How To Prune Climbing Hydrangea

How-To's, Landscape Care · Written by Roger

242 Comments

climbing hydrangea flowerClimbing Hydrangea is a beautiful and useful climber, but it can get crazy on you if you let it.

It is deciduous, but considered a 4 season plant mainly because:

  • It has lush dark green leaves.
  • It flowers white in early summer.

As you can see it’s a great plant, but you need to be aware of its capabilities.

The first year or two it grows slow while it establishes. Then the pace picks up and it becomes quite vigorous.

As a climber I’ve yet to see its limit in height. Planted at the base of a large tree it will cling and climb until it reaches the top. I’m talking 60′ no problem.

The good news is you can control climbing hydrangea with proper pruning. But I say that with a warning.  If you use it in a limited space, like the one we’re about to talk about, you must be diligent with your pruning or it will easily take over the area.

It’s Doing Well – Too Well!

How do you respond to a customer that says that to you?

“I’m glad your climbing hydrangea is doing well, but sorry it’s covering your house.”

You can avoid those embarassing moments by knowing a plant’s capability right from the start.  Then you can advise your customer what to expect, how they can care for it or how others will care for it.

prune climbing hydrangeaIn the picture above climbing hydrangea is working well on this brick wall. But the plant wants to get bigger, as it does every year. It’s in its DNA.

Notice that the real dominant growth is towards the top. It wants to climb and get as tall as it can. I’ve used climbing hydrangea on homes where it is maintained just below the second story eaves. Not easy to do, but the look is beautiful.

How To Go About Controlling This Climber

The best time to prune climbing hydrangea is after it flowers.

The new flower buds are formed soon after flowering and remain on those stems for the following year. So you’d rather not cut those off if possible.

However, unless you operate with a “calendar of tasks” for your maintenance accounts, you will most likely prune the hydrangea when you’re there pruning everything else.

Site-specific care (doing tasks for a particular property when and if they are needed) is something I’m a strong proponent of.  Not many landscape maintenance companies follow a “site-specific” program.  Most are more “cookie-cutter”.  Clients are always asking me to recommend a company with higher level service like this, but there are simply too few to meet the demand.

So regardless of when you prune climbing hydrangea, cut back the long shoots and those growing outward from the wall to just above a bud or leaf point. Prune selectively using hand pruners.

Often I’ll follow an aggressively growing branch to its “point of origin” and make my cut there.  This is the point where the lateral branch connects to a larger stem.

pruning climbing hydrangeaThis climber produces “aerial roots” that attach themselves to whatever structure is nearby. When first planted you may have to help it attach to the structure by:

  • Installing the plant so it deliberately leans and touches the wall or structure.

These aerial roots will sometimes leave a mark and organic residue on the surface after they attach. On this home some of the branches attached to the white shutters. It took extra time and effort to scrub them clean.

a pruned climbing hydrangeaLike with all plants, when you know and understand their characteristics you can use them creatively and effectively. How have you used climbing hydrangea in your landscapes?  Did it perform as you expected or surprise you?  Let us know in the comments.

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    242 Responses to “How To Prune Climbing Hydrangea”

    1. Cornelia Says:

      Roger, this thread is really helpful and makes me feel confident that I can prune hard the 20+ year old climbing hydrangea I have inherited in our new, old house. It is climbing the trunk of a 80ft pin oak, the vines all the way up to the branching crown. It has also crept uncontrolled along a short wall beside the tree. It bloomed a little last summer but not as much as it was in the realtor’s photo of the tree in full bloom! I plan to hard prune it in the early spring and will let you know how it goes. Thank you!

    2. Roger Says:

      Cornelia,
      Yes, this thread has really filled out with information — so glad it’s helping.

      We all look forward to hearing how the climber responds to your pruning!

    3. Babs Says:

      My hydrangea already has a trunk about 3″ diameter. It looked so sweet growing over the white arbor between the house and garage when we moved in…Now it’s growing and taking the arbor apart a little more each year. Can I prune it WAY back and remove or replace the arbor? Can I dig it up and move it?

    4. Roger Says:

      Babs,
      This is what this climber does — it’s developing to its potential (mature size). Yes, pruning aggressively from day-one will help keep it in-check — and extend the usable period of time on the arbor. But the climber will eventually mature where it becomes “just too much plant”.

