If you’ve ever gotten a hydrangea in a pot, you probably enjoyed how it looked for a few weeks then watched as it faded and slowly died off. This experience may have led you to believe that hydrangeas in pots aren’t a good idea, but this isn’t necessarily correct.
Most gifted, potted hydrangeas don’t thrive because people keep them inside for too long. Other plants die off because they were originally raised in a greenhouse, and even if you plant them inside, they’re not cold-hardy enough for your planting zone. But, hydrangeas in pots can be great additions to your houseplants, if you care for them properly. We’ll outline all you need to know below.
Hydrangeas actually make large, lovely potted plants that look wonderful on a patio or porch during the blooming season.
Choosing the Correct Cultivar
A lot of cultivars are long-blooming shrubs that grow flowers that last from spring until well into the fall months. There are popular bigleaf varieties that grow rounded, large clusters in purple, blue, pink, or bright green and red, depending on your growing conditions. Picking out the correct cultivar will be a big factor whether your plants fail or thrive, and a few of the hardiest options include:
- H. arborescens – This is a shade-tolerant smooth cultivar that is very much like mopheads in terms of flower head size and shape. It produces individual flowers that are on the smaller side, and they require new wood to bloom. These taller shrubs are native to the United States in zones three to nine in the southeastern portion. They produce cream-colored blooms that fade to green as time goes on.
- H. macrophylla – This plant flowers on new or old wood, depending on which cultivar you choose, and they’re very sensitive to pH levels in the soil. The ideal pH range starts at 5.2 and goes up to 5.5, and they typically produce pretty blue flowers. In more alkaline soil with pH ranges from 6.0 to 6.2, the flower color changes to mauve or pink. They thrive planted in zones six to nine, but can survive down to zone five.
- H. paniculata – This popular species is usually white when it blooms, and the flower heads come shaped like ice-cream cones. The blooms tend to fade to a very light pink coloring. It’s an extra-hardy cultivar that is well planted in zones three to eight, and it can survive up to zone nine. They bloom solely on new wood, so you’ll cut them back during the winter months. They’re also not picky about the pH levels in the soil, and they can thrive in 5.0 to 7.0.
- H. quercifolia – As the name suggests, this shrub has foliage that looks like oak leaves and turns a pretty crimson hue in the autumn. The white flowers it produces grow in a cone shape that are less full than other options, and they do best in zones five to nine.
There are dozens of cultivars available, but hydrangea in pots need to be more hardy and slightly more drought-tolerant to ensure they survive.
Setting up the Best Planting Conditions for Hydrangea in Pots
The trick to getting your hydrangeas to thrive when you plant them in pots is to get the planting conditions to an ideal level. This can take some work, but it’s generally fairly low maintenance. You can do this by:
To grow blue hydrangeas, you’ll want to use ericaceous compost instead of traditional potting mix for the growing medium. Fill the bottom of the pot to the depth of your current pot depth with the compost instead of potting mix, and once you get your plant situated, backfill in around it with the compost mixture. Blue hydrangeas are known to change color if you grow them in soil that is more alkaline, so the acidity of this compost mix will help keep them a pretty blue shade.
Alkaline soil will have a much higher pH level, and acidic soil like the compost we touched on will feature lower pH levels. You’ll get blue-hued hydrangea flowers if your pH levels are on the lower side.
The container you pick out to plant your hydrangea in pots will depend on whether you want to give it a temporary or permanent home. Ideally, you don’t want to replant or repot your hydrangea and disturb the root system once you get it in a pot.
If you live in a zone that gets routine frost in the winter months, the container material is very important. Pick a weatherproof container. Take note that many containers will have stickers that tell you it’s frost-proof. If you’re not sure, just avoid containers that are made out of ceramic or terracotta. Containers that don’t have frost proofing will shatter or break if they freeze, and this will leave your hydrangea’s root system exposed to the harsh winter weather.
If you live in a planting zone that doesn’t experience frost, you can use virtually any pot for a permanent home. Ceramic, terracotta, and clay will all work just fine for your hydrangeas.
