Why is My Hydrangea Dying? (6 Solutions That Actually Work)


Why is my hydrangea dying

I love hydrangeas, so I can feel your pain if yours is dying! Having worked as a landscape gardener for more than 10 years (and currently working in a garden nursery), I have seen my share of dying hydrangeas. But more importantly, I have first-hand knowledge of how to care for them and how you can save them…

In this article, I share with you everything I have learned so you can identify why your hydrangea is dying and how you can fix it with my tricks and tips…

The reason for a dying hydrangea is usually because the soil is too dry or the hydrangea is in too much direct sunlight, which causes the leaves to turn brown, wilt, and die. New growth in Spring is sensitive to frost damage, which causes the leaves and flower buds to turn brown and mushy with a dying appearance.

As there are quite a few reasons why your hydrangea may be dying, I summarized them in a table…

Conditions:Reason for Dying Hydrangea:Symptoms:
Drought Stress:Hydrangeas require consistently moist soil. Too much wind, not enough water, soil that drains too quickly, too much sun, tree roots competing with the hydrangea for moisture, high temperatures, and dense tree canopy preventing rainfall from reaching the soil, can all contribute to the hydrangea being drought-stressed.Leaves and flowers wilting, possibly turning brown and curling.
Too Much Sun:Hydrangeas are woodland plants that prefer to grow in dappled light. Too much sun can scorch sensitive leaves and turn them brown. Full sunlight can also contribute to drought stress and cause the hydrangea to wilt.Hydrangea leaves scorched brown with leaves curled and dying.
Too Much Fertilizer:Hydrangea roots are sensitive to high a concentration of fertilizers. Too much nitrogen can burn the roots and cause the leaf edges to turn brown. Runoff from lawn fertilizer can be the cause of the leaves turning brown.Leaves turning brown and crispy at the edges with a dying appearance, possibly with fewer blooms.
Potted Hydrangea:Pots can be too small and dry out too quickly or not have proper drainage at the base which causes the soil to become saturated and the roots to die of root rot.Wilting leaves and flowers due to small pots. Leaves turn yellow or brown and drooping if the hydrangea is suffering from root rot.
Frost Damage:Hydrangeas grow naturally in sheltered woodlands and do not tolerate cold winds or late frosts particularly well. A late frost in Spring often damages the emerging new leaves and flower buds and can prevent flowering.Leaves and flower buds can turn brown or black and mushy. Damaged flower buds most often do not flower.
Hydrangea Dying After Plating or Transplanting:It often takes some time for the hydrangea roots to establish after planting before they can draw up water efficiently which can cause the hydrangea to wilt and die if the soil is too dry. Transplant shock caused by contrast in conditions can also be the cause of a dying hydrangea.Wilting leaves and flowers. Leaves may turn yellow, brown, or black with a dying appearance.

Keep reading for how to identify the reason your hydrangea is dying and for my tips on how to save them…

1. Hydrangea Wilting and Dying (Drought Stress)

This is the most common symptoms I encounter when I see a dying hydrangea…

The reason for hydrangeas wilting and dying is that there is not enough moisture around the roots due to lack of watering or rainfall, the soil drains too quickly, and too much sun or excessive wind saps moisture from the leaves. Hydrangea flowers can droop due to excess fertilizer.

If your hydrangea is severely drought-stressed, the leaves can also start to curl inwards and turn brown.

To understand why our hydrangeas are wilting, we need to understand how they grow in the wild so we can seek to emulate some of these conditions in our gardens…

Hydrangeas are native to woodland environments where they grow under the canopy protected from full sun, excess wind and grow in rich moisture retaining soils composed of leaf mold, with frequent rainfall.

Hydrangeas are very sensitive to drought as they have a fibrous and relatively shallow root system (which I’m sure you noticed when you planted it) and require a consistent source of moisture at the roots to prevent the leaves from wilting in appearance.

Hydrangeas can wilt in Summer due to high temperatures and low rainfall or wilt after planting, as it takes the hydrangea time for the root systems to establish sufficiently to be able to draw up moisture.

