Answer: Let's see if we can clarify things for you. Most of the older hydrangeas are those that flower from old wood; the newer types will flower on both old and new wood so if they freeze down to ground level or if they are pruned down to ground level, they will still flower. I suspect, based on what you just wrote, that yours is an older variety of hydrangea that needs to sprout new flowering stems from the old wood.
New shoots are green and supple and you can bend them without breaking them. Old wood on the plant will be stiff and have a thin bark. You cannot bend old wood - it will break. When a hydrangea sends up a new branch from the base of the plant it is considered new wood until it survives a winter. During the cold weather it forms a thin layer of bark to protect itself from the weather. It will look gray and bare all winter long. In the spring (if the winter weather has not been severely cold), the old stems will develop new growth. This new growth, which comes from the old gray branches, will produce flowers. If you prune your plants down to ground level each fall, anything that grows the following spring will be considered new growth.
This fall, leave the hydrangea alone (you'll have to put up with seeing the old, ugly, dead-looking stalks all winter long). If the stems survive the winter they will bud out in the spring. Cut away any of the stalks that do not have green buds on them and shorten those that do (cut them down to knee high). The growth that comes from these old stalks will produce flowers.
If there are no green buds on any of the stalks that means they died during the winter. You can cut them off because they're dead. Your hydrangea will produce new stems and stalks but they will not flower.
Hope this helps you understand the flowering cycle of a hydrangea.
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