WOW, what a winter we have had. From short sleeves to parkas within the same week, we have certainly had our share of the “Alabama weather” that everyone talks about. We are expecting to have more cold damaged plants this spring than in the previous two or three years. But don’t fret; while your landscape may show battle scars from a tough winter, chances are that most plants will be just fine.
With plants such as tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans), cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis spp.) and many others showing winter damage, Extension agents are getting call after call about cold damage. The best answer at this point is simply to wait it out. While many plants are showing scorched and browning leaves, bare stems, and desiccating branches, it is hard for us to determine EXACTLY how much damage has been done.
Gardenias, for example, can be severely damaged by cold temperatures. The leaves are not very hardy and will fall off with minor cool temperatures. While we might think that the plant has crossed over, we cannot fully know until spring. Often times, stems and branches that appear “dead”, still set bud and leaf out in April.
If your plants have been damaged by cold, HOLD OFF pulling out the pruners and the shears. At this point in the season pruning, especially hard pruning on woody plants, can cause more damage than good. First, pruning almost always initiates new growth when not done in the dead of winter. With the warm temperatures that we are likely to experience, buds may break and new growth can begin. If we have another cold snap and a heavy frost or freeze, all of the new growth stands the chance of being damaged or killed. Second, cold damage can take a while to rear its ugly head. It can be weeks before the extent of damage is fully know. Being the lazy gardener that I am, I want to prune once and be done. If you jump the gun and prune early, you stand a chance of missing some of the damaged tissue. Lastly, pruning early can actually cause you to remove more plant material than is necessary. Sometimes, that “dead” tissue isn't really dead and can regrow if given time. If you prune before you can see the transition point from live to dead, you could be removing healthy wood.
If you are feeling giddy and must get out in the garden, try this instead. Don’t worry about the cold damage. Prune off those braches that you know are dead (FOR SURE dead tissue can be removed at any time). If you haven’t already, remove the dead parts from the crowns of ornamental grasses, rake out the leaves, remove old flower stalks and start a compost bin. If you simply can’t wait and must prune woody plants now, scratch the damaged stems with your thumb nail and check for green tissue before you start hacking. Remember that if you are doing hard pruning, use proper pruning techniques to reduce problems from disease later down the road. Maybe with a little patience and TLC, your garden will look better than it did before. For more information on proper pruning techniques, contact your local County Extension office or visit www.aces.edu .by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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