I have seen so many reasons for hydrangea wilting. Here are the main environmental stressors that I have identified that can contribute to hydrangeas wilting and dying:

  • Hydrangeas wilt if they are in sandy or stony soil that drains too quickly. Hydrangeas require soil that is amended with organic matter, which helps retain moisture around the roots.
  • Underwatering or lack of rainfall. Established, mature hydrangeas often do not need watering if they are in the right soil and out of the sun but I make sure my smaller hydrangeas or transplanted hydrangeas are watered thoroughly, as often as required to keep the soil moist.
  • Watering too lightly causes the roots to grow shallow, which increases the hydrangea’s vulnerability to drought, so always water with a good soak to encourage the roots to grow to a greater depth into the soil to reach moisture as they establish.
  • Hydrangeas are adapted to growing in the dappled light under the canopy of woodland and do not tolerate full sun very well, which can cause the hydrangea to lose more moisture from its leaves then it can draw up through the roots and cause the leaves to wilt, scorch brown and die.
  • Too much wind saps moisture from the leaves quicker than the roots can draw up moisture. Hydrangeas have a high demand for moisture, and too much wind can dry the leaves quickly, causing them to wilt and the hydrangea to die of drought.
  • Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes hydrangeas to droop as it promotes weaker, sappy foliage growth that droops under its weight, giving the appearance of the hydrangea wilting.
  • Hydrangeas are woodland plants that grow well under trees, however, a dense tree canopy with abundant leaves can intercept rainfall and prevent rain from reaching the soil causing dryer conditions.

My Tips for Saving Wilting Hydrangeas

To save a wilting and dying hydrangea, we need to make some changes to its environment to help it recover, with increasing the level of soil moisture available at the roots being the biggest priority.

  1. Water your hydrangea as often as required so that the soil is consistently and evenly moist. How often you have to water hydrangeas depends on your climate, soil type, weather, and maturity of your hydrangea but whilst the hydrangea is wilting, I would water it with a hose to ensure the soil is moist so the roots can draw up moisture.
  2. Always water with a generous soak rather than a light watering. Watering thoroughly soaks the soil around the roots and encourages the roots to grow deeper in the soil and establish properly which increases the hydrangea’s resistance to drought.
  3. Apply a 2-inch layer of mulch to the surface of the soil around the hydrangea. I use leaf mold, compost, or well-rotted manure for mulch as they can conserve the soil’s moisture after watering. Mulch on the soil’s surface also prevents the sun from shining directly onto the soil around the hydrangea to keep the roots cool and reduce soil evaporation. Always apply mulch AFTER soaking the ground with a hose to lock in moisture around the hydrangea roots.
  4. If your hydrangea is a sunny or windy area you can either transplant the hydrangea to an area of shelter or create shelter with other plants and shrubs. If the hydrangea is still small and not yet significantly established in the soil I recommend transplanting it to a more sheltered location (under the protection of a tree if possible).
  5. Or you can use a tall (I like to use bamboo) or perhaps a tree to plant alongside your hydrangea to help buffer the hydrangea against drying winds and protect it from full sun (hydrangea grow best in morning sun followed by afternoon shade or dappled light throughout the day).
  6. Scale back the use of any fertilizer whilst the hydrangea is wilting. Too much nitrogen can cause hydrangeas to droop which can come from fertilizer applied to the hydrangea or runoff from lawn fertilizer. Cut back any drooping growth caused by the use of fertilizer with a sharp pair of pruners, as it is more susceptible to pests and disease and more vulnerable to frost damage.

If your garden soil is particularly sandy or stony and the hydrangea is wilting and dying just after planting, then I recommend digging up the hydrangea temporarily and amending the soil with lots of organic matter (compost, leaf mold or well-rotted manure) to mimic the hydrangeas moist soil conditions in its native habitat.

Preparing the soil so that its retains more moisture is perhaps the best strategy to counter the problem of wilting hydrangea in the long term from my experience.

Spring or Fall is the best time to replant a hydrangea as the weather is cooler whereas planting during the higher temperatures of Summer can exacerbate the problem and the plant is dormant in Winter so replanting at this time can risk root rot.

With enough moisture around the roots and protection from sun or wind, the hydrangea can recover from its wilting appearance over the following weeks.

