How do you make hydrangeas bushier?

Hydrangeas are popular flowering shrubs that produce large, showy blooms throughout the summer. Many gardeners look for ways to get the fullest, bushiest looking hydrangea plants possible. The good news is there are several tricks you can use to help your hydrangeas put on more growth and become nice and bushy.

Quick Answers

Here are some quick answers to common questions about making hydrangeas bushier:

  • Prune your hydrangeas at the right time – in late winter or early spring before new growth emerges.
  • Remove old, spent blooms throughout the summer to promote new flowering wood.
  • Choose the right hydrangea varieties that are known for their bushy, mounded form.
  • Provide plenty of water during the growing season.
  • Use fertilizer to encourage strong growth.
  • Give hydrangeas partial to full sun exposure depending on the variety.
  • Protect plants in very cold climates by wrapping or burying them over winter.

Proper Pruning is Key

Perhaps the most important factor in keeping hydrangeas bushy is proper pruning. Pruning stimulates dense, bushy new growth from the base of the plant and removes older, leggy stems. There are two main types of hydrangeas that require different pruning approaches:

Bigleaf and Oakleaf Hydrangeas

Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) and oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) typically bloom on old wood, meaning the flower buds form on the previous season’s growth. These types should be pruned shortly after flowering when they are entering dormancy. Prune back by 1/3 to remove spent blooms and weak growth. Make cuts just above strong buds on the remaining stems.

Smooth and Panicle Hydrangeas

Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) and panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) bloom on new wood formed in the current season. Prune these in late winter or early spring before new growth begins. Cut back by 1/3 to 1/2, making cuts just above healthy buds on the stems.

Deadheading Maximizes Flowering

Deadheading, or removing faded flower heads, is another important pruning task that will help hydrangeas bush out. Spent blooms form seeds that divert energy away from new growth. Remove wilted flowers throughout summer immediately after they fade. Cut or snap off the flowers just above the first set of healthy leaves underneath.

Pick the Right Varieties

Some hydrangea varieties naturally form a bushier, mounded habit. Choosing one of these will give you a head start on achieving a full, dense look:

  • Endless Summer – Popular reblooming bigleaf type with large blue or pink blooms.
  • Let’s Dance – Reblooming bigleaf series perfect for containers.
  • Cityline – Dwarf, early flowering panicle hydrangeas.
  • Quick Fire – Early blooming panicle hydrangea.
  • Annabelle – Smooth hydrangea with huge white blooms.
  • Alice – Oakleaf hydrangea with pretty white and pink flowers.

Provide Plenty of Water

Hydrangeas thrive with regular, deep watering during their active growth in summer. Providing ample moisture encourages the vigorous growth that leads to bushy plants. Give each shrub about 1-2 inches of water per week, adjusting for rainfall. Water deeply, not frequently, to encourage deep root growth.

Fertilize at the Right Time

Using fertilizer at the proper time is important for lush, bushy hydrangeas. Most varieties benefit from fertilizing in early spring just as new growth is emerging. Use a balanced, general purpose fertilizer. Follow package directions, applying evenly around the base of each plant. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers which can lead to excessive foliage at the expense of flowers.

Give Plants Sunlight

Getting the right amount of sunlight is essential for any hydrangea. Some receive too much sun which can cause wilting, while too little light leads to legginess. Here are the recommended sunlight needs by variety:

  • Bigleaf – Morning sun, afternoon shade. At least 4 hours daily.
  • Oakleaf – Morning or dappled sun. Avoid hot afternoon exposure.
  • Panicle – Full sun to part shade. At least 6 hours sun.
  • Smooth – Part sun to light shade. Up to 4 hours sunlight.

Protect Plants in Winter

In very cold winter climates, hydrangeas can benefit from some protection. Add mulch around the base to insulate roots and wrap plants with burlap. Burying low growing dwarf varieties under loose leaves helps shield them from winter damage. Remove coverings in spring once the worst cold has passed.

Remove Unproductive Stems

Some hydrangea varieties, especially older plants, develop thick, woody stems that are unproductive. Pruning these out encourages new growth from the base which leads to a fuller, bushier habit. Identify and remove aging stems that no longer develop flowers during routine pruning.

Space Plants Properly

Proper spacing when first planting hydrangeas allows them room to reach their mature size. Crowding causes leggy growth as plants compete for light and space. Follow recommended spacing for your variety. As a guideline, most hydrangeas need 3-6 feet between plants depending on their expected height and spread at maturity.

Use Growth Retardants

Growth retarding products containing chlormequat chloride can be used to compact growth and create denser hydrangea plants. Apply according to product labels in early spring when buds are swelling. Limit use to 1-2 applications per season. Too frequent use can lead to smaller flowers and other issues.

Propagate Bushy Plants

Taking stem cuttings from full, bushy donor plants and rooting them will create new hydrangeas with that same desirable form. Select healthy, pencil-thick stems that do not have flower buds. Take 6 inch cuttings, dip in rooting hormone, and plant in a sterile media like perlite or vermiculite. Keep cuttings protected and moist until new growth emerges.


With proper care, pruning, and variety selection, you can help your hydrangeas put on their best, fullest growth and become the bushy beauties they’re meant to be. Pay close attention to their specific needs throughout the seasons. Deadhead spent blooms, water thoroughly, fertilize, and protect from winter damage. And most importantly, learn the proper pruning techniques for whichever hydrangea types you’re growing. A little extra TLC goes a long way in developing lush, mounded hydrangea plants.

Hydrangea Variety Description Size Bloom Season
Bigleaf (macrophylla) Large, showy mophead or lacecap flowers. Most popular type. 4-6 feet tall and wide Summer to Fall
Oakleaf (quercifolia) Cone shaped blooms and oak-like leaves. 5-8 feet tall and wide Summer
Panicle (paniculata) Upright, cone-shaped flowers. 6-20 feet tall and wide Summer to Fall
Smooth (arborescens) White, ball-shaped blooms. 3-5 feet tall and wide Summer

With over 70 different hydrangea species, there are many options to choose from. The table above highlights characteristics of the most popular types. Bigleaf and panicle offer the largest selection of cultivars in a range of sizes, bloom colors and seasons.

When selecting hydrangeas for your landscape, consider your growing conditions, available space, and desired bloom characteristics. Some important points:

  • Choose more compact varieties like Cityline or Let’s Dance for smaller spaces.
  • Look for reblooming cultivars like Endless Summer if you want flowers all season.
  • Pick oakleaf or smooth types for shady locations.
  • Panicle hydrangeas add nice late season interest.
  • Bigleaf have the widest range of spectacular blooms.

With proper placement and care, hydrangeas are long lived, low maintenance shrubs that continue improving with age. Follow the tips covered to coax your plants to grow into their fullest, bushiest potential.

Leave a Comment