Plants Looking Puny?

By Paul James

A lot of landscape plants are looking pretty sad right now. In fact, some of them look downright dead. The question is, will they bounce back this spring, or should I dig them up and start thinking about what to plant in their place?

Before I answer that two-part question, let me share with you what I’ve been witnessing on my walks lately. First and foremost, I’ve seen leaves still clinging to a number of deciduous trees, in particular Japanese maples, some oaks, and even roses, which is somewhat odd for this time of year. I’ve seen azaleas that looked great (and green, and in some cases in flower) early in December that now appear as though they’re on their last leg. I’ve seen the tips of boxwoods that look like somebody took a blowtorch to them. I’ve seen Taylor junipers that have gone from green to a weird, dull gray-purple. And Nandinas, well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many crinkly, crunchy leaves on them.

For the most part, these conditions are the result of abrupt weather changes, specifically warmer-than-usual December days followed by temperatures in the single digits. When that happens, plants don’t have the opportunity to smoothly transition physiologically from late fall to winter. And remember, we’ve had several relatively mild winters in a row, so it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced single-digit temps.

Getting back to the questions I posed earlier, let me tackle the second part first: Don’t dig anything up, at least not yet. Remember, the vast majority of plants common to landscapes in this area are dependably hardy. Many of them are able to tolerate temperatures of -20 degrees, and some can handle temps even lower. And a number of plants – crape myrtles for example – may die back to the ground because their top growth isn’t hardy enough, but they’re rootball is, in which case new growth will begin to appear in spring.

 And while I’m not a gardening psychic, nor do I have a crystal ball, I think just about every plant that grows – assuming it was hardy in the first place – will bounce back and be just fine come spring. Some may require a bit of cosmetic pruning to get rid of scorched leaves (wait another few weeks before doing that), but that’s a small price to pay. The exceptions would be those plants that didn’t have enough soil moisture (meaning you failed to water!) before the bottom fell out of the thermometer. If that’s the case, you won’t actually know the verdict until late spring or early summer when the plant starts growing (or at least tries to grow) rapidly.

Feel better now?