2. Hydrangea Leaves Turning Brown and Dying

This is a common mistake I see come up often…

Most often, the reason for hydrangea leaves turning brown is because they are in too much sunlight which scorches the leaves brown with a dying appearance. Hydrangeas are adapted to growing in partial shade or dappled light and their leaves turn brown and die back if exposed to full sun.

As we discussed, hydrangeas are woodland plants that have adapted to living under the canopy with dappled light throughout the day.

If your hydrangea is in a location of full sun, the leaves can turn brown, crispy, and curl at the edges, particularly when combined with high temperatures and a lack of moisture.

Hydrangea turning brown and dying from a lack of water as it is grown in a pot too small and too much sun.
This is a photo of a hydrangea I saw that was in a garden center ready for sale. It had been displayed in direct sunlight in the Summer, which, as you can see, turned its leaves brown and curling at the ends.

I see this mistake a lot with beginner gardeners. Too much sun scorches the sensitive leaves brown and increases transpiration, so the leaves lose a lot of water and die back.

Whilst too much sun is usually the main reason for hydrangea leaves turning brown, in my experience, drought stress because of lack of water, high temperatures, poor soil that does not retain enough moisture and wind can all contribute significantly to the leaves turning brown.

Hydrangeas in too much sun die from either drought stress, or all their leaves scorch, turn brown, and die back which prevents the hydrangea from photosynthesizing and the hydrangea dies.

My Tips for Saving a Hydrangea with Brown Leaves…

Whilst hydrangeas can grow in full shade, most species of hydrangeas prefer some sun to promote flowering.

We need to find the balance of sun and shade to protect the hydrangea leaves from turning brown from too much sun and ensure there is enough sun for flowering.

Having grown and planted lots of hydrangea myself, I have found that the best way to achieve the optimal balance is by locating your hydrangea in a location with morning sun followed by afternoon shade or an area of dappled light under a tree canopy.

Morning sun is less intense then midday or afternoon sun and the temperature is usually much lower in the mornings so hydrangeas can benefit from sun (to promote flowering) without risking drought stress or burning and turning brown.

I have always had the best results in terms of flowering and preventing the leaves from scorching with morning sun, although dappled light throughout the day can also work.

If it is impractical to transplant your hydrangea to a different area of the garden, then I recommend planting a tree, shrub, or perhaps bamboo next to the hydrangea to help buffer wind and provide the dappled light conditions that hydrangeas prefer.

I must warn you that hydrangea leaves that have turned brown and crispy do not recover, so I advise you to trim them back with a sharp pair of pruners (this can be done at any time of year).

Because brown leaves are also often associated with drought stress, I recommend you follow the same advice as written above pertaining to wilted hydrangeas and give the soil a generous soak to help the roots draw up moisture.

Again I would thoroughly recommend Applying a layer of mulch to the soil around the base of the hydrangea to help conserve moisture and alleviate drought stress.

With good moisture around the roots and protection from sun or wind, the rest of the hydrangea leaves should stay green. Like I said, just prune off the brown leaves as they do not revive, and you should see new green leaves emerge in the Spring and Summer.

3. Hydrangea Leaves Turning Brown at the Edges and Dying (Too Much Fertilizer)

If your Hydrangea leaves turn brown at the edges, then I discovered from my research that this is in response to too much fertilizer. A high concentration of nitrogen fertilizer can burn the roots of hydrangeas and cause the leaf margins to turn brown and crispy with a dying appearance.

If the hydrangea has had slightly too much fertilizer, then leaves tend to droop, and there are often fewer flowers (nitrogen promotes foliage growth at the expense of flowers, read my article, why is my hydrangea not flowering).

However, when fertilizer is applied too often or in too high a concentration, this can cause the leaf edges to brown with a dying appearance.

In one garden, I was able to identify that the cause of the brown leaves was that the gardener had used lots of lawn fertilizer right before a deluge of rain.

This rainfall then diluted the water-soluble nitrogen fertilizer and ran off the surface of the lawn into the flower bed around their hydrangeas. The high nitrogen was enough to turn the leaves brown at the edges with a somewhat scorched appearance.

