How to prune hydrangeas – including when to deadhead and cut back

Learn how to prune hydrangeas for healthier and happier plants with more blooms

How to prune hydrangeas in a garden bed
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

It is important to know how to prune hydrangeas to get the best out of these spectacular shrubs.

Once considered a little unfashionable, hydrangeas have experienced a revival in popularity in recent years, appreciated for their range of colorful and showy blooms – some of which are also wonderful when dried for enduring floral displays in the home. 

With their large, clustered flower heads, hydrangeas make a striking addition to garden borders or containers, and pruning is an important aspect of learning how to grow hydrangeas successfully, too.

When pruning hydrangeas, it is important to be aware that not all varieties are pruned in the same way, and different types require a slightly different approach.

mophead hydrangeas in a terracotta pot

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

How to prune hydrangeas – for beginners

Hydrangeas are generally pretty low maintenance shrubs, and once you have identified the variety that you have in your garden, it's easy to get to grips with how to prune them. 

Some hydrangeas flower on old wood and some on new wood, so it is important to prune them the correct way so as to not detrimentally affect their flowering. 

'Pruning hydrangeas will help the formation of new flowers and promote good shape,' explains Ian Wright, garden consultant at National Trust , which boasts dramatic displays of hydrangeas in many of its gardens. 

hydrangeas in a garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

When should hydrangeas be pruned?

'Apart from climbing hydrangeas, which are pruned in summer, most hydrangeas are pruned in early spring – ideally February to March,' explain the experts at seed and plant company Thompson & Morgan.

Although many hydrangeas are pruned at the same time of year in early spring, the way you prune the different varieties differs. Monty Don's hydrangea pruning tips tackle spring pruning, for example.

Hydrangeas in a garden border

(Image credit: National Trust)

Pruning mophead hydrangeas and lacecaps

The method for pruning mophead hydrangeas and lacecap hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla)  – also known as bigleaf hydrangeas – is the same.

Mophead hydrangeas are a common choice for gardens with their full, roundish heads of large petals in shades of blue, pink, green and white. This makes them a popular shrub choice for cottage garden ideas.

Lacecap hydrangeas are identified by tiny flowers in the center of the bloom and an outer border of larger petals.

These varieties should be pruned in early spring. 

'It’s best to leave the faded blooms in place over the winter to protect tender new buds from frost damage,' advise the experts at Thompson & Morgan

When pruning mophead hydrangeas and lacecaps in early spring:

  • Cut out one or two of the oldest, weakest stems at the base of the plant to encourage new growth that will have better blooms.
  • Using secateurs, carefully remove old flowerheads just above a pair of buds.
  • Be careful not to cut off any of the flower buds.
  • If the bigleaf hydrangea shrub has been neglected and has lots of overlapping, tangled branches, you can do a harder prune and cut the stems down to the base of the plant. However the hydrangea will then not bloom until the following year.

mophead hydrangeas and lacecap hydrangeas used to add a strong backdrop of colour to prairie planting

(Image credit: Peter Chatterton)

How to prune climbing hydrangeas

Climbing hydrangeas, such as Hydrangea anomola subsp. petiolaris, Hydrangea seemannii or H. serratifolia are pruned in summer, after flowering.

The reason that climbing hydrangeas are pruned in summer is because the flowers are produced on the previous year's wood. If they are pruned earlier in spring, before flowering, the blooms for that year will be sacrificed. 

'Prune Hydrangea petiolaris immediately after flowering to shorten any branches growing out from the wall or support, otherwise only light pruning is required to remove dead or damaged stems,' advises gardening expert Sarah Raven.

Most flowers appear at the top of climbing hydrangea plants, so the RHS advise to leave as much of this unpruned as possible.

climbing hydrangea covering a garden trellis

(Image credit: Getty Images/ Catherine McQueen)

How to prune Hydrangea paniculata and Hydrangea arborescens

Hydrangea Paniculata with its cone-like heads of blooms, and Hydrangea aborescens with its spherical flower heads, are also pruned in early spring.

  • They produce flowers on new wood, so they can be pruned back harder without sacrificing that year's flowers.
  • Prune old branches back to the lowest pair of healthy buds near ground level for a neat framework.
  • 'By cutting stems to different heights, you’ll get flowerheads produced at different levels,' advises Sarah Raven

Other types of hydrangea, including Hydrangea aspera and Hydrangea quercifolia, need only light pruning in spring. Simply remove dead flower heads and overlong or crossing stems.

hydrangea blooms

(Image credit: Stephanie Klepacki / Unsplash)

What happens if you don't prune hydrangeas?

If you don't prune hydrangeas then they can eventually resemble a tangled mass of woody stems, and the flowers will become smaller and less showy.

Regular pruning of hydrangeas helps to maintain their shape and also encourages new growth and a better display of blooms. 

'It's this strong, new growth that ensures you have lots of large, healthy flowers to enjoy in the years to come,' explain the experts at Thompson & Morgan.

Hydrangea aspera

(Image credit: National Trust)

Do you cut off dead hydrangea blooms?

Deadheading hydrangeas – or removing spent flowers from the stem to encourage better blooming later on – can be done with some hydrangeas but not all.

The RHS recommends that dead blooms should only be removed from mophead hydrangeas after flowering in mild areas. Their advice is that it is better to leave the flowerheads on the plant over winter to provide some frost protection. 

In addition, by leaving the dried flowers on the plant, they will provide interest in the garden through to spring, and can be a stunning sight when covered in a coating of frost.

The flowers on the hardier lacecaps, however, can be deadheaded after flowering.


This feature was created by H&G sister brand, Period Living magazine

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Rachel is senior content editor, and writes and commissions gardening content for homesandgardens.com, Homes & Gardens magazine, and its sister titles Period Living Magazine and Country Homes & Interiors. She has written for lifestyle magazines for many years, with a particular focus on gardening, historic houses and arts and crafts, but started out her journalism career in BBC radio, where she enjoyed reporting on and writing programme scripts for all manner of stories. Rachel then moved into regional lifestyle magazines, where the topics she wrote about, and people she interviewed, were as varied and eclectic as they were on radio. Always harboring a passion for homes and gardens, she jumped at the opportunity to work on The English Home and The English Garden magazines for a number of years, before joining the Period Living team, then the wider Homes & Gardens team, specializing in gardens.