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Mopheads and lacecaps (Hydrangea macrophylla) bloom on old wood. Pruning is best done immediately after flowering. Don't worry, though, if you leave the pruning until spring. It's still possible to do it then without compromising summer flowers. Springtime pruning should be minimal, limited mainly to removing any dead growth including the flowers from the past season. When springtime pruning is completed the shrub should look essentially the same; just cleaned up.

copyright 2011 Joan Harrison

The picture above shows a mophead hydrangea in springtime before and after the suggested light pruning. You may choose at this point to cut more stems, for aesthetic or practical reasons. If you don't like the way a stem sticks out, cut it off. If you don't want a stem rubbing against the side of the house, cut it off. These are personal choices and will not affect the health of the plant. You just need to understand that removing these stems means you are removing possible summer blooms at the same time.

This gardener has left the pruning a bit late. It would have been easier to prune when the fresh green growth first appeared and was smaller. Then it would have been easier to see and get at any dead wood for removal.

copyright 2011 Joan Harrison

NOTE: Eye injuries are common when pruning hydrangeas. It's a good idea to wear some kind of eye protection, especially when dealing with a lot of green growth that can hide a sharp stick. Think about all the times you lean into a shrub to remove something lower down. Be careful. (This is a good argument for doing the pruning early, when you can see all those sticks.)

The lacecap below is about to be pruned at a good time, when the new growth is fairly small so that it's easy to see the dead blossoms and stems that should be cut off.

copyright 2011 Joan Harrison

Sometimes it's hard to tell in early spring whether a stem is alive or dead. Here's a quick test. Cut down a short way. If you can see green inside, it's still alive. If it's all brown, it's dead and should be removed completely.

copyright 2011 Joan Harrison

Copyright 2011 Joan Harrison

This mophead was drastically pruned at the wrong time of year. The homeowner's desire was to have the shrub cut back so that the view from the window wouldn't be blocked. The gardener removed all the stems that were blocking the view. The problem was that this was done in September. By removing the old wood, all the flowers for the coming season were also removed. The stems grew back in the spring as the plant headed to the size it wanted to be. Notice the lower half of the plant that was not pruned is filled with flowers.
A better approach would have been to wait until spring to prune. At that time any stems that were blocking the view could be removed. The best approach, though not always feasible, would be to move this plant to a location where it's allowed to reach its full size without any negative consequences, and replace it with a more compact variety.

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Copyright 2011 Joan Harrison