In my conversations with some specialist hydrangea growers, they taught me that it is not only fertilizer in high concentration that can cause hydrangea leaves to turn brown and die back, but applying fertilizer too often can also cause a build-up of salts in the soil around the hydrangea roots.

The accumulated salts in the soil as a result of excess fertilizer use interfere with the hydrangea roots ability to draw up moisture (by osmosis) and can cause drought like symptoms of drooping leaves as well as brown dying leaves.

My Tips for Saving Hydreas with Brown Leaf Edges…

  • Scale back the use of any fertilizer.
  • Cut back any leaves that have been severely affected with a sharp pair of pruners.
  • Excess fertilizer causes a build of salts in the soil, which can affect the root’s ability to draw up moisture, so you need to give the soil around the hydrangea a generous soak to help dissolve excess salts that are left behind by fertilizer to restore balance to the soil and help revive the hydrangea.
  • Keep watering the hydrangea generously every few days (ideally with a hose), which helps to maintain the moist soil conditions that hydrangeas prefer and to dilute the concentration of fertilizer and salts around the roots for recovery.

Hydrangeas grow best in rich soil, and my mature hydrangeas do not necessarily need fertilizer if they are as they are in good soil, as they have a developed root system that can access nutrients.

However, I do use fertilizer in the Spring to encourage the growth of less mature hydrangeas and support flowering

Hydrangea roots and leaves are sensitive to excess fertilizer, so I must highlight the importance of using the right product to prevent any further problems.

For hydrangeas, I recommend a well-balanced all-purpose granular fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro, as it contains all the nutrients hydrangeas require at the right concentration to avoid problems with using too much fertilizer and to support a healthy plant with good flowers.

The granules release the nutrients slowly as they dissolve rather than all at once, as with a liquid fertilizer.

Granular fertilizer releases nutrients slowly to prevent burning hydrangea roots.
This is the granular fertilizer that I use on my hydrangeas, as it releases nutrients slowly to prevent burning hydrangea roots.

We should acknowledge that hydrangeas are far more hardy than most garden plants (Which is why I love growing them), and as long as you water it often to dissolve salts in the soil, then your hydrangea should recover the following year.

(Read my article, why is my hydrangea drooping?)

4. Potted Hydrangea Dying

From my experience, the reason for potted hydrangeas dying is often because the pot is too small or the pot is without drainage holes in the base.

We should be aware that small pots dry out quickly, causing the wilting and dying hydrangea leaves. Pots without drainage cause water to pool around the roots, and the hydrangea dies of root rot.

As we discussed, hydrangeas have a relatively large and fibrous root system with abundant leaves that require lots of moisture.

Smaller pots have less capacity for soil and, therefore, hold less moisture, but we need to consider that narrow pots are particularly bad for hydrangeas as they have a shallow and wide-ranging root system rather than a deep roots like other plants.

So, if your pot is relatively narrow and deep rather than wide, then this is likely the reason your potted hydrangea is dying.

The thirsty hydrangea roots quickly draw up and transpire all the available moisture in the pot which results in the hydrangea having a wilting appearance with leaves that can turn brown and curl inwards as a result of drought stress.

We should also be aware that if the pot has no drainage holes in the base, then water pools around the roots of the hydrangea.

This either causes root rot or deprives the roots of oxygen, which prevents root respiration and interferes with the root’s ability to draw up moisture.

This causes the leaves to droop and turn yellow with a dying appearance.