The size of your container does matter though because you want to give the root system room to grow and spread out a bit. Generally, it’s safe to get pots that are between 16 and 24-inches wide and deep. This is usually more than large enough to accommodate your plant’s growth. If you pick out a heavy container, you want to get it into place before you start adding your growing material and the plant. If you want to move it to overwinter it, have a dolly handy to help move it.
For a temporary hydrangea in pots, virtually any container will do. As long as it has big enough drainage holes in the bottom to release the excess water and it holds soil, you’re fine. You can use vintage vessels, troughs, or that DIY container you’ve been dying to create.
You can even use self-watering pots to make caring for your hydrangea quick and easy. Not only can you find gorgeous self-watering pots, but they give a constant supply of water to keep your hydrangea looking as nice as possible. Since container gardening takes a little more effort than traditional gardening, shaving off some of the watering responsibilities is usually welcome. Just remember that they will crack with exposure with frost or freezing temperatures.
Whether you’re looking for a temporary or permanent home for your plant, you want to make sure your container is a decent size and the right material.
The fertilizer that you get in your potting soil is usually enough to support a temporary planting, but if you want to permanently grow your hydrangea in pots, you’ll need to apply it once a year. You can use an all-purpose fertilizer for this process or a rose-specific fertilizer mixture because these have the correct nutrient ratio your plant needs to thrive. Early in the spring months, put the fertilizer mixture around the plant’s base, making sure it doesn’t touch any branches and water it thoroughly. Make sure that you don’t apply fertilizer in late July as this encourages growth and prevents your plant from going dormant for the winter.
The space you choose to put our hydrangea in pots should get at least some sunlight or dappled light all day. In warmer climates, your hydrangea would benefit from being in an area that gets afternoon shade because this can slow water loss. If you’re looking for specific cultivars for varying light conditions, you can try:
- Full Sun (6+ Hours of Direct Light) – Panicle hydrangeas love full sunlight, and you can plant Limelight Prime.
- Partial Sun (4 to 6 Hours of Direct Light) – Any cultivar by oakleaf hydrangeas will do decently in these conditions. This includes smooth, mountain, bigleaf, and panicle hydrangeas.
Generally speaking, we don’t like recommending oakleaf hydrangea cultivars because they tend to droop and not look their best when you plant them in pots. They do flourish when you plant them in the ground though.
Premium-grade potting soil works well for permanent and temporary hydrangea in pots. As long as it’s natural and lightweight, it’ll make it easy for the roots to grow and spread out. Also, lightweight soil mediums make it easier to lift or move the containers. Make sure you use regular potting soil instead of seed starting mixes as they have very little or no fertilizer.
Attentive watering is the key to having successful hydrangea in pots. Containers will dry out very quickly, especially during the hottest parts of summer when the sun is out. Make sure you check your container each day, and when you have to water it, water thoroughly. Pour the water around the entire base of the plant and continue until you see it coming out of the bottom. As your plant matures, you’ll find that it will need more frequent watering sessions as the roots will start to take up more soil space. Hand watering your containers is a great option to allow you to closely monitor your plant. You can also use drip irrigation or self-watering pots.
Water your hydrangeas until they’re soaked whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. Fill the potted hydrangeas up to the container rim with water to ensure that you thoroughly soak the soil to keep the roots moist. During the summer, this will be roughly twice a week or up to once a day.
If you ever spot drooping or wilting with the foliage on your plant, this is a sign that they need more water. As long as you water them as soon as you notice this happening, they will start to look healthy and recover quickly. Almost remove any decorative wrapping from the container before you water them.
Planting Hydrangea in Pots
Potting up your hydrangea shrub is as easy as planting it in the ground, but you have a few minor adjustments. Starting off, if you don’t want the soil to escape the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot, you can line it with a fine mesh. This will hold the soil in while allowing excess water to drain.
Next, you want to fill the container up with soil, right to the point where your hydrangea will sit. Put the hydrangea, still in the pot, into the container and fill soil in around it, firming it into place as you work. Once the soil is level with the potted hydrangea, remove the potted plant. Gently remove the plastic nursery pot from the plant and put the unpotted hydrangea back into the hole. Firmly pat the soil in around the root ball and water it thoroughly. Let it rest for an hour and come back to check and see if the soil is still level. You may have to add more if it sinks. Put a two-inch layer of mulch on the soil’s surface to help retain moisture.
