TLC for your Winter Garden (or How Not to Kill Your Plants During the Polar Vortex)

Posted on: December 18, 2014

TLC for your Winter Garden (or how not to kill your plants during the Polar Vortex)
With Old Man Winter bearing down upon us, now is a good time to take some important steps to protect your plants from the cold wind and snow. A little work now, will often save many of your valuable plants from winter burn, bud loss and leaf drop.

Most deciduous plants (those that lose all their leaves) are created to perfectly withstand winter. They drop their leaves in the fall, their starches coalesce in the roots and they go into a state of hibernation while winter happens around them. The exception to this rule is for plants that are marginally hardy for wherever you live. These plants (such as Loropetalum or Chinese Fringe Flower) are just hardy enough to make it in zone 7 over a normal winter.

I think we can all agree that last winter was anything but normal! Should we see a return of that same weather pattern this winter, marginally hardy plants can be in danger of survival.   Ideally, you will have planted these sensitive species in protected areas such as a south facing planting area, or against the home where some of the reflected heat from the house can help keep the roots a bit warmer. We don’t often recommend excessive mulching due to its potential suffocating effects but a 4-6” layer of mulch can help protect the roots of many plants. In the spring however it is important to remove that excess mulch so that no ill effects are felt.

Sunny snow

Another common winter injury is sun scald or frost cracking. We all welcome those rare, warm winter days when we are able to shed a few layers and enjoy the outdoors for a moment or two. However, these warm spikes can be damaging to the trees as they can often heat up the trunks of trees (especially young, new planted trees). Once the trunk begins to warm, cambial activity can get going; the tree thinks it’s time to come out of hibernation and start growing. However, when the cold returns these areas of activity often die and become sunken and cracked. A simple trunk wrap applied in the fall and removed in the spring can help keep the bark temperature consistent.

One of the biggest problems we face at Ruppert Nurseries is deer damage. A hungry deer will eat just about anything when starved enough. Even those species we often think of as deer resistant can become victims of a deer attack. Despite our best hunting efforts, we are still plagued by a large herd of deer that find our trees delicious.

deer damage nurserySome things you can do in your own home to combat deer damage are the use of trunk guards which will make it difficult for deer to access the bark of the trunks. Homeowners can also soak rags in repellant (green or brown rags that blend in with your landscape can often be found at the Dollar Store) Deer repellant tends to be horribly odorous. Make sure to wear rubber gloves when working with the stuff. Unfortunately continuous application every few weeks is the only sure fire way to keep the deer away. A single application won’t cut it. The product wears off every few weeks.

Finally, one of the most egregious types of damage can happen to broadleaf evergreens such as hollies, southern magnolias or camellias. The large leaf surfaces of these plants makes them susceptible to loss of moisture. Cold winter winds literally suck the moisture out of broadleaf plants. When the leaves become dry they turn brown and either drop off or worse, persist. Nothing lovelier than a brown plant in your landscape, eh? New varieties are created every year…. Magnolia grandiflora ‘Brownii’ or Ilex attenuata ‘Grim Reaper’ to name a few! (obligatory chuckle appropriate here, fellow plant dorks)

You can protect your broadleaf plants by constructing a wind barrier using wooden stakes to create a box or frame around the plants and then wrapping the frame with a breathable fabric such as burlap. This will enable the plants to respirate throughout the winter but will protect from damage direct and sustained cold wind can inflict.tlc-winter-garden-not-kill-plants-polar-vortex/

Another method for protection of broadleaf evergreens is to apply an anti-transpirant (anti-dessicant) to the leaves of the plants. Application should be made on days above 40 degrees and should be applied as thoroughly as possible. Use a back pack or hand held pump type sprayer to coat the leaves with the product. These products help seal the leaf surface which prevents moisture loss. It is important to note that these products are only for broadleaf evergreens and should not be applied to conifer evergreens.

Old Man Winter can be an unwanted visitor. Sadly, like death and taxes we can’t avoid his arrival. But with a little preparation you can help prevent the worst of the damage

Written By:


Ronda Roemmelt