Shrubs Winter Protection

Bigleaf Hydrangeas: a Challenge in a Cold Climate

Bigleaf hydrangea with blue flowers

By Larry Hodgson

I can’t help but be a bit jealous of gardeners in slightly warmer climates than mine. When I travel to the US, even as far north as Boston, spectacular bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, also called blue hydrangeas, mophead hydrangeas and hortensias), with huge balls of blue to pink flowers, are everywhere. The same goes for Europe and Asia: you see them from Portugal to Denmark and from Vietnam to Manchuria. It seems everyone can grow them… except me! 

Of course, that’s perfectly normal. The bigleaf hydrangea is a temperate-climate plant, but not one adapted to extreme cold. It likes a moderate winter: USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9, even protected spots in zone 6. But not USDA zone 3 (AgCan zone 4), where I live. Below 0° F (-18 °C), it suffers. Yes, it will survive temperatures as low as -10 °F (-23 °C) for short periods, but is often killed back and either blooms only sporadically or not at all when exposed to that much cold. 

Where I live, I can expect temperatures down to -22 °F (-30 °C) in an average winter, and sometimes -40 °F (-40 °C). Really not something the bigleaf hydrangea evolved to tolerate. Indeed, in much of Canada, a winter without protection can kill it to the ground and keep it from blooming.

Fortunately, there is a relatively easy way to protect this plant. Here’s what to do:

Winter Protection for a Fragile Plant

The time to act is after the frost has killed its leaves, but before the extreme cold of winter sets in. In November or early December in most cold climates.

First, don’t prune your hydrangea in the fall: it flowers from “old wood” (buds produced the previous year that overwinter on the plant). Even varieties, like the Endless Summer and Let’s Dance series, that are said to bloom from both old wood and new wood, actually bloom from old wood. Their “new wood” blooms appear as secondary growth from buds that overwintered. So, since the part of the plant that will flower the next year is already on the plant in the fall, if you prune it off, you’ll be removing the flower buds and the plant won’t bloom.

Cage of fall leaves
A cage filled with fall leaves provides excellent protection against the cold. Ill.: Josée Fortin, Jardinier sans se ruiner

Instead, surround your hydrangea with a “cage” of wire mesh using a few stakes to hold it upright. Now fill the cage with 2 ½ to 3 feet (75 cm to 100 cm) of fall leaves. Not only will the leaves protect against the cold by acting as insulation, they’ll release a certain amount of heat as they decompose. 

But if winter protection is important, spring care is even more vital. It’s important to leave the cage in place a long time: much longer than you would think. The idea is now to keep the plant colder than the surrounding air, so it will stay dormant as long as possible. That’s because, once your bigleaf hydrangea does begin to grow, and it starts to sprout very early in the spring, it loses all its frost resistance. Thus, after it has started to grow, even a light spring frost, say 31° F (-1 °C), will be able to kill the developing flower buds.

So, the cage must stay in place at least until the lawn is tall enough to require mowing, maybe even longer. It’s only when there is really no risk of frost (not before June in some areas) that it’s safe to remove it.

Despite this protection, it’s always possible that some branches or parts of branches will have died over the winter (they will appear black): if so, you can prune those off, cutting just above a section of stem that is not discolored. But any aboveground parts that are still alive should give you at least some bloom, even in zones 3, 4 and 5.

Give this method a try and you’ll see: many gardeners report great success—and many beautiful blue flowers!—by caging their bigleaf hydrangeas in the late fall.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

7 comments on “Bigleaf Hydrangeas: a Challenge in a Cold Climate

  1. Carolyn Glassford Ames

    Very helpful. There is no doubt I have a black thumb, as unfortunately I just cut back my hydrangea in part because there were these black spots all over the green leaves. Being a complete novice, I assumed some kind of infection and cut the whole plant down to about 6 inches. Other than I should have just left it standing, any advice on the black spots? Just leave them? I’m in balmy Ottawa. Thanks ever so much. Carolyn

  2. Russ Clark

    We live in Mtl, zone 5b Cdn. Over the years, in the spring, we have purchased potted hydrangeas in bloom, and when their flowers have finished we plant them outside. They have always survived and come up each year, but with very few flowers. I am not sure what specific type of hydrangea they are but always appear to be the same kind. The problem is when and how far to trim them back.
    Thanks, Russ.

    • This is exactly the type discussed in the article. Don’t prune them, not until spring, and even then, only dead wood. And if you mulch them, you’ll have plenty of bloom!

  3. Gee, in some climates, one might be more concerned about hydrangeas getting enough chill to bloom. Apparently, they do not need as much as we used to theink they needed. In the Santa Clara Valley, blue hydrangeas used to be enviable, since the slightly alkaline soil compelled them to bloom pink. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, pink hydrangeas were enviable for the opposite reason. We must fertilize ours according to the color we want. Nowadays, some are more reliably blue, and others are more reliably pink, regardless of the pH of the soil. The white sorts should always be white, but now they can change culor.

  4. Jessica Crawford

    Thanks for this, I successfully overwintered mine using this method. Ñext spring I will wait a little longer to remove the insulation as even in Toronto we have some bizarre temperature swings.

  5. I’m in 5b and have so many I don’t have a count, but they all don’t bloom. I always find it a challenge to fertilize and see how many then bloom. Good thing I enjoy their big large leaves. 🙂

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