Planting your hydrangea into a pot is a straightforward process, but you want to make sure you have a large enough pot for the roto system to sprawl out.
Transplanting Hydrangea in Pots
You’ll know that it’s time to transplant your hydrangea once it starts to slow down with the growth. It will grow shorter and stockier or have less flowers during the season. This can start happening between three and five years after you initially plant your hydrangea in pots. You can transplant it into a larger container with fresh soil or find a spot for it in the yard. Either way, you’ll plant it just like you do when you get a new shrub and want to put it out in the yard. Make sure to gently loosen the compacted roots with your fingers before you plant it into the new container or ground though.
Pruning Hydrangea in Pots
At the end of the summer when the flowers start to fade, prune your plants. Wait until the blooming season finishes and the flowers are starting to die back. Get a sharp pair of pruning shears or scissors and cut off the dead and fading flowers just above a set of leaves.
Pruning your shrubs after they finish blooming will maximize new flower growth in the spring months. You can also take this time to cut the leaves back and shape the shrub by trimming away branches just above the leaf joint. When you prune, make sure that you don’t remove more than ⅓ of your shrub at a time. This includes cutting back leaves and removing dead or fading blooms.
Preparing Hydrangea in Pots for Winter
You can overwinter your hydrangea in pots in place, or you can move it if you’re worried that it’ll get hit with piles or snow or harsh winds. The perfect spot to place your container would be next to your home, in a spot that is out of the wind but exposed to sunlight and precipitation. It’s important that you overwinter your hydrangeas outside instead of bringing them indoors as they need to stay exposed to the elements to keep on their natural schedule. Consider your pot material carefully though as ceramic and terracotta will crack and shatter with cold exposure.
Soil moisture is also very important, no matter if you live in warm or cold climates. For places that stay warmer all year-round, you want to monitor your plant throughout the dormant period. Make sure your soil stays moist and give it a little water if it feels dry. If you live in an area with freezing winter conditions, give it a healthy drink once every few weeks before winter hits. This will help it survive the drying, harsh winds in the winter. Adding a layer of mulch will help retain moisture.
Cover your hydrangeas with a frost cloth. Move them to a sheltered area alongside a fence or your home before the freezing temperatures arrive. Cluster your potted hydrangeas together and surround them with a frame of chicken wire or stakes if you suspect subzero temperatures. Fill the inside of the frame with pine needles and cover the frame with a frost cloth or burlap.
You want to leave your hydrangeas outside in pots during the winter to ensure they stay dormant.
Common Problems with Hydrangeas in Pots
Hydrangea in pots can look very pretty, and they grow and flower to hide the entire pot. But, when you don’t care for them correctly or catch any pest or disease problems quickly, they can look scraggly. There are a few common problems with these plants in containers, and you could run into brown or yellow foliage, wiltling, stunted growth, drooping leaves, not flowering, or holes in the leaves. We’ll tell you how to address these problems below.
1. Browning or Yellowing Foliage – Lack of or Excess of Light
For any photosynthetic plant, especially prolific blooming ones like the hydrangea, sunlight is critical. Not only does sun exposure influence plant well-being and growth, but it also impacts flowering. Hydrangeas only bloom once a year, but they will bloom for weeks on end. Some are reblooming varieties and will need a lot of sunlight in order to have the energy for two blooming cycles. Leaves also require full sunlight for photosynthesis. An excess or lack of sunlight can result in yellowing foliage or brown spots that make the leaf ends brittle and dry. Wilting can be a sign of too much sun.
- Avoid putting your hydrangeas in pots in areas that get excess light, and switch their position each time the season changes. Find a spot that offers partial shade instead of full, direct sunlight. If the problem is not enough sun, make an effort to move your plant into a space that gets more direct sunlight. Also, to help your plant recover, carefully remove any leaves that have changed color.
2. Droopy Foliage – Inadequate Water Supply
Hydrangeas are a very thirsty plant that requires the soil to be constantly moist. Allowing the soil to dry out will affect your plant’s growth and how much it can flower. Using a container to grow your hydrangea in pots that is too small can also contribute to losing water far too quickly.
