Winter’s Casualties

Collateral damage from the cold.

by Charlie Thigpen

We’ve been spoiled in Birmingham, because our winters have been so mild the last few years. Tender annuals and tropical plants have been over wintering, becoming perennials, but this past winter was brutal. Temperatures dipped into the teens, and we had consecutive days below freezing. The deep freeze actually ruptured plant cells, making many evergreens turn brown. The cold winds burned foliage and also dried out the plants because they couldn’t take water from the frozen soil. Old Man Winter lived up to his reputation and became a cantankerous, mean old man.

Many plants were damaged and some were even killed by the extreme temperatures. Even pansies and violas, which are our most dependable cool-season bloomers, struggled to stay alive. Other cool-season plants such as snapdragons were also knocked back to the ground. Some of our usually hardy shrubs turned brown in the landscape, but just because plants turned brown doesn’t mean they’re gone for good.

Is There Any Green?

If your plants were established and hardy going into winter, they might not be dead. First, check the base of the plant for split bark. If the bark is split, you’ll probably have to cut the plant back to the ground. If there are no signs of bark splitting, you can scratch the outer bark using your thumbnail or clippers to see if any green is present. Start on the outer limbs and work your way to the plant’s trunk. If there is green, you can cut off the dead wood and there is a good chance the plant could send out new foliage. If you can’t find any green after scraping the limbs and trunk, cut the plant back to the ground, but don’t dig it up yet. Many times the top of the plant might die but if the roots are still alive it will send up new shoots.

Pamper New Growth

If new shoots appear on your plant from the ground, you can encourage the plant with some fertilizer to accelerate new growth. Make sure the plant is watered frequently so it can support the new suckers. Watch for any insect damage, because pests such as aphids seek out tender new growth. Neem oil is an outstanding and organic insecticide, which can be used to kill and repel insects.

Replacing the Dead

If you don’t see any new growth by April, it might be time to replace dead plants.

Make sure to dig out the old plant roots and amend the soil with some type of organic matter such as peat moss, soil conditioner, or mushroom compost before replanting the area. If you’re replacing any old established plants, they’ve probably used up most of the soil’s nutrients (that’s why it’s important to amend the soil.) Once your new plants are in place, be sure to spread mulch around them to keep weeds out and moisture in.

The first plants that die during stressful situations are plants that are weak. Robust plants not only look better, but they actually are less likely to have problems with insects, disease, or extreme weather. Select the proper replacement plants, making sure they’re well-suited for the site.

Hope Springs!

Don’t get discouraged if you did lose some plants, because plants do perish. It’s all part of the gardening process. Almost everyone in the Birmingham area lost something, because it was an unusually cold winter (we most likely won’t see another like it for years.) Embrace spring and the beauty it brings, but remember to plant tender plants after the frost date of April 15th. Be patient and smart, and you’ll have great success in the garden.

Originally posted on Saturday, March 8th, 2014 at