How to Revive a Dying Hydrangea Plant

How to revive a dying hydrangea plant

The reason for a dying hydrangea plant is often due to drought, frost damage, too much sun, or transplant shock. To avoid drooping and dying hydrangeas, ensure the soil is consistently moist and provides protection from mid-day sun.

To revive a dying hydrangea it is important to emulate some of the conditions of their natural environment in your garden with an emphasis on soil moisture and protection from too much sun and wind.

The most common reasons hydrangea needs reviving are:

  • Drooping hydrangea due to drought, too much sun, and fast-draining soil.
  • Some hydrangea leaves turn yellow and dry due to too much direct sun.
  • Leaves of the hydrangea turn brown or black due to a late frost.
  • Recently planted hydrangea dying due to transplant shock.
  • Root rot due to saturated, boggy soil or pots without proper drainage.
  • Hydrangea dying due to being planted in a pot or container that is too small.
  • Too much fertilizer or manure in a high concentration burns the roots.

Keep reading for how to solve these problems and revive your hydrangea so that it is healthy and blooms the following year…

Hydrangea Drooping (Drought)

  • Symptoms. Hydrangea with drooping or wilting leaves and flowers. Hydrangea leaves are possibly turning brown and possibly foliage growth with few flowers.
  • Causes. Not enough water, soil draining too quickly without retaining moisture, tree roots that compete with the hydrangea for water/ intercept rainfall, too much sun, or too much nitrogen fertilizer.

Hydrangeas have a fibrous and reasonably shallow root system and require consistently moist soil to thrive.

If your hydrangea is wilting or drooping then this is most commonly a sign of stress due to drought or lack of moisture in the soil.

Usually, this is because of hot and dry weather in summer, but there are other reasons why the soil might be dry.

  1. If the soil is sandy or stony with very little organic content (compost, or leaf mold) then it can drain too quickly for the hydrangea roots to draw up moisture.
  2. Hydrangeas prefer to grow in the dappled light of a tree canopy as this replicates their natural growing conditions. However, this can result in dry soil if the hydrangea’s roots are surrounded by tree roots that have a high demand for water (such as beech or pine trees).
  3. Additionally, if the tree canopy is particularly dense then the hydrangea may not benefit from rainfall as it can be intercepted and deflected by the tree’s abundant leaf coverage.
  4. Over-exposed areas with high winds are also unfavorable for hydrangeas as they are accustomed to protection from wind (which saps the large leaves of moisture) from trees or buildings.
  5. Another cause of drooping hydrangeas that is not related to soil moisture is because of the use of fertilizer. Hydrangeas are not necessarily heavy feeders and often do not require any additional feeding if they are planted in well-prepared soil with lots of compost. If you apply nitrogen fertilizer then this can stimulate a lot of foliage growth and the stems of your hydrangea can go soft and sappy which causes the leaves and flowers to droop.

How to Revive a Drooping Hydrangea

  • Water the soil around the hydrangea generously. Some hydrangeas do not require any additional water once established in temperate climates but if your hydrangeas is competing with other trees or unfavorable soil conditions then it should be watered generously once per week to counteract dry conditions.
  • If the soil is sandy and the hydrangea is small or newly planted then I recommend digging the hydrangea out of the ground temporarily and amending the surrounding soil with lots of organic matter. Compost and leaf mould have an excellent capacity for retaining water which is the optimal soil condition for hydrangeas and counteract fast-draining sandy soil.
  • Apply a mulch around your hydrangea with a one-inch layer of compost, leaf mold, or well-rotted manure. All three materials help to conserve water, add nutrients, improve soil structure, and prevent direct sun from drying the soil.
  • Scale back any use of fertilizer if your hydrangea has lots of foliage but few flowers and a drooping appearance. Give the soil a good soak which can help to dilute the strength of liquid fertilizers but you may have to wait until the following year for the hydrangea to revive.

Hydrangeas thrive in consistently moist soil with lots of organic matter so it is important to create these conditions with well-prepared soil and watering when required.

The frequency of watering can depend on many factors such as climate and soil type so the best practice is to test the soil to a finger’s depth to check whether it is moist.

If the soil feels somewhat dry then give it a generous soak which encourages the roots to establish. The goal is to keep the soil consistently moist (but not saturated).