      A practical approach would be to simple remove the existing climber. If you wanted to save it and possibly transplant it, late winter and early spring would be the time to do that. Cut it way back to a manageable stem so you can handle it easier — and then transplant it. They move fairly well.

      If you replace the arbor and want to plant another climber, you might try something less woody and aggressive, such as Clematis, certain varieties of honeysuckle — and there are other climbers too. Perhaps visit your local garden center or nursery for what’s available. You can ask their advice — and then take their recommendations and do a little research yourself to see exactly what each climber’s characteristics are.

      Also, if you replace the arbor look into metal and composite versions that are stronger and will last much longer than wood (even cedar).

    5. Jim Says:

      Our climbing hydrangea has been doing well for years and pruned. However about 2 feet up main body it is soaking wet and dripping liquid just like water. A constant drip. Any ideas?

    6. Roger Says:

      Jim,
      Hard to say, particularly without being on-site to look the plant over.

      Nothing comes to mind right off. But I’d first be focused on the source or point where the liquid is coming from. Is it coming from the plant itself — perhaps a point where a wound or entry from a boring insect is?

    7. Jim Says:

      Thank you Roger.

      Unfortunately we have discovered it was recently pruned by my father, which has caused it. We were debating on removing so now it is decided.

    8. Jean Tansley Says:

      I have 2 x cimbing hydrangeas and they are out of hand. I believe they are around 5-6 years old. Can I hard prune it to above ground level or should I cut it back to an accept able height and prune back side shoots after it has flowered

    9. judy Says:

      Thanks so much for your advice…I bought one 2 yrs ago and it’s blooming now…I just hope that I can keep it contained…

      Thanks,
      Judy

    10. Roger Says:

      Jean,
      I’d have to see the plant(s) to give a more specific opinion, but I’d rather not see you prune to ground level.

      If the flowering is important to you this season you can’t prune too aggressively until after flowering. It sounds as though they should be brought under control ASAP. In most cases like this I’ll prioritize on controlling the plant size (and form) and prune. Your call, of course.

      I would try to leave and work around the main stem(s) of the plant — bringing back (pruning) wayward lateral growth closer to these main stems. Think of it as compacting the framework of the plant. And you can certainly reduce the height too by pruning down the main stems. The climbers should overtime push new growth from this compact framework.

    11. Roger Says:

      Judy,
      The fact that you’re aware of the plant’s growth potential is a plus right there. Now you can keep an eye on it and make sure it behaves! :-)

      In fact, after flowering this season you may want to do some pruning to shape the climber. This regular pruning not only keeps the plant in-check, but makes for a stronger plant in general.

    12. Rhys Says:

      hello
      We have a very large hydrangea which is 20 years old and climbing up the back of our house. Unfortunately in the last 6 months it has reached our guttering and is climbing onto the roof.
      it is a victorian red brick house. We had someone to come and take it off, but they said it was starting to pull off the bricks below the guttering, so he didn’t’t want to continue.

      Does it normally damage brick work – what should we do?

    13. Roger Says:

      Rhys,
      I’ve yet to see climbing hydrangea damage brick. It could be that the jointing on the brick was deteriorating, and not necessarily from the hydrangea. Most masons will not like the idea of anything climbing on their brickwork — and I understand that. It’s just that I have so many projects with the climber on mortar-jointed stonework and brickwork, and I can’t recall any problems.

      If you still have more of the climber to remove, it may be easier to cut the climbing stems (you want to remove) so that they die first. Overtime they’ll dry up and have less of a grip on the brick. With a scraper/putty knife you should be able to scrape the dead air-roots and stems off the brick. Possibly power-washing afterwards would also help and/or a stiff bristle brush.

      Also, it sounds like a mason will need to re-joint those bricks that are loose.

    14. Jean Says:

      Thanks for that advice Roger. I will leave it uunt after it has flowered

    15. Trish Says:

      My climbing hydrangea is growing beautifully and I’d love to “share” some shoots with my friends to grow. Is this possible? I tried snipping some last year for a friend and she couldn’t get it to grow. Any tips?

    16. Roger Says:

      Trish,
      I did some quick research and discovered that climbing hydrangea is not that easy to propagate. Cuttings would be taken in late spring, treated with rooting hormone and set in a rooting media and kept under specific conditions. Not easy.

