How to Grow and Care for Hydrangeas Step-by-Step

Hydrangeas can be grown in shady areas, used as privacy screens and hedges, and will live for more than 50 years with proper (minimal) care. Gardeners adore hydrangeas for their stunning blooms and lush foliage. These gorgeous perennials enhance your home’s curb appeal and can be cut to adorn a dining room table.

Whether planting a new one or caring for an established one, this guide will provide you with all the information you need to grow healthy, vibrant hydrangeas year after year.

1. Choosing the Right Location

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Hydrangeas thrive in areas with morning sun and afternoon shade. Too much direct sunlight can scorch their leaves and reduce flowering, while too little sun can result in fewer blooms. Aim to plant hydrangeas in a spot where they receive about four to six hours of sunlight each day, preferably in the morning.

  • Morning Sun, Afternoon Shade: Hydrangeas perform best with morning sunlight and shade in the hotter afternoon hours. This balance prevents their leaves from scorching and keeps the flowers vibrant.
  • Wind Protection: Plant hydrangeas in a location sheltered from strong winds, which can damage their delicate flowers and foliage.
  • Space Considerations: Hydrangeas need room to grow. Space plants at least 3 to 10 feet apart, depending on the variety, to ensure proper air circulation and room for their mature size.

2. Preparing the Soil

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Hydrangeas prefer well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Before planting, amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to improve its texture and fertility. Hydrangeas can adapt to different soil pH levels, but the pH can influence the color of the flowers. Acidic soil (pH below 6) will produce blue flowers, while alkaline soil (pH above 7) will yield pink flowers. If you want to change the color of your hydrangeas, you can adjust the soil pH accordingly.

  • Soil Testing: Test your soil pH using a soil test kit. This will help you determine if you need to amend the soil to achieve your desired flower color.
  • Amending Soil: To make the soil more acidic and produce blue flowers, add sulfur or peat moss. To make the soil more alkaline for pink flowers, add lime.
  • Organic Matter: Mix in compost or well-rotted manure to enhance soil fertility and drainage. This provides essential nutrients and improves the soil structure.

3. Planting Hydrangeas

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Plant hydrangeas in the spring or fall when the weather is mild. Dig a hole that is twice as wide and as deep as the root ball of the plant. Place the hydrangea in the hole so that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil. Fill the hole with soil, pressing gently to remove air pockets. Water the plant thoroughly after planting.

  • Timing: Plant in early spring after the last frost or in the fall, at least six weeks before the first expected frost.
  • Planting Depth: Ensure the top of the root ball is level with the ground to prevent waterlogging and root rot.
  • Watering In: After planting, water thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots and eliminate air pockets. This helps establish the plant in its new location.

4. Watering

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Hydrangeas need consistent moisture, especially during their first growing season. Water deeply at least once a week, ensuring the soil remains moist but not waterlogged. During hot and dry periods, you may need to water more frequently. Mulching around the base of the plant can help retain soil moisture and regulate temperature.

  • Consistent Moisture: Maintain even soil moisture. Hydrangeas do not tolerate drought well and will wilt quickly if the soil dries out.
  • Deep Watering: Water deeply, soaking the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. This encourages deep root growth and makes the plants more drought-resistant.
  • Mulching: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the base of the plant. This helps retain moisture, suppresses weeds, and keeps the soil cool.

5. Fertilizing

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Hydrangeas benefit from regular feeding to promote healthy growth and abundant blooms. Use a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in the spring as new growth begins. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application rates. Avoid over-fertilizing, as this can lead to excessive leaf growth at the expense of flowers.

  • Balanced Fertilizer: Use a balanced 10-10-10 or 14-14-14 fertilizer. Apply it in early spring as new growth appears.
  • Slow-Release Options: Slow-release fertilizers provide a steady supply of nutrients over several months. This reduces the need for frequent applications and minimizes the risk of over-fertilizing.
  • Avoid Excess Nitrogen: Too much nitrogen promotes leaf growth at the expense of flowers. Use fertilizers designed for flowering plants to encourage blooms.

6. Pruning

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Pruning hydrangeas helps maintain their shape and encourages new growth. The timing and method of pruning depend on the type of hydrangea you have:

  • Bigleaf and Oakleaf Hydrangeas: These types bloom on old wood, so prune them after they flower in the summer. Remove spent blooms and dead or damaged wood, and thin out the plant to improve air circulation.
    • Timing: Prune immediately after flowering. Late pruning can remove next year’s flower buds.
    • Method: Remove spent blooms, dead wood, and weak or crossing stems. Thin out the plant to enhance air circulation and reduce disease risk.
  • Panicle and Smooth Hydrangeas: These bloom on new wood, so prune them in late winter or early spring before new growth starts. Cut back the stems to a few inches above the ground to encourage vigorous growth and large blooms.
    • Timing: Prune in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.
    • Method: Cut stems back to 12-18 inches above the ground. This stimulates robust growth and produces larger blooms.