Always give the hydrangea a good soak rather than watering little and often as this causes the roots to grow near the surface to find water which makes the hydrangea vulnerable to drought.

Most species of hydrangea grow best in partial shade, with the dappled light of a tree canopy often providing the optimal balance of sun and shade.

Hydrangeas in full sun tend to dry out quicker which causes the plant to droop, so select your planting site carefully or provide some protection using other plants or trees and water regularly and the hydrangea should revive from a drooping appearance.

(For more information and best practices read my article Why is my hydrangea drooping?)

Dying Hydrangea: Too Much Sun

  • Symptoms. Scorched leaves that can turn yellow and feel dry with a wilting appearance despite watering.
  • Causes. Most hydrangea varieties grow better in partial shade under the dappled light of a tree canopy or with morning sun. Full sun (more than 6 hours) can scorch the sensitive leaves, particularly in more arid climates.

Hydrangeas are adapted to growing under tree canopies in their native environment, therefore they grow very well in gardens with some shade and protection from wind to protect the leaves.

In full sun (more than 6 hours of sun) hydrangea leaves can often have a scorched appearance and turn somewhat yellow and the leaves can lose a lot of water through transpiration.

Too much direct sun also tends to dry out the soil which causes the hydrangea’s leaves and flowers to wilt.

How to Tell If your Hydrangea is Sun-burnt

It is easy to diagnose sunburn on hydrangeas as the leaves that are in direct light from the sun should appear the most damaged, whereas leaves that are shaded somewhat by other parts of the plant should retain a more green color, although they too could be wilting.

Whilst some hydrangeas grow and flower in full shade there is usually an optimal balance of sun as some sun helps to promote flowering in the Summer.

(Read more about promoting hydrangea flowers in my article, why is my hydrangea not flowering?)

If your hydrangea is in the sun for most of the day then you can either transplant the hydrangea to a shadier location in your garden or provide some shade with some other trees or plants

The leaves that are badly affected by sunburn are unlikely to recover but the plant as a whole should live. Trim away the shoots of the badly affected leaves to stimulate new growth and the hydrangea should recover.

(Read my article, why are my hydrangea flowers turning green?)

Hydrangea Leaves turn Brown or Black due to Frost Damage

  • Symptoms. The leaves and flowers of the hydrangeas suddenly turn black or brown.
  • Causes. New tender growth is susceptible to damage from late frosts in the Spring or early frosts in the Fall.

Hydrangea leaves can turn black or brown for several reasons but if they have changed color from a healthy green overnight then this is because of frost damage.

Frost damage most commonly affects the new, tender emerging growth in the Spring and the larger, more established leaves can often be unaffected (as they are more hardy and acclimatised to cold weather).

However, frost damage can occur in the Fall if there is a particularly sharp drop in overnight temperature.

Fortunately, hydrangeas are hardy plants and whilst frost damage can look serious, the hydrangea can easily recover with some care, however, frost can damage the flower buds which can prevent flowering.

Revive Frost Damaged Hydrangeas

All that is required to revive frost-damaged hydrangeas is to carefully prune back any growth that has been significantly damaged with a pair of pruners at the shoots (avoid cutting back into the wood) and this will promote new healthy growth over the Summer.

Avoid fertilizing your hydrangeas after August as this often promotes new, tender growth when the hydrangeas should be hardening off to prepare for the cold temperatures of Winter.

Frost can of course damage the developing flower buds of your hydrangea which often prevents flowering.

Once the flower buds have been damaged they are unlikely to flower so prevention is better than cure.

If you pay close attention to the local weather forecast and there is a late frost in the Spring then ideally you should protect the flower buds with horticultural fleece the night before to avoid frost damage.

Frost damage is unlikely to kill your hydrangea so with patience and some careful pruning the hydrangea should recover, although it may not flower properly until the following year.

(Read my article, why is my hydrangea not blooming for solutions that actually work).

Hydrangea Dying After Planting (Transplant Shock)

  • Symptoms. Hydrangea turning brown, wilting, and dying after planting
  • Causes. Transplant shock from the contrast in growing conditions from the garden center and your own garden. Planting in Summer with high temperatures and intense light can result in dying hydrangeas.