      I might try taking a rambling branch that’s close to the ground and bury a portion (beneath the soil). Perhaps it will develop roots over time, at which point you could cut that branch off of the “mother plant” and have the newly rooted piece survive. No guarantees — think of it as an experiment. :-)

    17. Anne Nanni Says:

      I have a beautiful old vine that is very happy, but during this harsh winter, the show pulled a good deal of the vine off our brick wall. The main branch is about wrist size in diameter, and it seems like it would be difficult to reattach to the wall. Where would be an appropriate place to trim back the vine so it can reestablish itself on our wall.
      Thanks,
      Anne

    18. Roger Says:

      Anne,
      It’s hard to give specifics without seeing the climber. But by your description I’d prune it back close to the main stem — leaving short lateral branches. In effect, you’re cutting it back to a main framework and starting over.

      I’d try to direct the main stem towards the wall if possible. Here are some pictures of a similar situation we had on a job. Hopefully they’ll help.

      1) Climbing hydrangea pulled off of brick wall; built simple wood trellis/support.
      2) Tools and wire to help re-attach climber to trellis.
      3) Climber re-attached to trellis.

      Within 2 years the climber had re-attached to the brick. You can no longer see the wood trellis, but it could be removed if the homeowner wanted.

    19. Barbara Cucheran Says:

      My 20 year old climbing hydrangea was blown off the garage wall it has been growing on. I would like to save the plant as it is a beautiful focal point in my front garden. Can I prune off some of the heavy top branches now while it is in bud or should I wait? Do I have to build a frame like you did in the response to Anne? I am thinking brick clips with garden wire but I not sure it will have enough strength. I am in zone 4/5 in Ottawa Canada if that makes any difference in how I should proceed.

    20. Roger Says:

      Barbara,
      I would prune back the plant (now) to make it more compact and manageable.

      I used the simple trellis support because I did not want to drill into the brick or its joints to install anchors or other attachment hardware. The aerial roots soon reattached to the brick — and we were back in business. :-)

      As your climber starts to grow and reattach itself, try to keep it pruned closer to the wall. You want a stronger, more stout framework for the plant. You can let it get higher/bigger over time, but if not pruned regularly it tends to get longer stems and branches too quickly. This makes for a less strong framework and one likely to come off the wall again.

    21. Patricia Says:

      Thanks for the information on your site. Our hydrangea is covering our patio fence–vertically and going over the top and through the fence boards in places. Will it damage the fence from its weight? Also, when we need to replace the fence, it will need to be removed or severely pruned back. Is it possible to do that without permanently affecting flowering?

    22. Roger Says:

      Patricia,
      It’s best to keep the climbing hydrangea on the surface (outside) of the fence, and not allow it to grow “through” the fence.

      Wood fences naturally decay over time — especially where the posts come in contact with the soil. And you may also need to repair, replace or paint/stain the fence. Having the climber on the surface of the fence will make it easier to remove whenever those repairs, etc. are necessary.

      Even at that it’s almost always necessary to cut back the climber when fence work is done. It just makes the process so much more manageable. This cutting back will likely affect flowering, but not permanently. In one or two seasons it will get back on its flowering schedule. :-)

    23. Carlene Lafer Says:

      My Japanese Hydrangea is about 12 years old and always did beautifully on a trellis against my house.This year only a few of the branches have leaves on it.
      I live in Michigan and it was a mild winter so I am not sure what happened.
      I was going to Prune it hard to about 2-3 feet to see if it comes back. When is a good time to do this.

    24. Rebecca Says:

      Hi Roger,
      So glad to have stumbled upon your wonderful resource. I want to plant a climbing hydrangea but I’ve got a basement window right next to the spot along my brick wall that’s otherwise perfect. My hope is that there’s enough width for the BASE of the plant to start climbing and then I’ll keep it pruned down by the ground so that all the action is up top (where there is two stories of windowless brick for it to spread out on). I’ve got about 3′ of brick wall till the window starts. (The plant would already be taller than the window). Just trying to figure out what these mature guys look like near the ground!
      Thx
      Rebecca

    25. Ann Says:

      Just bought a climbing hydrangea and I’m getting nervous reading about how they grow. I had planned to put it at the corner of my house to cover the utility pipe going up to the roofline. Is this a bad idea? Will it grow over the cable/ electric wires causing a problem?
      How about a waist high rock wall instead? Will it grow horizontally in both directions to cover it or will it grow through the wall and displace the rocks?