7. Managing Pests and Diseases

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Hydrangeas are relatively resistant to pests and diseases, but they can occasionally be affected by aphids, spider mites, and powdery mildew. To prevent issues, keep your plants healthy by providing adequate water and nutrients and ensuring good air circulation. If you notice pests, treat them with insecticidal soap or neem oil. For fungal diseases, remove and dispose of affected leaves and consider applying a fungicide if the problem persists.

  • Aphids and Spider Mites: These pests can be controlled with insecticidal soap or neem oil. Spray affected plants thoroughly, ensuring you reach the undersides of leaves.
  • Powdery Mildew: This fungal disease appears as a white, powdery coating on leaves. Improve air circulation by pruning and avoid overhead watering. Apply fungicide if necessary.
  • Leaf Spot: This fungal disease causes brown or black spots on leaves. Remove and dispose of affected leaves and avoid wetting foliage during watering.

8. Overwintering

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Hydrangeas need protection during the winter, especially in colder climates. Apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of the plant to insulate the roots. For bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas, consider covering the plant with burlap or a protective fabric to shield it from harsh winter winds and frost.

  • Mulching: Apply a 4-6 inch layer of mulch around the base of the plant to insulate the roots and protect them from freezing temperatures.
  • Covering: In areas with harsh winters, cover bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas with burlap or a similar material to protect the stems and buds from frost and wind damage.
  • Watering: Water the plant well before the ground freezes. This helps the plant withstand winter stress.

9. Transplanting

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If you need to move a hydrangea, do so in the early spring or fall when the weather is cool. Water the plant well a few days before digging it up. Carefully dig around the root ball and lift the plant out of the ground, keeping as much of the root system intact as possible. Replant it in a prepared hole and water thoroughly.

  • Timing: Transplant in early spring or fall to minimize stress on the plant.
  • Preparation: Water the plant thoroughly a few days before moving. This helps ensure the root ball stays intact.
  • Digging and Replanting: Dig a wide, shallow hole around the plant to avoid damaging roots. Replant at the same depth in a prepared hole and water well to settle the soil.

10. Maintaining Your Hydrangeas

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With proper care, hydrangeas can provide years of beautiful blooms. Regular maintenance, including watering, fertilizing, and pruning, will keep your plants healthy and vibrant. Whether used as a focal point in your garden or as part of a mixed border, hydrangeas add a touch of elegance and charm to any landscape.

  • Regular Monitoring: Keep an eye on your plants for signs of stress, disease, or pests. Early intervention can prevent problems from becoming severe.
  • Seasonal Care: Adjust your care routine according to the season. Provide extra water during hot spells, protect from frost in winter, and prune appropriately.
  • Creative Landscaping: Use hydrangeas creatively in your garden design. Their versatile colors and forms can enhance various garden styles, from formal to cottage gardens.

11. Drying Hydrangeas

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Drying hydrangeas allows you to enjoy their beautiful blooms long after the growing season has ended. To start, choose blooms that are mature but not fully dried on the plant. The petals should feel slightly papery to the touch but still retain some color and flexibility. While most hydrangeas can be dried, panicle and bigleaf hydrangeas tend to dry particularly well.

When cutting the blooms, use sharp, clean scissors or pruning shears to make clean cuts. Cut the stems to about 12-18 inches long to make handling easier. After cutting, strip the leaves from the stems to prevent them from drawing moisture away from the flowers and to avoid mold. Gather the stems into small bundles and secure them with a rubber band or string.

There are two effective methods for drying hydrangeas: air drying and water drying. For air drying, hang the bundles upside down in a dark, dry, and well-ventilated area such as a closet, attic, or unused room. Ensure good air circulation around each bundle to prevent mold and ensure even drying. The flowers typically take about two to three weeks to dry completely. They are ready when the stems are stiff and the petals feel completely dry.

For water drying, place the stems in a vase with about 1-2 inches of water and leave the vase in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Let the water evaporate slowly over time. As the water disappears, the flowers will dry while retaining their shape better. This method can be particularly useful for preserving the natural form of the hydrangea blooms.

More Flowers & Plants That Grow in Shade

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Hydrangeas will tolerate quite a bit of shade, but there are many more plants on that list.

Learn More: 19 Flowers & Plants You Can Grow in Shade

More Hydrangea Tips

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Fine-tune your hydrangeas.

Learn More: 13 Secrets to Achieving Lush Hydrangea Gardens

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