The Freeze of 2018

By Paul James

It could have been worse. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe the effects that last Saturday morning’s temperatures had on plants. It dropped to 24 degrees at my place, and I woke up early expecting to find serious damage. But later in the day, as I toured my property and numerous others in my neighborhood and elsewhere around town, I was rather pleasantly surprised.

There was definitely some damage – no question about it -- but I honestly expected it to be a lot, lot worse. And many of my coworkers whose homes are scattered all over the area said much the same thing. So here’s a rundown of some of the plants that did suffer, and what, if anything, you can do about the damage.

Trees and shrubs – It still may be a few more days before we know the full extent of damage on this group of plants. However, I think it’s safe to say that this year’s azalea show will be less than spectacular. Azalea flowers are the least hardy part of the plant, and I saw considerable damage to already opened flowers as well as buds. Thankfully, the plants themselves will be just fine. Loropetalums took a hit to their foliage, but that’s not surprising and they’ll bounce back. My hydrangeas were unfazed, although some folks saw slight tissue damage. They too will rebound.

Some flowering trees – redbuds and crabapples in particular – looked pretty bad, whereas dogwoods seemed relatively unscathed. Maybe that’s because what we call a dogwood flower isn’t a flower at all but a bract. In other words, it’s a different type of tissue, and it appears to be pretty doggone hardy.

Green Japanese maples seem to have fared better than their red relatives. Those whose leaves took a hit will generate new leaves in the next several weeks and look as though nothing ever happened.

Perennials – My ostrich ferns look like somebody sprayed the tips with Roundup. I’ll trim the damaged leaves and new growth will emerge soon enough. Hostas whose leaves were unfurling don’t look so hot, but they’ll recover. Some peonies in my area took a direct hit both on the foliage and the flowers, but others seemed to be okay. Time will tell. And tulips appear to have just laughed at the cold snap.

Annuals – Here’s where the news isn’t so good. Annuals (other than petunias)tend to suffer considerably when temps drop below 27, which means you may have to start over with seasonal color. Sorry.

Edibles – Here again, a number of plants were damaged, especially warm-season crops that weren’t covered. Even if you did protect tomatoes and peppers, for example, and they look okay, chances are they’ll never fully recover. Their growth will be stunted, and they’ll be less likely to produce a bountiful harvest. Even some cool-season crops, especially newly emerging potatoes, had tissue damage, although in time they should begin to produce new foliage. Most culinary herbs did okay, although basil got completely zapped. Ditto lemon grass. Both will need to be replanted. And parsley, a biennial, may bolt soon because it thinks it’s been through winter and should therefore flower.

All in all, I’d say we dodged a bullet in a big way. I recall late spring freezes in the past when the temperature didn’t drop as low but the damage was much more severe and extensive. Perhaps it’s because there was so much moisture in the soil due to rains the week before, or because the winds were anything but calm which kept frost from settling on leaf surfaces overnight. I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows. But this much I do know: the bulk of our landscape plants will be okay. Oh, and did I mention there’s another freeze in the forecast for this weekend?