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Determining Winter Damage To Plants

Snow on shrubsWHAT IF IT SNOWS AGAIN?

    Before I talk about winter damage to plants, let me just offer some important advice…in case we happen to get more snow and cold weather:
    WET SNOW:  Often when temperatures are just below freezing we get large, heavy, wet snowflakes.  This type of snow can cause a lot of damage to upright plants, because of its weight, bending or even breaking branches.  One needs to shake or brush this type of snow off the branches of upright plants before it permanately ruins their shape or is so heavy that it actually breaks them. Evergreens, which trap snow, are the most susceptible.
    On the other hand, small snowflakes, usually occurring when temperatures are colder offer some protection to plants and generally do not need to be removed.  Unless there is a big accumulation of snow, these small snowflakes usually are light-weight.  Remember, in a way, snow is ‘Mother Natures’ winter protection for plants.
    The branches of some plants have been weighted down with snow and are now drooping, ruining the appearance of your plant. You can simply tie them up, provide support for them, or cut them off. The last thing I would do is cut them off, if there is some other means of saving them.

HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WINTER PLANT DAMAGE?

    After really cold weather or heavy snow it is not unusual for some trees, shrubs, perennials or hardy annuals to look badly damaged, sick or even dead. Just because the leaves are brown limp, droopy or sickly looking, does not necessarily mean that the branch from which it originates is sick or dead. In other words, in some cases these ugly leaves may eventually fall off, and be replaced by new ones, or new growth and new leaves may develop just beyond the point where the old leaves dropped off.   
    So don’t be in a big hurry to start pruning.  Be patient.  I urge you to wait until spring when plants begin their new growth, before acting. In March, April or even May you will be able to get a much better idea of how much winter damage a plant has suffered and you can determine if it even needs pruning.
    I cannot tell you the number of times I have gone to the landfills after a cold winter only to see dozens of plants in full growth that homeowners have cut back and discarded, thinking they were dead.  As the saying goes: ‘Haste makes waste’  
    You can determine if a plant is dead or alive at a particular point of growth, by simply scratching the bark with your finger- nail or lightly scarring the bark with a knife. The next growth layer, just below the bark, is called the cambium layer. If it is green the plant is still alive at that point.  If it is a sickly yellow or brown the plant is dead or dying at that point. This gives you a guideline of whether there is a need to prune.  
    In some cases, plants are apt to look just fine, then all of a sudden begin turning yellow or brown. This indicates that the root system was frozen and damaged during the cold weather, and there is nothing you can do about it.  Let’s keep our fingers-crossed on this one!
    Keep in mind that some ornamental grasses, perennials and hardy annuals die back to the ground each year, so go ahead and cut them off an inch or two above the ground, as you normally would.
    ROSES: Severe pruning of roses is not done until late February or early March.
    HYDRANGEAS: If possible, never prune off more then 50% of the old growth.  Severe pruning stimulates vegetative (leaves) growth, and can delay flowering.
    RHODODENDRONS, AZALEAS AND CAMELLIAS: Some flower buds may have been frozen and the plants may not flower, this year. When the buds dry-up, simply pick them off.
    Winter damage to most other types of plants will be determined between now and springtime…follow directions above.  

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