How winter snows and storms
 effect trees & gardens

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Being a skier, this phrase was what we lived for during the winter. For some reason, we selfishly thought the only purpose for winter was for the snow. The more it snowed, the happier we were. Until this winter. I have seen more snow than I ever want to see again. So here I officially renounce my former ways and ask your forgiveness. I will never utter this nonsense again.

The questions all of us have about this winter concerns how it will affect our gardens and landscapes. Are my trees and shrubs going to make it this year? Will my bulbs come up? Will my azaleas bloom? What will happen to my lawn?

I don't have any definite answers to those questions because there are many factors that may make your shrub die while your neighbor's lives. I might have some suggestions:

The drought of 2002 and water restrictions will have a definite effect on your trees and shrubs. Plants need adequate moisture going into the winter, and unless you cheated, your plants went into winter under drought stress. A cold winter following a dry fall will frequently cause injury or death to already weakened plants.

The ice storm we had in December caused widespread damage to trees. Many trees lost large limbs and branches. I had a beautiful dogwood lose its shape when several top branches snapped. Most trees will recover, but it is important that you use a pruning saw to cut off places where the branch or limb was torn off. Failure to do so could expose your tree to disease this summer. If you had an arborvitae that is still hanging down, you can tie it up at this time. Look for any cracked or broken branches. They should be pruned off. While you are at it, this would be a good time to prune off any branches that are dead. Scratch the bark with your fingernail. If you get a nice green color, the branch is OK. If you only encounter a brown or cream color after scratching the bark, that branch is probably dead and should be pruned.

Evergreens exposed to cold and strong winds will sometimes have burned looking leaves. Sometimes the plant will die. However, most plants will recover and put out new growth in the spring. Don't be hasty to dig up a plant unless you are positive it is dead. Again, a quick scratch with your fingernail will determine if there is life in that shrub or tree. One long term solution to avoiding plant winter burn is proper placement on your property. Keep susceptible plants out of the strong wind.

For some plants, we are just too far north to avoid damage or death after cold winters. The last several winters have fooled us into thinking it will always be balmy. Many of us purchased plants that were not appropriate for our climactic zone. Maryland is Zone 6, and any plant labeled for Zones 7-10 may suffer from the long duration of cold we have experienced this winter. Some examples of plants that are out of Zone would be Southern Magnolia, Crape Myrtle, Photinia, and Camellia. For the last several years, the plant researchers and nurseries have selected particular varieties of many plants that exhibit cold hardiness beyond their established zones. If you have one of the new varieties, you may be OK. If you have an older or original variety, you may want to look closely for signs of winter injury. In the future, pay close attention to the label for zone compatibility before you purchase plants.

Another problem to look for is salt damage. With this year's use of salts to melt the ice, the salt can do damage if in large enough amounts. Look for discolored lawn areas next to the street, in the drain swale in front of your house, and adjacent to sidewalks if salt was used. Usually this won't be cause for alarm, since lawn areas will quickly recover. But it bears watching.

There is good news. There are benefits to having this long, cold, snowy winter. Most importantly, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the drought is over. There will be adequate moisture in our streams and water tables. The soil will have adequate moisture to begin any early spring gardening. Also, snow acts as an excellent insulator on the ground. Therefore, the ground did not freeze as deeply as it could have. That means that most roots of established plants should be fine. (Plants left outdoors in containers probably froze all the way through, and probably will not live) Most importantly, the long hours, days and weeks sitting inside watching the outside have given us an opportunity to plan our outdoor gardening activities. I have always believed that planning is the easiest way to keep mistakes to a minimum, and therefore is true quality time. Take some time to review some garden books and magazines. The library has an excellent selection. There are excellent shows on HGTV covering a wide variety of gardening interests. Draw up a list of your garden priorities. Sketch out some new gardens you might want this year. Look through the catalogs that come this time of year.

This winter will come to an end. Pretty soon Spring Fever will hit. If I had my choice, I'll take Spring Fever. No more Think Snow.

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