Hydrangeas are generally hardy after establishment but are at more risk of dying in their first season.

This can be because they are adapting to their new conditions.

Transplant shock is more pronounced when there is a greater difference between the growing conditions in which the plant was cultivated (in the nursery or whilst on display in the garden center) and the conditions of your garden.

If the hydrangea has been cultivated carefully in a nursery greenhouse with the optimal and consistent temperature, nutrients, water protection from wind and too much sun, etc. then the hydrangea can become very accustomed to these conditions which makes it less hardy when it is planted outdoors.

It can also be problematic if you plant hydrangeas at the height of Summer.

The best time to plant hydrangeas is in the Spring or Fall as this gives the hydrangea time for its roots to establish and adapt to the soil, so it can draw up moisture effectively before the intense heat of summer.

In Summer the higher temperatures can dry out the hydrangea so that the roots cannot draw up water at the same rate that water is lost through the large abundant leaves causing the hydrangea to wilt and turn brown.

How to Revive a Newly Planted Dying Hydrangea

  • The best time to plant hydrangeas is the Spring and Fall so try to synchronise your plant buying so that it is at the same time as the optimal time for planting.
  • However, if the newly planted hydrangea is struggling due to the heat of summer then try to shade the plant to protect it whilst it establishes (with an umbrella perhaps) and water thoroughly as frequently as required so that the soil is consistently moist.
  • Apply a 1-inch thick layer of mulch (compost or leaf mold) to help conserve moisture.
  • In terms of reviving a hydrangea that is suffering transplant shock the best thing you can do is to provide the optimal growing conditions for hydrangeas and wait for the hydrangea to adjust to its new location.
  • Hydrangeas require lots of good compost when planting for optimal soil structure, moisture, and nutrients. Shade the hydrangea from the sun to prevent drought stress. Water the hydrangea frequently so that the soil is moist but not saturated (hydrangeas require soil that is moist yet well-draining so that the roots do not sit in boggy soil and rot).

Ensure that your hydrangea is planted in suitable soil.

Hydrangea can die after planting if they are planted in soil that is too sandy (drains too quickly and, is lower in nutrients) or if there is too much clay (soil drains too slowly and perhaps bakes hard in summer which makes it difficult for the roots to establish).

In gardens where the soil conditions are not favorable, it is important to amend as much of the area as is reasonable (at least twice the size of the root ball) when planting your hydrangea to provide the optimal soil characteristics.

Multipurpose compost and leaf mold are excellent materials to amend the soil for growing hydrangeas. Regularly applying mulch every year also improves the soil so that it remains favorable for your hydrangea to thrive.

Root Rot (Hydrangea Dying in a Pot or Boggy Soil)

  • Symptoms. Leaves turning brown or yellow with a wilted appearance. Dark-coloured roots with a soft texture.
  • Causes. Slow-draining soils such as heavy clay or pots without good drainage.

Hydrangeas require moist soil that is well-draining and they cannot tolerate saturated soil. If soil is boggy then this leads to root rot.

Hydrangeas require soil to be moist yet well-draining which is the characteristic of compost, well-rotted organic matter from garden waste or loam soil.

If your soil is heavy clay or naturally boggy then this is likely to drain too slowly for hydrangeas and the roots can suffer with fungal disease such as root rot.

This also happens when hydrangeas are planted in pots without proper drainage holes in the base or perhaps the drainage holes become clogged so that excess water cannot escape efficiently which results in saturated soil that is too damp for hydrangeas.

This promotes the conditions for fungal diseases to thrive such as root rot which causes the hydrangea to droop, with brown or yellow leaves, and die.

