Why Do Hydrangeas Get Leggy? (Revealed)

Hydrangea leaf on stem

Unfortunately it is something every gardener has probably experienced at one time or another.

A plant looking spindly, top heavy and flopping over.

But, in particular, why do hydrangeas get leggy?

Knowing how to resolve the problem when it affects hydrangeas will also help you deal with it in other plants.

So without further ado, lets explore more.

Why Do Hydrangeas Get Leggy? 

If you are noticing your hydrangeas are leggy, then the most likely explanation is that they are not getting sufficient sunlight. As a result they will strain for any light they can, which will result in the hydrangea developing denser foliage at the top of the plant and become unbalanced and spindly. The other explanation is that you might be pruning them incorrectly.

Reason #1: They Are Reaching For the Sun

The most common cause of hydrangeas getting leggy is because they are not getting enough light.

A hydrangea will grow best when it gets full sunlight in the morning when it is cooler, and then is in a shady position in the afternoon where it still receives filtered light.

If your hydrangea is in deep shade for too long it will begin to ‘reach out’ for even the merest hint of sunlight and grow towards it.

When that happens the sun only reaches the very tips of the plant, and it can develop weak stems and foliage that is denser at the top of the plant.

Weak stems and lots of foliage at the top of your hydrangea and not at the bottom is a bad combination!

Your hydrangea will also flourish when it is situated in a position where it can receive light from all sides.

For instance, if there is a wall blocking sunlight from one direction, its development will also be unbalanced.

Reason #2: You Are Pruning Incorrectly

Pruning your hydrangea correctly can encourage new growth and help a stronger and healthier plant to develop.

Pruning your hydrangea incorrectly can do the very opposite!

Pruning requirements will vary depending on what type of hydrangea you have and you should always know why you are pruning and have a goal in mind.

We have gone into more detail on what to prune and when further on in this article.

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Reason #3: Does It Bloom on Old Wood?

Buddha holding hydrangeas

Hydrangeas bloom on either old wood or new wood.

If they bloom on old wood, they set their flower buds late on in summer on stalks that have been on the plant since the previous year.

If they bloom on new wood they set their buds on the current season’s growth

Hydrangeas that bloom on new wood are often more likely to be leggy as their stems are not fully robust yet.

They need to be pruned appropriately to help support new growth.

Hydrangeas that bloom on old wood tend to have more developed stems that can hold up new growth and usually are fine without too much pruning.

Reason #4: They Might Not Be Getting Enough Nutrients

Your hydrangea might develop weak stems and become leggy if it is not getting enough nutrients from its soil.

How to Help a Leggy Hydrangea

Solution #1: Give It More Sunlight!

It sounds like a pretty simple answer and it is.

Ensuring your hydrangea has access to sufficient sunlight should go a long way to curing its legginess.

This is pretty easy to solve if you are growing your hydrangea in a pot. Just move it to an area where it gets morning sun on all sites and then filtered sunlight throughout the rest of the day.

If your hydrangea is growing outside in your garden trim back any other large plants or trees that could be stopping it from getting enough sun or throwing a shadow over it.

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You don’t want anything stealing the sunlight from your hydrangea!

If your hydrangea is located in a spot where it really won’t get adequate light no matter what you do to surrounding plants then your only solution will be to move it to a more suitable spot.

If you do decide to transplant your hydrangea you will want to do it when it isn’t growing, and be very careful when you move it.

It will require close attention after it has been transplanted to ensure the impact of transplant shock is minimized.

Solution #2: Get Your Pruning Right

Pruning your hydrangea should always be done with a specific goal in mind, rather than just for the sake of it.

As we mentioned above it tends to be hydrangeas that bloom on new wood that need a more well-defined pruning routine.

Therefore annual pruning is recommended for:

  • Smooth hydrangeas
  • Panicle hydrangeas

If you prune these back in the spring, it encourages stronger branches and flowers on the new growth. 

As the flowers are heavy, leaving a small framework of new stems will help support them. Over time this framework will become more resilient and support the new flowering stems more easily.

How much your prune them back each year will depend on their size and maturity.

Other hydrangeas bloom on old wood and are in less need of pruning. 

If you do need to prune them though it should be done immediately after they flower, otherwise you could be cutting off branches that would produce buds the following season.

If you have a newly planted hydrangea that is leggy, you want to hard prune it to around half to a third of its size.

Then when it has grown by a couple of inches, pinch the tips of the branches to remove the growing tip.

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Once it is removed the buds will turn into multiple stems. Allow them to grow out an inch or two, then repeat the procedure and pinch the growing tip out.

Continue this process throughout its first growing season.

The result eventually is a hydrangea with a much stronger, well-supported base that will provide plenty of flowers in the years ahead.

If you have a mature hydrangea that is appearing leggy, trim weak stems, remove stems that are dead, remove any dead flowers, cut stems as close to the ground as possible and don’t cut back more than half of the plant in one season.

Pruning your hydrangeas can seem overwhelming if you are inexperienced, but you will soon learn what works and what doesn’t!

Solution #3: Give the Soil a Feed

Sprouting buds in soil

If you think your hydrangea might be leggy because it isn’t getting enough nutrients you will want to give your soil a feed.

You can apply weak fertilizers like fish emulsion, liquid seaweed and coffee grounds throughout the growing season.

Adding an organic fertilizer like organic compost or cottonseed meal can be very beneficial too.

These are slow-release fertilizers that will feed your hydrangeas gradually over time.

There are a couple of points to remember when it comes to fertilizing your hydrangeas:

  1. Don’t fertilize too early in the spring – an unexpected late frost could kill any early growth.
  2. Don’t fertilize too late in summer – it could delay the start of dormancy.

Solution #4: Use Stakes

You can do steps 1 to 3 above, but before you feel the full effects of these solutions you might need something a bit more temporary to get your hydrangea through the season.

Using something to stake your hydrangea up can be a good interim measure.

Final Thoughts

Generally, if your hydrangea is getting leggy it will be because it is either not getting enough sun or because it is being pruned incorrectly.

Or because of a combination of the two.

Determining whether your hydrangea is getting enough sun should be your first thought.

If it isn’t, then it is something that can usually be conquered by giving any surrounding plants or tree canopies a bit of a trim back.

Developing a pruning routine for your hydrangea can be a bit more daunting, but again once you learn what works it is fairly simple.

The most important thing is the fact it can be resolved, and whilst it might take a growing season to do so, you should see the benefits for many years to come.

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