Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

During the winter, my hydrangea looks dead. It has lost all of its leaves, as it should, but I am now left with a bunch of bare sticks. Normally when you see this, the urge is to cut them back to the ground. DON’T prune them now. Those dead looking sticks contain the buds for next year’s flowers. If you prune now, you will be cutting off all of the flower buds. Sometimes the deer will come along and eat the tips, producing the same effect as if you pruned them. Other years with very cold sustained winter temperatures below zero, the flower buds will be killed by being frozen. Big leaf hydrangea’s, Hydrangea macrophylla, is only borderline hardy in zone 6. During warmer winters big leaf Hydrangea fare much better. They also will not lose their flower buds closer to the shore and ocean areas as the climates are more moderated by the ocean temperatures which are warmer than the air.

So to recap:

Do not prune big leaf hydrangea in fall, winter or spring. Only prune after flowering as flower buds are produced in late summer and carried on the sticks until the following summer bloom time.

Deer may eat the flower buds held at the tips. Use spray deer repellents monthly or cover with burlap. Protect from snow buildup that could break the branches.

Site Hydrangea in a south-facing or protected area of the yard to reduce colder temperature exposure.

Hopefully, next summer your hydrangea plant will bloom beautifully.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

-Carol Quish

The early, bright gold blooms of forsythia are welcomed by many as cheerful harbingers of spring. Some find the ubiquitous waves of yellow a bit too jarring to integrate into formal landscapes and foundation plantings. Others use the flowers as a phenological indicator signaling that it is time to put down pre-emergence crabgrass controls. Dr. Michael Dirr from the University of Georgia finds it, “one of the most overrated and over-used shrubs!” Whatever your take on forsythia, we all know that the cheery, 4-lobed blossoms are a sure sign that spring is finally here!

While they are found throughout New England, forsythias belong to the olive family and are native to eastern Asia although one species is from south east Europe. They were named in honor of the Scottish botanist, William Forsyth (1737-1804).

I used to really like the forsythia that came with our old house. It was located next to the porch and for at least 15 years I enjoyed this golden herald of spring and spent vast hours clipping and chopping at it to keep it in the size range I needed for that spot. I also spent a fair amount of time pulling out rooting shoots that seemed to multiply each year. The look I was after was that of an upright, somewhat mounded shrub. Forsythia wants to be a fountain that spills over its banks. My husband was so happy that I wanted to replace the forsythia with a better behaved shrub that I found it cut down and dug out at merely the mention that I was thinking of doing so! It has since been replaced by a bayberry.

Now that I have confessed to my horticultural moment of darkness, I have to admit that when forsythia are well-placed in the landscape, they can provide a glorious vision for 2 or 3 weeks. The key is finding the correct placement and proper pruning.

Forsythia do not want to be a ball or a box or a rectangle. They want to be that flowing fountain and need at least a 10 foot by 10 foot spot to shine. When given enough room, they do delight us for several weeks each spring. Any less and they, like Dr. Dirr remarks, “always needs grooming”. I find that they are best suited to slightly sloping ground where they can sprawl. This may be a good placement for a single shrub or a long border depending on your site.

Forsythias require a lot of maintenance to keep this rectangular shape.

The actual pruning of forsythia can be done in several ways. Purists recommend removing up to one-third of mature stems to the ground every year and heading back any aggressive stems right after flowering. This stimulates a few new shoots and new growth from older wood which will produce a multitude of flower buds for the following year. Option two is to cut the shrub to the ground after flowering. This produces long, somewhat drooping shoots with a ton of blossoms the following spring. It keeps the plants within bounds but does require this yearly ritual.

Many forsythia owners adhere to the practice of ‘let it be’. This is all and well on a sloped bank where the plant takes on its own venue as a ground cover. But in a smaller space, the constant intrusion of this plant can create friction among neighboring plants and gardeners.

Well-pruned forsythia make for a great, colorful hedge.

What to do? Since forsythia is quite adaptable I would say go with what works for you. While I think that forsythia should be placed where they can develop fountains of sprigs, each clothed in gold come spring, if you are most comfortable with shearing forsythia into hedge formation, so be it. Forsythia is a very forgiving plant. Constant shearing will not produce the best flowers but this repetitive task is necessary for containment. Forsythia lovers – remove at least a few of the oldest stems each year to encourage vibrant, new growth. Try some named varieties with more predictable growth habits. And, if you do not want the long, arching stems to root, cut or pull them up. Like most items that achieve the gold standard – stately forsythias require some effort on your part!

Happy Gardening,


photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Extension

The hydrangea in front of my house is just a bunch of bare sticks right now, screaming to be cut down. It looks like quite a leafless eyesore after losing  foliage last fall. During the winter the local chickadees use it as a perch beneath the hanging bird feeder . The avian flocks do not mind its ugliness. I don’t mind it either knowing the flower buds are on those naked sticks, waiting for the coming spring and summer to bloom.There are five different types of hydrangeas. Some bloom on old wood and some on new wood.

My hydrangea is a Hydrangea macrophylla or Bigleaf Hydrangea. The ones that bloom on old wood carry the next year’s flower buds on the barren sticks, through the fall, winter and next spring. If these are pruned during the fall, winter or spring, the flower buds will be removed. The plant will grow new stems and leaves from the base of the plants, but these stalks will NOT contain flower buds, therefore no flowers that year. The flower buds are produced and set after the plant flowers in June and July but before fall. Any pruning should be done as the flowers fade during the summer to avoid cutting off the buds. I remember to prune Hydrangea macrophylla when I cut flowers for a vase to bring inside. Sometimes our winters are just too cold for the tender over-wintering buds, killing the buds, resulting in no flowers the following summer even if pruned correctly.

Hydrangea macrophyllas are divided into two groups,  Hortesia and Lacecap. Hortensias have big ball flower forms. Lacecaps have a somewhat flat top shaped flower. These bloom on old wood, prune after flowering but before August 1st.

Hortensia Hydrangea, Photo: U.S. National Arboretum

Lacecap Hydrangea, Photo: Gary Wade

Hydrangea quercifolia, commonly called Oakleaf Hydrangea also blooms on old wood. Prune after flowering.  If terminal buds are killed during winter, no flowers will be produce. Should be protected in zone 5.

Oakleaf Hydrangea,

Two other common hydrangea bloom on new wood, wood produce from the plant during the same year. These are Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, commonly called Panicle or PG Hydrangea and Hydrangea arborescens, commonly called Smooth Hydrangea. These can be pruned in late fall, winter or early spring. The flower buds will be produced on the new wood produced in spring.

Hydrangea paniculata, Panicle Hydrangea. Prune in early spring.

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, photo by Karen Russ, Clemson Extension

Hydrangea arborescens, Smooth Hydrangea blooms on new wood. Prune in winter or early spring.

Hydrangeas arborescens - Annabelle, - Photo: Beth Jarvis