How to Solve it…

  • I recommend planting hydrangeas in a pot larger than 16 inches across, with the same proportional depth. A pot this size ensures that there is enough soil to hold more moisture for the hydrangea roots to draw up and to reduce the risk of wilting from drought. However, hydrangeas can grow very large, and the roots can become pot-bound, so it is worth repotting your hydrangea to a larger pot around every 2 years, but check the roots every year just to make sure.
  • Water your hydrangea as often as required so that the soil is consistently moist. The soil in pots naturally dries out quicker than garden soil, so it is important to water the hydrangea more often, as hydrangeas depend on growing in evenly and consistently moist soil.
  • Specifically how often to water your potted hydrangea depends on your climate but at the height of Summer, potted hydrangea can require daily watering. However, my large potted hydrangea with good potting soil, which is out of the midday and afternoon sun, generally only requires watering twice per week in Summer.
  • Always water with a generous soak rather than a light watering. Water hydrangea with a good soak so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. This ensures the water has reached the roots where it is required and promotes the roots to establish. If you water too lightly, then only the top inch of the soil becomes moist, and the water does not reach the roots. Watering too lightly also causes the roots to grow nearer the surface of the soil to access the limited moisture which increases the hydrangea’s vulnerability to drought.
  • Always plant hydrangeas in pots with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape to prevent root rot. Hydrangea requires the soil to retain moisture yet also have a porous well-draining structure so that excess water does not pool around the roots and cause root rot.
  • Ideally, before planting hydrangeas in a pot, I advise using a layer of gravel at the bottom of the pot or container to ensure any drainage holes stay clear of compacted soil, which can slow drainage and cause root rot.

Once you give a drought stressed potted hydrangea a really good soak, I find they show signs of recovery in the following days.

I think the most important tip is to replant your hydrangea in a nice wide pot with lots of compost, as this should help retain lots of moisture.

However, if the hydrangea has been suffering from root rot due to saturated soil, then it is much more difficult to save the hydrangea, which is why pots with drainage holes in the base are so important.

5. Hydrangea Turning Black or Brown and Dying (Frost Damage)

This has happened to my hydrangea before, and it is very frustrating!

Hydrangea leaves, and flower buds can turn black or brown if they are damaged by frost. The emerging growth of hydrangeas in Spring is very sensitive to cold weather and can die back because of a late frost. Cold weather can cause the outermost leaves to die and prevent flowering.

Hydrangeas are cold hardy plants and can tolerate freezing weather if the plant has had time to harden off before Winter.

However, the new leaves and emerging flower buds in Spring are particularly susceptible to damage from a late frost and wind, which can turn the growth brown and mushy.

It is usually the combination of cold wind and frost that damages hydrangeas as they are adapted to growing in areas of shelter.

In my case, there was a very late cold snap in March that turned most of my hydrangea’s flower buds to mush, particularly the ones on the outside of the plant, whereas some of the buds inside the hydrangea were protected by that little bit of insulation provided by the bush itself.

The Solution…

As we have discussed, we need to consider that hydrangeas are naturally woodland plants that grow under a canopy, which buffers cold wind and creates a more stable micro-climate to prevent the hydrangea from dying of frost and harsh Winter weather.

So, if we can replicate this, we can protect our hydrangea. It is a good idea to plant (or transplant) your hydrangeas near a tree, fence, or sheltered area rather than in a more exposed area of our gardens.

Other tall plants such as bamboo, shrubs or trees can be planted along side hydrangea to act as a wind buffer which is surprisingly effective at protecting hydrangeas from frost damage.

I would recommend cutting back any frost-damaged growth with a sharp pair of pruners back to healthy growth to help revive the plant.

As I previously stated, it is usually the outermost growth of the hydrangea that is damaged by frost, and growth further in that is more protected by the hydrangea’s mature leaves and stems usually survives.

Frost damage can limit the number of flowers on display as it is the flower buds that tend to be the most susceptible to Winter frost; however, if you look closely at your hydrangea, it has several buds down each stem and multiple opportunities from which to display flowers.

When the frost damaged my hydrangea buds, my hydrangea still flowered from some of the buds that were still intact, but they bloomed a bit later than usual and perhaps not as plentiful.

The hydrangea should make a good recovery the following year.

Pro tip: If there is a late cold snap forecast, then what I do is use horticultural fleece to wrap around my hydrangea’s buds to protect them from the cold. I can personally attest that this is amazingly effective.

(Read my article, why is my hydrangea not blooming?)

6. Hydrangea Dying After Planting or Transplanting

The reason for hydrangeas wilting and dying after planting is that the hydrangea’s root system takes time to adjust to new soil conditions before they can draw up moisture properly, which causes leaves to wilt temporarily.

Transplant shock can cause the hydrangea’s leaves to droop and turn brown with a dying appearance.

From my observations, hydrangeas suffer transplant shock after planting as a result of a sudden contrast in growing conditions.