- This plant won’t tolerate drought conditions or long dry spells. You’ll have to water it at least once or twice a week, if not every day, during the scorching summer temperatures. If you pick a slightly larger pot, the soil will stay moist longer than a smaller container. Feeling the soil is a great way to gauge whether you need to water again or not. Avoid watering if the soil already feels wet. Water it when the surface looks cracked or it feels like it’s on the dry side.
3. Excess Water – Poor Drainage
For any container garden, the risk of excess water drowning the root system is a very real danger. This is often seen when you water your plants far too often, use too much water, or you don’t have any or poor drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Excessive water amounts can lead to chlorosis, and this will deteriorate your hydrangea very quickly while causing your foliage to take on an unattractive yellow hue. The foliage may even start to fall off as the problem persists.
- Once you narrow down the cause, solving this problem is simple. Remove any trays you keep under the pots and increase how many drainage holes you have. You will have to experiment and figure out the best watering schedule for your location. You can try to lower how much you water the plant or reduce how frequently you water. Also, regularly checking the soil before you water will go a long way in preventing overwatering it. Poke your finger into the top part of the soil to feel if it’s dry or wet.
It’s very common to have too much water in a pot if you don’t have adequate drainage holes. Saturated soil can lead to root rot and plant death if you leave it unchecked.
4. Frost Damage – Excessive Pruning
While pruning will help your plant look tidy and neat, it also keeps it from growing into the container. Also, the practice of deadheading or cutting off the spent flowers will help your flowers bloom again in the spring. However, pruning at the wrong time of year can be dangerous for your plant’s health. If you prune at the wrong time, you leave your plant vulnerable to frost damage, and this can kill it if it gets bad enough.
- Avoid pruning your hydrangea in pots before winter comes around. Also, if you live in a colder climate, prune more moderately. Smaller plants should never get excessive pruning, especially at the end of summer or into the autumn months. Extremely damaged plants may skip blooming that year, or the plant may die.
5. Holes in Hydrangea Foliage – Pests
Another issue with hydrangeas in pots is that you may find holes in the foliage. Pests are the main cause of this problem. It’s typically fly larvae that bore these holes as they feed. Flies will lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and allow them to hatch. You may see them as you’re watering. When they hatch, the larvae will emerge and start eating away at the foliage to leave holes.
- Knowing that you have a pest problem and monitoring your plant is key to preventing holes in the foliage. If you do notice eggs on the underside of the leaves, you can apply neem oil to prevent them from hatching. Also, companion planting can help introduce beneficial insects that eat the eggs before they hatch.
6. Incorrect Pot – Stunted Growth
If you want your plant to grow large enough to produce the prolific blooms, it has to go into the right sized pot. Remember that the soil will need to be moist but not saturated, and small pots tend to dry out much quicker than larger ones. Hydrangeas also produce roots that grow very quickly, and they can easily take over the smaller pot and be more vulnerable to frost and cold temperatures.
- Make sure that you pick out a container that will house your hydrangea and not be too small or topple over. Use a material that won’t retain excess moisture or dry out too quickly. Fiberglass and terracotta are the most suitable for warmer climates. Ensure you have enough drainage holes in the bottom of the pot before you plant your hydrangea. Don’t put a water tray under the pot because it can cause the soil to stay too wet and lead to root rot.
7. Lack of Blooming or Stunted Growth – Poor Soil Fertility
Plants that bloom well and grow rapidly need a host of resources and nutrients to do so, and hydrangeas fall into this category. Hydrangea in pots will need a higher amount of nutrients from compost or fertilizer. This is because the soil in the pots has limited resources, and they can’t pull from anywhere else like they can in the ground.
- You can add more fertilizer to encourage strong growth with your hydrangea in pots. Use an all-purpose fertilizer with a balanced NPK ratio. You’ll need to add compost or fertilizer in regular increments throughout the spring and summer months to support continued blooming. You’ll want to use a compost-rich soil that can sustain your plant over a sandy one.
You can spice up your usual container garden by adding hydrangeas into the rotation. The foliage is very attractive and lush from early spring well into the late summer months, and the blooms are incomparable. The maintenance required to keep these plants thriving and happy is also low when you compare it to many other flowering potted plants. There are many cultivars to choose from, and no matter which you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.