Ask a Question forum→Failing Hydrangea

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Name: Susan Pingitore
IL (Zone 5b)
May 18, 2020 8:05 PM CST
One of my hydrangeas is doing very poorly. This is the plant's third year in my Zone 5 garden. I have kept on the old wood in hopes that some new growth might emerge. Now I'm wondering if I should cut it back to that the plant doesn't stress itself out even more. I've attached a photo. Is there any hope for this plant? Anything I can do to help it improve? Thanks for your help.
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Name: Luis
Hurst, TX, U.S.A. (Zone 8a)
Dog Lover Region: Texas Salvias Roses Hibiscus Plumerias
May 18, 2020 9:06 PM CST
Hello, Susan. Where in Illinois are you located? It looks as if this plant is starting to wake up. Did you have any plants that got zapped by low temperatures or a late frost. Do you winter protect it or frost protect it?

While frost does not kill the roots (they are insulated by the soil and the mulch), the leaves need protection from late frosts at this time of the year. If not protected, they will leaf out replacements 2-4 weeks from the date when they got zapped. Are these the first set of leaves that the plant first leafed out in Spring?

I do not see signs of new stems growing from the base. That is unusual but it may also be too early in some parts of the northern states.

Old wood that has not leafed by the end of May (and the early part of June in the very northern parts of the US) will probably not leaf out. When the time arrives (or even now if you want), you can check if the old wood is still ok by doing a scratch test. Very carefully, with your finger nails, scratch the stems to see if you "see green". If you do not, that part of the stem is dead (it may be green below unless you are already at the bottom). You can also cut the stem from the top downwards, in 1" increments, and stop either when you "see green" or when you get to the bottom.

The form of the leaves looks a little weird but the picture is not clear when I try to enlarge it. Can you please post a closer look at the leaves? Do you know what type of hydrangea this is and its variety name?

Until it recovers, I would not fertilize it. Let it stay as evenly moist as you can and fertilize after your average date of last frost + two weeks and after it has recovered and appears to be more awake.

You mentioned that you have other hydrangeas. What kind and how are they doing (or post pictures to compare against this one)?

Thanks in advance, Luis
Name: Susan Pingitore
IL (Zone 5b)
May 22, 2020 8:15 AM CST
Hi Luis! Thanks for getting back to me. Sorry I'm so late in getting back to you.

I live just outside of Chicago in Zone 5. Three years ago we add new landscape to our front yard. The "sick" plant is one of several Little Quick Fire hydrangeas we planted. For comparison purposes, I've attached photos of the ones closest to this poor plant. As you can see, they're doing pretty well. The leaves you see on the sick plant are the first ones to leaf out this spring. Most of these leaves look limp. I think one or two are slightly perky.

We did have a hard frost on April 25. We covered all of our hydrangeas that night. Nothing was injured as a result. This little plant was struggling before the frost and now looks even worse. I have not noticed new leaves coming from the ground up on the Little Quick Fires. My Endless Summer hydrangeas always have a lot of new growth from the bottom.

I fed all of my hydrangeas with Miracid on May 7. I'm not going to cut back the dead wood until the beginning of June unless you advise otherwise. Please let me know if there is something I can do.

Thanks for all of your help. It's much appreciated.

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Name: Luis
Hurst, TX, U.S.A. (Zone 8a)
Dog Lover Region: Texas Salvias Roses Hibiscus Plumerias
May 22, 2020 1:42 PM CST
Leaves that stay wilted constantly can be caused by bad weather -like a late frost- or by a watering issue or root rot.

Bad weather (frost) usually develops after the plants break dormancy too early (for you, the average date of last frost is the 1st or 2nd week in May) so maintain them well mulched with 2-4" of mulch. Water deeply the night before frosts. Cover them with frost cloth if it will have a little dip below freezing or, in the case of hydrangeas that bloom on old wood, give them winter protection in the Fall and remove it about two weeks after your average date of last frost. Roots are usually not bothered by frost as the ground insulates them but leaves and stems can get zapped. It looks like yours leaves may have gotten a partial hit as they have not browned out. The frost on the 25th may have caused the problem.

If they are not getting enough water, the leaves will also wilt but they should perk up when the soil moisture is restored when you water them. It is best to keep the soil as evenly moist as you can, with no times of dry soil followed by wet soil, followed by dry soil again.

If the leaves remain wilted 24/7, they could also be suffering from root rot from overwatering. This one is hard to differentiate from damage caused by weather. One would have to extract the plant and inspect the leaves to see if they are rotted or smelly.

Wait to fertilize until two weeks after your average date of last frost. Ferts will put the plants officially in "grow mode" so it is always very "inconvenient" when late frosts happen.

You can use a general purpose, slow release, chemical fertilizer with a NPK Ratio of around 10-10-10; or you can apply 1/2 to 1 cup of cottonseed meal, organic compost or composted manure only once in Spring. That should do it for whole year. Once they become established, do not fertilize any more. Let them feed off the decomposing organic mulch. Hydrangeas are not hungry plants like roses so they will be fine if you maintain them mulched all year around. Some formulations of Miracid can have high nitrogen levels like 30-10-10 so look for something close to 10-10-10.

So for now, do nothing but keep the soil moist. Insert a finger into the soil to a depth of 4". If it feels dry or almost dry, then water. The amount of water per watering will vary. Start with one gallon and see if that gets the soil moist or wet; after the watering, a finger should feel the soil moist or wet to a depth of 8". Water only the soil (never the leaves) early in the morning. Start from the root ball and water in all directions outwards.
[Last edited by luis_pr - May 22, 2020 2:29 PM (+)]
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