    26. Susan Says:

      Roger, I’m in zone 6 and just planted an hydrangea anomala petiolaris in the center of a metal 6.5 foot obelisk in dappled shade. The obelisk is sunk 18 inches in ground and the soil is amended clay. I was told by someone at the garden center that this vine would grow to about 8 feet and I stupidly did not read the label to verify.

      Now I realize that it can get to 80 feet! My question: Will it be relatively easy to keep it under control in the center of my obelisk under the conditions I mentioned? I’m frequently out in my garden and like tending plants so regular pruning is not a big deal to me, but I wonder if constant pruning of this plant will weaken it over time.

      Secondly, I’ve read it’s attractive to Japanese beetles. How should I fend them off? Thanks in advance for your reply.

    27. Susan Says:

      Oops, I should clarify that there is 6.5 feet of vertical space inside the obelisk after installation, and the inside diameter of its rings is 14.5 inches. This is a relatively large and sturdy structure.

    28. Roger Says:

      Carlene,
      Without being on-site and seeing the climbing hydrangea and the surrounding conditions, it’s hard to give an opinion as to why the plant is struggling. I do think your idea to prune it way back is a good tactic.

      Typically a hard pruning like that is best in the early spring. But considering the condition of the plant I’d prune it back now. Keep the soil moist — not wet. And you could use a liquid fertilizer for plants that prefer slightly acidic soil.

    29. Roger Says:

      Rebecca,
      Typically the climbing hydrangea is full with branches and leaves from the ground up. But there’s no reason you can’t either contain that growth and foliage near the base, or gradually expose the base stems and trunk by pruning away that growth. These climbers are tough and “malleable”. :-)

    30. Roger Says:

      Ann,
      I would not recommend growing the climbing hydrangea to hide the utility pipe. Yes, it will grow over the cable and wires too. It’s way too aggressive.

      Planting by the rock wall sounds like a great idea. Yes, it will grow on the wall and trail horizontally. I don’t think it will displace any stones. However, if the wall is not sturdy and fitted and made with substantial stones, it could potentially move some of the loose, smaller stones.

      As you’d expect, you’ll need to monitor and prune the plant a bit — and even guide/train it to do exactly what you envision.

    31. Roger Says:

      Susan,
      I would not recommend climbing hydrangea for the obelisk. This climber is too aggressive and will, over time, become to unwieldy — even with diligent pruning. And at that, would likely harm your obelisk.

      I would select a less aggressive climber that will be easier to control. A clematis variety perhaps. You can do some research on what climbers are available in your local area.

      With regard to the Japanese beetle issue, I’m not aware that they are especially a problem with climbing hydrangea — I guess they could be. There are traps that people hang in their yards to capture these pests, but I understand these traps can do the opposite (of what you want) and attract more beetles into the area. I wish I could be more helpful on this matter.

    32. Tracee Says:

      I have a climbing hydrangea that is about 4 years old. It had a woody trunk when I planted it that was about 3 feet long. This trunk was too heavy to support itself and now lies on the ground with many arms branching off of it. It has never flowered and really is not climbing the wall support well. I have wondered if pruning the woody trunk off would encourage it to climb better and become a better looking plant.

    33. Roger Says:

      Tracee,
      It’s hard to give absolute advice when not seeing the actual plant and situation. But based on what you’ve said I would prune back the climber as close as you can to the main stem/trunk so that the stem/trunk can be redirected towards the trellis or wall you intend it to climb. Then use some kind of fastener(s) to help hold the stem and branches against (or at least towards) the trellis or wall. You’ll need to monitor and help the climber as it develops by pruning, guiding and securing it to the surface you want it to climb.

    34. Kathy Says:

      1. Can I plant a climbing hydrangea at the base of a dead/dying poplar tree?

      2. Can I plant a climbing hydrangea to grow up a living river birch (max height 40
      feet)?

      3. I have old fashioned asbestos shingles (over clapboard). If planted against the
      house will the plant grow under the shingles like ivy would?

