We've had two brutal winters in a row, and the extreme low temperatures and heavy snow brutalized the hydrangea in the perennial border:
That pile of sticks is pretty typical of how a hydrangea looks in the dead of winter, but the blooming tulips in the background make it clear that it is now May. What we should see in a healthy, happy hydrangea are lots of leaf buds:
And yes, we do have some canes that are clearly still alive. Not many, though. The great majority are definitely dead. I waited a long time to come to that determination, because hydrangeas take a while to wake up in the spring. If you prune carelessly, you can easily lose a season's flowers, so it's best to wait. (We didn't have any flowers last year, either, and it wasn't due to overzealous pruning so much as an intensely cold winter that killed all the flower buds.)
By now it's clear that most of those canes are lost causes and can be pulled out to make room for some new growth. After a long pruning session, here's whats left:
That's a little depressing, but at least these canes are all alive. Or at least mostly alive--when in doubt, I let iffy ones stay just in case. It is incredibly unlikely that we'll have any flowers again this year, but I'm not ready to give up on this once-proud specimen. I'm hoping that it will have room to breathe now that it's been pruned, and that maybe this winter could be just a shade milder than the past one couple have been.