06/2014 - 3:57pm

You don't mention the type of fertilizer that should be applied and when.

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Tue, 04/08/2014 - 5:29pm

The Proven Winners Premium Continuous Release Plant Food would work great for the Incrediballs. Use the plant food when the plant starts growing for the season. The best way to use the plant food is to sprinkle it from the base of plant and work your way in.

Hope this helps! Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 09/23/2011 - 8:05am

This article is comprehensive yet gets right to the point. For some reason a lot of articles on pruning hydrangeas seem to make it more complicated than it needs to be even while they are saying how simple it is. Finally I feel very clear on who needs pruned when!

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