      4. Does a climbing hydrangea require extra water as regular hydrangeas do?

    35. Bonnie Scali Says:

      Hello Roger,

      I’m so glad that I found your site. I have a CLIMBING HYDRENGA that is about 25 years old. Our home is brick and I planted it originally in the ground of a South facing wall There is a small portion of our fence beside it so the base of it is kinda protected from the elements. I didn’t realize until I read your comments that I should have been trimming it years ago. I was only trimming it when it got to the top near my soffits and fascia, I have had no problem with it until 2 years ago when I wasn’t getting any flowers on the bottom part of it. So I gave it a real trimming but just on the bottom and about 6 feet up the main stem. I did as you said and cut most of the branches back to the main stem, but left a little bit of branch on it. Now it has taken a couple of years, but it is finally getting a lot of leaves, but I will be patient for the flowers. The part of the vine that was above that is now out of control the branches are now quite thick and sticking out quite a bit from the wall about 2 feet, and have big spaces now between branches. I got lots of flowers this year on that part. The flowers were big but the little white petals on them didn’t come out that much, most of the flower was brownish in color with just maybe 5 or 6 full petals on them. When the petals were coming out all this yellow flakey stuff came off onto the ground, which it usually does when the petals open. There was so much of it, but hardly any petals. I don’t understand unless all of the plant’s energy is going to produce leaves. I really don’t know what to think. I want to get up on some scaffolding and cut back the branches but leave some leaves on each one, but the branches are quite thick. I really don’t want to cut them right back to the main stem as it is quite beautiful. I would send you a picture of it, but can’t on your site. I need some advice soon as the flowers that were on it are almost finished. I live in a city in Northern Ontariio, Canada called Sault Ste.Marie, and our summer as been extremely wet this year, would that have anything to do with the petals on the flowers not coming out as much? I need your advice. Thankyou!

    36. Roger Says:

      Kathy,
      For me, I’ll plant climbing hydrangea at the base of mature, large shade trees — and let them cling to and climb the large trunk. And I won’t allow them to reach the upper branches/canopy (by monitoring and pruning).

      I guess you could use the dead poplar, but that tree will eventually decay and fall. I don’t think the birch is a good idea. The trunk is not large by comparison to a mature shade tree, and it’s likely the birch branches are low enough that the climber will soon get up and into them.

      I would not grow climbing hydrangea on or near your house shingles. Generally I’ll only grow on stone, brick or some other solid masonry.

      Once established climbing hydrangea is probably more tolerant to dryness than standard hydrangeas. But you’ll still need to watch them during dry spells. Established plants will warn you they’re thirsty by wilting. It’s always good to avoid having a plant wilt. It can weaken them if you consistently wait for wilting to water them.

    37. Roger Says:

      Bonnie,
      I’m not sure about your climbing hydrangea flowers other than the fact that climbing hydrangea will naturally flower more towards the top as they mature. It’s characteristic of the plant.

      As far as the size of your climber and the fact that you have not pruned the upper portion — that’s exactly what you’ll need to do. For the sake of the plant don’t worry about disturbing its flowering. Just focus on getting the climber under control, even if you have to hire someone.

      We would use an extension ladder and pruning tools such as hand-pruners and loppers. And I would prune just as you did on the lower section. Prune way back and away from any wood, soffits and fascia. Your pruned climber will fill in and get stronger if you keep it to a short, stout framework. Eventually flowering will come back and normalize, but I still think most flowering will occur at the upper portion of the plant.

    38. Bonnie Scali Says:

      Thank you Roger for your advice. I will trim the upper portion almost back to the original stem. I’m 66 and hope that it will return to flowering before I’m 70. Thank you again…. Bonnie

    39. Paige Says:

      I felt I had to comment to say what a wonderful resource this is, and that it is so kind of you to respond to individual comments. I think you’re the only guy on the internet who does that! Bravo and thanks for a great site.

    40. Roger Says:

      Paige,
      Thanks for your kind words. There’s so much to learn in this field, and conversations in the comments just bring out more information for all of us.

    41. Debra Says:

      Hello Roger, I am so happy that I came across your site! I have been researching something to make a very ugly block wall look more attractive and I believe a climbing hydrangea is the perfect solution!

      It doesn’t sound like the aerial roots would damage the wall. Hydrangea’s are one of my favorite flowers but I didn’t know there was a climbing variety. I don’t mind the pruning.

      I’ve marked your site as a favorite so I can visit from time to time.

      I’m so excited and look forward to planting my hydrangea next spring!!

      Thank you.

    42. Roger Says:

      Debra
      Thanks for your comments. Yes, climbing hydrangea should work well on your block wall. And yes, stay diligent with the pruning to keep it tight to the wall.

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