Reasons Why Fall, Not Spring is the Best Time to Plant Hydrangeas

In any natural looking landscape, from urban gardens to the countryside and even large parks, planting hydrangeas means large, showy and colorful blossoms for a long season, and lush, refreshing foliage for most of the season.

Now, let’s talk about getting these beauties into the ground. The perfect time to plant hydrangeas? It’s right now, with fall in full swing!

You might wonder, “Can I plant them at other times?” Absolutely! You can plant hydrangeas from spring through fall, but the timing really depends on your local climate and weather patterns. However, fall is the golden window for planting, closely followed by early spring. Summer? It’s the least ideal time, with spring being a decent runner-up.

Let’s dive into why planting hydrangeas in the autumn gives them a head start over spring planting, and I’ll share some tips on how to give your hydrangeas the best start in their new home – your garden!

Fall Is The Best Time To Plant Hydrangeas: It Is Scientific!

Fall Is The Best Time To Plant Hydrangeas: It Is Scientific!

The best time to plant hydrangeas is when they receive the lowest possible stress and they have the longest possible time to settle in. And this will happen on fall!

You can plant your hydrangeas in spring as well, but they will get out of dormancy and start growing in a new home, with new soil, which can be problematic for them.

Roots need to adapt to the new soil consistency, structure and nutrient mix. And they also need to form symbiotic relationships with bacteria and fungi…

As we said, summer is also possible, but on top all the problems your new hydrangea will have in spring, it also has another factor working against it: the heat! Yes, these shrubs like it fresh. And, depending in the variety, it may be in bloom or about to blossom, and this requires lots of strength.

On the other hand, if you plant hydrangeas in fall, you take advantage of their natural life cycle.

Like most other plants, hydrangeas go through three phases:

  • The vegetative phase, when they produce branches and leaves, and it requires lots of energy and a good head start.
  • The reproductive phase, when hydrangeas produce flowers and seeds, and this is the time when they need the most energy.
  • The dormant phase, when leaves drop, and your hydrangeas rest, and this is when they need little energy… And it starts in fall!

For this reason… 

5 Key Benefits of Choosing Fall Over Spring for Planting Hydrangeas

Planting hydrangeas in fall has many advantages, and here they are:

  • Planting them when they are going dormant, so, they have more time to settle in, and to get used to the new soil.
  • When hydrangeas are dormant, they also need very little energy.
  • It also means that you will plant your hydrangeas when the temperature is cool, and water is plenty.
  • One of the main problems newly planted hydrangeas have is how to manage water within them; the roots need to absorb water but they are not fully established, and the leaves have problems with transpiration, meaning they lose more water than they receive from underground.
  • If you plant your hydrangeas in fall, they will have no leaves, and this means that they will transpire less water, at a time when their roots absorb less than when established.

So, these are the reasons why planting hydrangeas in fall is the best time overall. But this does not mean that this choice doesn’t have its complications or drawbacks.

Issues With Planting Hydrangeas In Fall

Issues With Planting Hydrangeas In Fall

Even if most experts will tell you that fall is the best time to plant hydrangeas, it does not mean that there aren’t any issues involved. And this can also depend on the climate.

  • In very cold climates, the fall planting widow of time for hydrangeas may be short, because you must do it at least 2 weeks ahead of the first frost.
  • In climates where winters are very wet, there is the risk that your newly planted hydrangea catches diseases and in severe cases, even some root rot.
  • In very wet and cold climates, weaker varieties are more at risk if planted in fall, panicle and climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata and H. anomala subsp. petiolaris) are maybe the strongest, thanks to its strong stems and branches, while oaklaf, bigleaf and smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, H. macrophylla and H. arborescens) may catch bacterial leaf spot (later in spring) and bacterial wilt with really bad weather.
  • A little issue is also that you may buy a plant with no leaves or blooms on, so, you will have to trust it us the variety on the label.

Conversely, in warmer and drier climates, planting hydrangeas in fall is by far the best time!

But now, let’s see how you can do it!

Prepare Your Hydrangea For Planting It In Fall

Prepare Your Hydrangea For Planting It In Fall

If you buy your new hydrangea from your local nursery, it will already be all set for planting, but in case you get it somewhere else…

  • Remove all the blooms and foliage.
  • Cut all dead and diseased branches.

