Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time

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We are just finishing a harsh winter, and find ourselves in the midst of a chilly, slow spring.  Most of our woodies and perennials are a little behind the times in showing new growth, according to our experience with them in recent years.  Understandable!

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The Camellias didn’t do well in our cold, windy winter weather.

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We had a few nights in January when the lows dipped a little below 0 degrees F, which is rare here.  We had winter temperatures more like Zone 6, found several hundred miles to the west.  Our woodies and perennials rated for Zones 7 or 8 suffered from the deep, prolonged cold.  And it shows.

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Normally evergreen shrubs, now show extensive leaf damage, with brown and curling leaves.  Bark on some trunks and branches split and some stand now with bare branches.   Those woody shrubs that can easily withstand winter in Zones 6a or colder generally look OK.  But those that normally grow to our south, that we coddle along here in the edge or warmer climates, took a hit.

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I needed to cut back far more dead wood from our roses than any year in memory.  It is a very sad sight to see established shrubs looking so bad here in the second week of April.  Our cool temperatures through March and early April, with a little snow recently, have slowed the whole process of new spring growth, too.

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Some gardeners may be struggling with a decision about whether to replace these badly damaged plants.  Now that the garden centers are finally allowing deliveries of fresh stock, it is certainly tempting to rip out the shabby and re-plant with a vigorous plant covered in fresh growth.

I will counsel patience, which is the advice I am also giving to myself this week!  We invest in woodies and perennials mainly because they are able to survive harsh winters.  While leaves and some branches may be lost, there is still life in the wood and in the roots.

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I was out doing the ‘scratch test’ on a completely bare lilac shrub this morning.  Its condition is still a troubling mystery to us, as several other lilacs, of the same cultivar, are leafing out and are covered in budding flowers.  But this one, on the end of the row, sits completely bare without a swelling bud to be seen.  I scratched a little with my fingernail one of the major branches, and found green just below its thin bark.  So long as there is green, there is life.

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This lilac survived our winter in a pot near the kitchen door. We are delighted to see it in bloom so early. I’ll plant this shrub out in the garden once the blooms are finished. It has been in this pot for several years, after arriving as a bare root twig in the mail in early 2015.

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I want to prune this one back pretty severely, mostly because it is becoming an eyesore.  But my Master Gardener friend strongly advises to give it more time.  She suggests waiting until early June to make life and death decisions on trees and shrubs, to give them time to recover.

I may prune the lilac a little, now that the freezing weather here is likely over for the year, and hope that stimulates some fresh growth.

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Japanese Maples have finally allowed their leaves to unfold this week.

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That is what we’ve done with the roses.  We pruned, hard, and we see new shoots coming from the roots on all of our roses now.

There are a few good reasons to nurse our winter damaged woodies back to health instead of replacing them now.  First, our tree or shrub is established and has a developed root system.  Even if all of its trunks and stems are dead, new ones will soon appear from the roots.  This seems to happen every single year with my Ficus afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre’.  It keeps the shrub a manageable size, and the plant looks pretty good again by early summer.

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F. ‘Silver Lyre’s’ stems are visible beside the Iris leaves. Rated to Zone 7b, it always returns, sometime in May, from its roots.  A Sweetbay Magnolia waits behind it, in a nursery pot.  I want to see some sign of life before planting it.

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Another reason to rejuvenate an established shrub, rather than plant a new one, is economic.  Finding a good sized shrub to replace the old one is a bit of an investment.  Weather and higher fuel prices are definitely reflected in shrub prices this spring.  I’ve felt a little bit of ‘sticker shock’ when looking at prices at area nurseries.

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These Viburnums show cold damage, even while still at a local nursery.

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And even if you buy a new shrub, it is likely to sustain damage during its adjustment time, if you live in deer country.  Shrubs fresh from the grower have been heavily fertilized to induce quick growth.  This extra nitrogen in the plant’s tissue tastes a little ‘salty’ to grazing deer, and makes the shrub that much more delicious and attractive to them.  It takes a year or so of growth before the tastiness of new shrubs seems to decline, and they are ignored by grazing deer.

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I’ve just watched a major investment in new holly trees get nibbled down nearly to the branches by deer in our area.  It is very discouraging, especially if your new shrub is replacing one damaged by winter’s weather!

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This Eucalyptus sometimes sprouts new leaves from its existing trunks in spring. Last winter it was killed back to its roots, but then grew about 6′ during the season.  I expect it to send up new growth from its roots by early May.

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All things considered, I am planning to give our woodies another six to eight weeks, and every possible chance, before declaring them and cutting them out.  It is the humane and sensible approach.  Even though the selection at garden centers this month is tempting, I will wait.

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The view this week at the top of our garden. Still looks rather wintery, doesn’t it?  The southern wax myrtles which normally screen our view, were hit hard by the cold, and a new flush of leaves have not yet opened.

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In this climate, it is generally better to plant in fall, anyway.  Fall planted shrubs get a good start in cooler weather, so their roots can grow and establish the plant in the surrounding soil before summer’s heat sets in.  The selection may be a little more sparse by October or November, but the prices are often better, as nurseries try to clear their stock before winter.

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This English holly, purchased last November, lived in a container over winter, and may be too far gone to save. I planted it out in the garden last month in hope it may recover….

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And of course, you might try propagating replacement shrubs yourself, from cuttings.  I have pretty good luck rooting hardwood cuttings over winter, or greenwood cuttings in spring and summer.  It isn’t hard to do, if you are willing to wait a few years for the shrub to grow to maturity.

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As with so many thing in the garden, it takes time and patience to achieve our goals.  They say that ‘time heals all things.’

That may not be true 100% of the time, but patience allows us to achieve many things that others may believe impossible!

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Our red buckeye tree was knocked back to the ground in a summer 2013 storm.  It lived and has grown to about 5′ high in the years since.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
Green Thumb Tip # 15: Conquer the Weeds!
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

2 responses to “Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time

  1. Winter was hard this year on all things in the garden. Some respond to spring sun and warmth while others have passed on.

  2. A lot of cold damage this year, sadly. Ah, well, prune on!

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