If you have bought hydrangea from a nursery or are transplanting your hydrangea from one area of your garden to another, the hydrangeas is specifically adapted to its current growing conditions and can suffer as a result of a contrast of light, airflow, soil moisture, and structure, watering, temperature and shelter.

Hydrangeas that are grown in carefully controlled greenhouse conditions are a lot less hardy and can suffer when planted outdoors

The most common symptom is a wilting of the leaves and flowers of the hydrangea.

Often the stress of being transplanted is exacerbated by planting during Summer in hot and dry weather as the hydrangea’s roots cannot draw up moisture fast enough to support the hydrangeas large leaves causing them to wilt and turn brown.

This is why I always plant hydrangeas in the Spring and Fall as the temperature is cooler, and the hydrangea’s roots can establish and adjust to the soil so they can draw up water more efficiently before any high temperatures in Summer.

Hydrangeas are very hardy once they have been established, but I find they are particularly vulnerable to wilting and dying after planting.

The Solution…

  1. Ideally, you should buy and plant (or transplant) your hydrangeas in the Spring or Fall to prevent any additional stress from higher summer temperatures.
  2. Before planting hydrangeas, I advise amending the planting area with compost, leaf mold, or well-rotted manure to a depth and width of 18 inches. Organic matter such as compost retains lots of moisture, to ensure the hydrangeas roots are in their preferred soil conditions, with optimal levels of moisture and good well-draining soil structure to help the roots draw up moisture after planting.
  3. Water newly planted hydrangeas as often as required to keep the soil moist but not saturated. I once had to water a hydrangea every day after planting with a generous soak when I planted it in Summer.
  4. I always apply a 2-inch layer of compost mulch around the base of the hydrangea to help conserve moisture.
  5. Temporarily shade the hydrangea if it is in the sun (I have done this with a sun umbrella!) as more sun increases the rate at which the hydrangeas lose water through their leaves and causes the hydrangea to wilt and die.

The key to planting hydrangeas and preventing them from dying is in the soil preparation.

Hydrangeas are woodland plants that thrive in soils that are consistently moist with a high organic content with effectively a leaf litter mulch every Fall.

Leaf litter and organic matter retain moisture yet have a porous well draining structure that allows excess water to drain away from the roots of the hydrangea.

This helps to achieve the optimal balance of moisture for the roots to draw up the moisture that the hydrangea requires, and the roots are not sat in saturated soil, which can cause root rot.

When we amend the soil with organic matter before planting, we effectively emulate the hydrangea’s natural environment and ensure that our hydrangea can more effectively draw water.

Keep your hydrangea shaded and well watered (with a good layer of mulch), and the leaves should perk up within the following days.

Whilst moist soil is important to revive the hydrangea, it is important to ensure that the soil is not saturated and boggy, as this can cause root rot.

If you have any questions or need any more advice about hydrangeas, please leave a comment below, and I will help you out. If you found this article helpful, I’d appreciate a share on social media!

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a dying hydrangea is usually because the soil is too dry around the roots due to underwatering, sandy soil that does not retain enough moisture, too much sun, or excessive wind, which dries out the leaves, causing them to wilt and turn brown with a dying appearance.
  • The reason for a wilting hydrangea is drought stress due to underwatering, dry sandy soil, too much wind, high temperatures, or too much sunlight. Hydrangeas need consistently moist soil around the roots to prevent the leaves from wilting and dying.
  • Hydrangea leaves turn brown because of too much sun or due to excess fertilizer. Hydrangeas prefer dappled light. The leaves are sensitive to too much sun, which causes scorches in the leaves, turning them brown. Too much fertilizer burns the roots and causes the edges of the leaves to turn brown with a dying appearance.
  • Hydrangeas die after planting because their roots are not yet established and cannot draw up enough water to support the large and plentiful hydrangea leaves, causing the plant to wilt. Hydrangeas need to be watered so that the soil is consistently moist and sheltered from the sun and wind to prevent the hydrangea from dying after planting.

One thought on “Why is My Hydrangea Dying? (6 Solutions That Actually Work)

  1. I think by reading your answer on hydrangeas we have planted where they are getting to much sun!! If we don’t move them how can protect from the sun?

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