And then you need to know if your hydrangea blossoms on new wood (growth from this year, Hydrangea arborescens and Hydrangea paniculata), or on old wood (growth from last year, Hydrangea anomala, Hydrangea macrophylla, Hydrangea quercifolia and Hydrangea serrata).

  • You can prune new bloom flowering hydrangeas now, cutting to above a healthy bud.
  • You should not prune your hydrangea if it is a variety that flowers on old wood.

If you don’t know, play it safe and only cut sick and dead branches!

And now…

Prepare The Soil And Plant Your Hydrangea In Fall

Prepare the soil well before you plant your new hydrangea in your garden, and you will give it the best home to grow and blossom! And, of course, it involves digging! And a tip from me: the best time of the day to plant it is morning or evening…But first of all…

  • Prepare 4 times as much soil as there is in the hydrangea pot for each plant.
  • This is ideally loam based, but if you need to use your garden soil, you can also use clay or sand based types. But…
  • It must be rich in organic matter and well drained (add coarse sand if necessary).
  • For hydrangeas on the blue to pink scale, the soil pH should be under 5.5 for blue, around 6.0 for purplish, and above 6.5 to get pink flowers.

And now, get your spade out, because it is time to start digging!  

  • Dig a whole that is at least 3 times larger and 30% deeper than your hydrangea’s pot (or root system). I find that square holes work better, because the roots go through them more easily.
  • Fill the bottom 30% with the soil you have prepared.
  • Tap the sides of the pot containing your hydrangea.
  • Remove the hydrangea from the pot.
  • I like to tease out the roots at the sides, this helps them meet the new soil and get acquainted to it.
  • Rest the hydrangea in the middle of the hole.
  • Fill in all the sides with the soil you have prepared.
  • Only press the soil gently, to settle it without compacting it…

We have almost finished…

Now Water And Mulch Your Hydrangea And Your Fall Planting Is Done!

Now Water And Mulch Your Hydrangea And Your Fall Planting Is Done!

We still have two little steps, and then you can take a rest…

  • Water your hydrangea generously, this will help settle the soil and also get it in touch with the roots.
  • Finally, mulch your hydrangea (with a layer of about 2 inches, or 5.0 cm, or up to 4 inches, or 10 cm in very cold climates).

And now you can have a cup of tea…

A Few Fall Planting Myths Debunked

And while you drink your cup of tea, we can debunk a few myths about fall planting…

Planting in fall means the roots are more exposed to the cold. Not really true, in fact, it may be the opposite. Because when you plant hydrangeas or other plants, you often also give them well drained soil.

And it is waterlogged soil that can bring the cold to the roots… Anyway, as long as you are in the right USDA hardiness zone, they will survive, especially if you mulch.

Planting in fall with no leaves is like planting a “dead” perennial or shrub. This is not true as well, even during dormancy, your hydrangeas are still alive, so, they won’t just rot away in the soil as if you put a dead shrub in the soil.

Planting in fall puts stress on hydrangeas. It is the opposite; in fact, they are going dormant, and the contrary is true, planting when it is too hot causes them to lose more water than they can absorb…

Some Personal Insights From Gardeners About Planting Hydrangeas In Fall

I am not the only gardener who prefers to plant hydrangeas in fall, but I will tell you another reason about myself.

It may look like a small thing, but if I do it in fall, I already have them in my garden in spring… And what does it mean? Two things:

  • I have more time to choose the variety I want, because I can buy it even in summer, and keep it in a pot.
  • If I did it in spring, I would need to hurry, because I would need to do it un that small window from the last day of frost and before they grow new shoots, and you can’t always find the variety you want in spring…

But there are other professional gardeners who like to plant hydrangeas in fall, like Kaleb Wyse, who even starts in “late summer early fall” or “as soon as you see slight changes” in the weather, and he doesn’t even prune them… That shows you how strong they are!

And if this wasn’t enough, you could do as Kelly Lehman does, who mixes the soil straight in the hole she has dug for het hydrangeas…

And with their words, I leave you to plant your hydrangeas in your garden now, before fall is over!

Adriano Bulla

Written By

Adriano Bulla

After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.

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