‘Most important’ task to prepare your hydrangeas for winter

Gardeners’ World: Monty Don on growing hydrangeas

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Proper hydrangea winter care will determine the success and quantity of next summer’s blooms. The key to hydrangea winter protection is to protect your plant, whether in a pot or in the ground, prior to the first frost of winter through the last frost the following spring. Three gardening and hydrangea experts have spoken exclusively to Express.co.uk on how to ensure hydrangeas make it through winter.

According to Fiona Jenkins at myjobquote.co.uk hydrangeas need to be protected before winter arrives. She said: “The most important thing you need to do to prepare your hydrangeas for winter is to ensure that the buds are protected. 

“A simple method involves creating a mound of shredded leaves or mulch around the bottom of the plant. Place around 12 inches of shredded leaves or mulch at the base of the plant in late autumn after the first frost. When spring time comes around and the temperature remains above freezing, remove the leaves or mulch.”

Lorraine Ballato, hydrangea expert and author of Success With Hydrangeas, the international Best Selling Hydrangea Book, also urged gardeners to protect these flowers for winter. She told Express.co.uk: “If you want to protect those buds, encircle your dormant plant with a cage of chicken wire. 

“You can simply wrap burlap around the cage or fill it with shredded leaves, straw, pine needles, and the like. That filling will add insulation and further protect the flower buds. You can make this protective covering even easier by buying and installing a shrub cover. They are available online and at local garden centres.

“Adding mulch before the winter sets in is yet another step you can take. The mulch insulates plant roots, and moderates soil temperature so temperature fluctuations are less impactful on your plant. When compost is your mulch of choice, you further add all-important microbes to your soil profile.”

Emma Loker, gardening expert at DIY Garden noted that hydrangea buds need to be protected over winter. She said: “Just like we bring out the blankets when winter approaches, hydrangeas like us to tuck them in, ready for the cold winter days.

“My favourite method is putting stakes around your plant (avoiding the root network), wrapping a single layer of chicken wire around them, and then filling this with old, crunchy oak leaves. This method will keep the buds toasty over winter.”

As well as protecting the buds, Emma also noted that roots of newly planted hydrangeas need to be protected. She explained: “Immature hydrangeas planted in the ground need a helping hand come winter. You can protect your newly-planted hydrangeas by adding pine bark chips, oak leaves, or mulch to the plant’s base. This will help protect its root network when the first frost hits.”

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For those who have potted hydrangeas in their garden, Fiona suggested that it’s best to bring these inside over winter. She said: “They are best placed in the garage, shed or in a basement where the temperature remains cool. The plants themselves will go dormant. However, you will still need to give them some water roughly once a month to ensure the roots remain moist ready for spring.”

Emma also highlighted the importance of protecting potted hydrangeas. She said: “Potted hydrangeas need a different kind of TLC than in-ground plants in the run-up to winter. Potted hydrangeas won’t withstand the cold weather if left outside, so bring them into your well-insulated home before the first signs of frost.

“If you can’t cart your hydrangea indoors, foam insulation is your best friend! This is my go-to method for potted hydrangeas that are too heavy to move. Just surround the entire plant (pot and all!) in foam insulation. It may not be pretty, but it does the trick.”

With most hydrangeas, specifically the big leaf type, pruning should come to a halt for winter. Lorraine said: “Bigleaf hydrangeas (macrophylla) are the divas of the family. During the growing season you could spend hours on them deadheading, pruning, and so on. But this time of year, you can just about stop all that. 

“In fact, pruning them in autumn is something you definitely shouldn’t do. That will stimulate them to grow which is not what you want. You want them to go to sleep for a few months. They are forming their buds for next year (known as ‘old wood’) now so don’t distract them. Don’t even deadhead them. 

“Those dead flowers actually protect the stems and act as a kind of umbrella. They will help keep the ice and snow away so the sleeping buds can safely stay nestled in the stems.”

Emma agreed with the need to stop pruning hydrangeas for winter. She said: “We, gardeners, love to go crazy with pruning in the run-up to winter, but keep those clippers away from your hydrangea plants and avoid pruning at all costs! 

“Oakleaf and bigleaf hydrangeas start forming their flower buds from late summer until spring. So, by pruning your hydrangea now, you risk chopping off those beautiful buds and sacrificing next year’s bushy blooms.”

For gardeners who have a woodland/smooth hydrangea (arborescens) like “Annabelle,” Lorraine suggested doing “nothing”.  She said: “Let the dead flowers stay on the plant through the winter. They provide food for birds as they pick through those big, papery flowers. Rest assured that ignoring the plant now won’t prevent it from flowering for you next year. 

“This plant puts out flowers on new growth in the current season (known as new wood), so old man winter, deer browse, or an overenthusiastic landscaper who likes to cut everything in autumn can’t harm it. Plus you get some winter interest as the snow and frost cling to those flowers. It’s a lot nicer to look at than bare winter ground. The same holds true for your panicle hydrangeas (paniculata) like ‘Limelight’. They are hardy in the coldest regions and will flower for you next year without you doing anything this autumn.”

The hydrangea pro also noted that gardeners can add the appropriate amendment to change the colour of their flowers this season. She said: “Note, however, that this applies to some – not all – big leaf and mountain hydrangeas. 

“By applying the right amendment now, you give your plant the time it needs to take the chemical up into its vascular system which will change the flower colour next season. Keep in mind that this colour manipulation isn’t a ‘one and done’. Soil will always revert to its natural state so this process may need to be repeated at regular intervals. Your local garden centre can help you figure out what and how to add the right amendment.”

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