Plant triage after a wild winter

Winter damage control

This winter has been tough on gardens- unlike something we’ve seen in a decade or more. Ice/Snow/wind have wrought havoc and I know of more than one gardener that is dreading the details when they go outside. Its important to note that many years can pass between large snow/ice events and those benign years can leave our trees and shrubs vulnerable. If it happened every year they would be better adapted.  I’m kind of a weather/plant nut. I’m obsessed with how weather interacts with plants. That is to say I’m not just fascinated by cold hardiness but I really am curious about which plants stand up best to the elements, all the elements. As a nursery owner, grower, and gardener for a LONG time in Oregon here are some things to look at and some ways to fix what winter 16’/17′ has wrought.

I wanna rock. ROCK!

That foot of heavy wet snow that fell on January 10, and then stayed around for a week was the icing on an already icy trio of storms. The snow came down fast and heavy and it started above freezing and then slipped below. That means the snow stuck to every conceivable stem, leaf, and twig. It was beautiful- for the first hour.  Then reality set in- our gardens were flattened.  In the following weeks many plants have rebounded. After an event like this I always have to tell myself to be patient. Elasticity is built into many plants and if you give it time then you will likely see a return to their former stature. Aside from broken branches  what is most likely to happen is that plants that have been tackled by jack frost will then rock. The entire plant has been loosened from the soil and has lost stability.   Thats not good. This instability can tear the roots and result in a permanently compromised plant.  To correct this first gently move the plant back to its upright position. Gently, you don’t want to tear the roots. Then, looking at the base of the plant notice any displaced soil. Firmly and gently use your foot to depress the soil to regain stability.   Some plants that are prone to this are fast growing like Arctostaphylos, Grevillea, Ceanothus, Daphne, Buddleia- and just about any newly installed plant. Once the plant is upright then find a large, heavy rock (good rocks are the friend of gardeners) and place the rock over the weakest side of the rootball. This will provide an anchor and deter further movement.

Our gardens were flattened. My Olive looked awful but regained its full stature.

Plant bondage

To further secure a shrub or tree you  may have to resort to staking. And it doesn’t have to be permanent. Often it will only be necessary through one growing season. Ideally your staking material should be as strong as possible. For this I use rebar which can be purchased in 4′ foot and longer construction lengths at home repair stores. Rebar is strong, doesn’t rot ( like bamboo or wood) and you can reuse it indefinitely. Best of all its relatively inconspicuous hidden in the center of a plant.  The best way to adhere the plant to the bar is to use generous lengths of garden velcro. If you don’t have it you must get some-its magical stuff. It allows the plant to grow without girdling the stems and you can easily re-adhere it to accommodate growth. Even better it lasts a long time and is re-useable. Make sure that the plant is back to its upright state and pick a strong stem that is near the base and then work your way up.  Adhere the trunk to the rebar which should be anchored strongly in the soil. In time- usually one growing season is sufficient, true stability is achieved and out comes the bar.

Weight loss for plants

If the plant still wants to rock more intense first aid may be required. Many plants that were top heavy prior to the snow load were completely knocked to the ground. I had shrubs, even trees that were prostrate under the snow for a long duration. If the plant does not want to become as vertical even as you’ve followed the above procedure  you can correct this by some selective and judicious pruning. Think carefully. Don’t go crazy and shear the whole shrub or tree, instead take note of the growth the plant can do without. Most often it is growth from the previous season. Carefully cut out the top heavy branches. Think of this as sculpting the plant- and you are relieving the plant of weight to achieve a balance that ensures stability.  Be thoughtful as you remove material until you come into a size that the plant can stand up on its own. You are helping the plant to recover- remember that the green material on the plant exerts the most weight- you will likely not have to prune into leafless wood unless it is unavoidable. You may even not need to remove more than one or two branches.  Make your cuts with a sharp pruner and make them firm and deliberate. No wimpy cuts that tear. For branches that are broken make sure to make a clean cut BELOW the break. It may make you wince but often this kind of damage results in spontaneous growth. Its natures way of repairing damage. Take heart.

Tree inspection time.

After repeated bouts of freezing rain and snow I always take a moment to go around and inspect every one of my trees and even the neighbors if they are relevant to my garden. If you spot broken limbs look carefully at the wound. Did the broken branch snap cleanly (this is rare) or did it tear part of the tree bark along with it. You may need to go in and do some surgery. If possible cut the torn branch or whats left of it cleanly so the wound is contained. If it requires major surgery the city is full of talented tree people who you can hire to do the repairs. What you don’t want is a wound that becomes larger or can leave the tree open to infection by disease, rot or insects. Be aware of dead cling-on branches. They are branches that have broken but do not detach. They hang conspicuously in the crowns of trees.  Plums, Oregon White Oak, Callery Pears and many other deciduous trees are prone to this. If its unreachable, again call the tree guys. These are dangerous because they can detach at any time and some of the branches that are suspended can weigh a lot and cause damage when they fall. Including damage to the gardener. Look for limbs that appear out of place- the heavy and long duration of snow and ice put extreme pressure on every limb and there can stress fractures that are not immediately evident.  If you don’t spot this immediately it usually becomes apparent in the growing season by a part of the tree that is lack luster. The real evidence comes in autumn where a weakened part of a deciduous tree will often display fall color weeks in advance of the rest of the tree. That part of the tree has been compromised and is at risk. Keep an eye on that part of tree.

Garden round up

If you incurred a lot of damage in your garden the best advice is that time heals most wounds. Go around your garden and check for rocking plants. Give them a firm wiggle and stomp at the base to make sure they are secure in their given spot. I’ve chosen to keep this blog post short  so as not to overwhelm gardeners with too many tasks. Stay tuned and my next discussion will be on damage from cold and how to manage that. We’ve moved our opening date at Xera to Saturday, February 11. We have a LOT of new plants this year that we are excited to share with PNW gardeners.



Plant triage after a wild winter

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