In the Garden: What’s dead in your bed?

Date Published: 
April 11, 2014

Spring is here, and we look forward to all of the pleasures and beauty that spring will bring. However, before we forget this past winter, it is important to understand the long-term damage the winter weather has caused. We will be seeing the effects on plant health throughout the spring and summer. What can we expect, why and what can be done?

• Leaf scorch, desiccation — This brown “crunchy” look on leaves happens when the plant’s tissues dry out from the wind, ice-melting chemicals or lack of moisture in the air or soil.

How do I fix it?

Some leaves will fall off naturally. You can hand-pick them off or prune. Do not prune too early. Wait for the plant to begin growing. Pruning early promotes growth, and you do not want the plant to push growth and then go through a freeze that will damage the new growth.

What plants are showing symptoms?

Evergreens are particularly susceptible. We are seeing scorch on skip laurel, boxwood, camellia, hawthornes, holly, nandina, azaleas, gardenia and loropetalum. Crape myrtles may have die-back on their branches. Remember, crape myrtles are one of the last trees to leaf-out in the spring, so give them time before pruning. The root system is fairly hardy, so if the die-back is severe, the plants should come back from the root, but this will take time.

Remember, we had single-digits and a few below-0°F temperatures at times. This winter was the coldest in two decades!

• Broken branches — Remember the ice storm, high winds, heavy snows? Wait until the end of freezing temperatures to prune. You do not want to promote new growth by trimming too early. Cut all broken limbs to a quarter-inch above a live bud or to the branch collar of the nearest live branch. Do not paint the cut. Wounds heal better on their own. Prune out all weak and diseased branches. Clean and disinfect your clippers. Make sure they are sharp.

• Salt damage — Record amounts of salt were applied to roadways and sidewalks. Many trees and shrubs were covered with white dustings of salt. I know landscapers who were no longer able to purchase the less-harmful salt alternatives because the supplies were exhausted, so the more harmful salt was applied. It is a necessary step, because it has been shown that road safety is significantly increased with the salt applications.

Evergreen plants will show dried, burnt leaf edges or needle browning that starts at the tips. Deciduous trees and shrubs can be slow to break dormancy and to bud, as well as leaf-out, in the spring. Buds can drop that are facing the salt spray area. The other side of the plant can be fine.

In the early spring, flush the area with two inches of water over a two- to three-hour period. Repeat three days later. This will help leach the salt through the soil. Also rinse the plant as soon as you can to remove the salt from the leaves and branches. Rinse again in the spring. Gypsum can be added to the soil to help move the sodium through the soil. Soil rich in organic matter helps to protect the plants from salts.

Try to use sand or eco-friendly salt alternatives on your sidewalks instead of salt.

• Deer damage — We are seeing a lot of desperate deer feeding on plant material on which they normally do not feed.

• What is dead? Let’s wait and see what flushes out in the spring. I am afraid that some of my favorite Zone 7 plants may have severely suffered. Gardenias, loropetalum and soft caress mahonia are suffering. These are plants that are at their northern limit for winter-hardiness. Permanent damage occurs when conditions are severe or prolonged or when temperatures change suddenly. We have had all of the above. Compare this to the weather of 2013, which was the fourth hottest year on record. Plants have been under stress from both extremes.

I say goodbye to the shifted “Polar Vortex” and hello to spring! My next column will be full of sunshine and good gardening ideas.

Valery Cordrey is the co-owner of East Coast Garden Center, RSC Landscaping and the Cordrey Center in Millsboro. Information in this column was collected from the University of Maryland, University of Delaware, Fine Gardening magazine and East Coast Garden Center.