How To Revive a Dying Hydrangea with Root Rot

  • It can be very difficult to save hydrangeas if they have been in saturated soil for a long time so if it is suffering from extensive root rot you may need to buy a new hydrangea to plant in more favorable conditions with amended soil.
  • However, if the hydrangea has only been in damp soil for a limited time or the soil just drains slightly too slowly then the plant may only be water-stressed and there is potential for the hydrangea to be saved.
  • If the ground is boggy, remove the hydrangea from the ground (carefully with a fork to avoid any further damage to the roots) and inspect the roots. If they are dark-colored, soft, and look infected rather than a light color with a springy more resilient condition then snip away any diseased roots back to healthy growth with a sterile pair of pruners. Wipe the blades of your pruners after each cut with a cloth soaked in disinfectant to avoid spreading any fungus to otherwise healthy roots.
  • Replant the hydrangea either in a pot with good drainage holes or a different garden border that has better drainage conditions. Amend the soil for good measure with plenty of compost and replant your hydrangea.
  • Do not replant the hydrangea in exactly the same location as the soil could be hosting the fungus that is causing your hydrangea to die. Treat the soil with an organic fungicide to kill the fungus and eventually, it should be safe to plant other plants in that location (always follow the manufacturer’s instructions).

If you transplant the hydrangea to a more favorable location with better drainage the hydrangea has the best chance at recovery.

However, if your garden soil is particularly boggy the best option is to grow hydrangeas in pots and containers as they have more favorable drainage and you can easily provide the optimal soil conditions (by using compost) rather than try to amend your garden borders to suit the hydrangea which can be difficult.

Hydrangeas Dying Due to Small Pots

When growing hydrangeas in pots choose a pot that is at least 16 inches across (with good drainage).

Hydrangeas that are growing in small pots tend to dry out far too quickly which causes drought.

Small pots heat up quickly in the sun and have less capacity for soil which means they retain less moisture resulting in drought.

Hydrangeas can grow well in large pots. The pots should be large enough to prevent pot-bound roots so that the root system has enough space in the soil to access all the nutrients and moisture it requires.

If your hydrangea is planted in a relatively small pot then transplant it to a larger pot of at least 16 inches across to help it recover.

Ideally, you should transplant hydrangea into different pots in the Spring or Fall rather than the Summer as transplanting whilst the temperatures are cooler helps to mitigate transplant shock and reduces the risk of drought.

Keep the soil moist after re-potting and protect the hydrangea from direct sun for a few weeks to give the hydrangea time to establish without having to contend with the drying effects of the sun which can cause drought.

Too Much Fertilizer or Manure can Burn Hydrangea Roots

The application of fertilizer in too high a concentration can burn the roots of the hydrangea which can cause it to turn brown, droop, and die.

Hydrangeas are not heavy feeders as such and do not require annual feeding in the same way roses require, and it can do more harm than good.

If the hydrangea is planted in good soil or the soil is amended with compost before planting then often hydrangeas grow and flower to their potential.

Apply a layer of mulch 1 inch thick around the hydrangea to help conserve moisture and add nutrients to the soil (compost and leaf mold are excellent choices) and the hydrangea should thrive.

The only scenarios where the use of fertilizer is appropriate are when:

  • The hydrangea is planted in sandy soil (which is nutrient-poor).
  • The hydrangea is in a pot or container in which the roots have exhausted the soil of the available nutrients.

In these two scenarios, it is best to use a general all-purpose well-balanced fertilizer with equal parts Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (NPK) at half strength and only apply it once in the Spring.

Well-rotted manure can be a good soil amendment but if it is made from poultry manure then this can contain a lot of nitrogen which can burn the roots of your hydrangea particularly if it is mixed in with the soil after planting.

I recommend applying amending the soil with compost instead to avoid any problems (fresh manure is particularly harmful, always allow it to rot for a year or so before using manure on your garden).

If your hydrangea is showing signs of stress because it’s recently planted in soil amended with manure then transplant the hydrangea to an area with soil and compost and it should recover.

Cut back any brown leaves or flowers and scale back the use of fertilizer. Water the hydrangea well to try to dilute the water-soluble nitrogen in the soil to help the hydrangea revive.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a hydrangea dying is most often due to not enough moisture in the soil. Hydrangeas require the soil to be consistently moist and will droop or die because of drought.
  • Hydrangeas can die due to frost damage, drought, transplant shock, and because of too much sun.
  • Potted hydrangeas can die from root rot if there are no drainage holes in the base of the pot. Small pots can dry out too quickly and restrict root growth.
  • To revive hydrangeas water them generously, apply a mulch of compost, and protect hydrangeas from direct sun and too much wind. Prune back any frost-damaged or sun-burnt growth to promote healthy growth.

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