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Winter Damage: Can This Plant Be Saved?


We've been overwhelmed with questions about plants damaged by the wretched winter most of the country has suffered through. In fact, if I hear the words "Polar Vortex" one more time, I'm going to snap. (Or maybe I already did, back when that third ice storm in a row turned all our driveways into skating rinks and I did an unassisted Triple Lutz…) Anyway…

Q: Here in the midsouth we have experienced less snow and ice than you folks in PA, but just as frigid temperatures; some in the single digits. I planted garlic cloves in October; as always, about an inch and a half deep. In the past this has worked very well. But this year the tops have died back, leaving just a little bit of green above ground. Are they going to produce, or do I need to plant some more as soon as the ground softens?"

---Charlie in Nashville

A: Although some sources will tell you otherwise, I would only ever plant garlic in the Fall, Charlie. And no matter what kind of winter you typically have, your plantings are as shallow as I am! You should always place the bottom of the clove about six inches below the soil line so that the bulbs have lots of room to grow fat and happy.

Now, I have had these kinds of winters before and my garlic has always survived. With any luck, yours will perk up in the Spring. (We're all a little browned out at this point in the winter.). If you want to do something safe to help the plants, spread an inch of compost overtop—to kind of imitate a deeper planting and to provide a gentle feeding when the soil thaws. (And to continue my streak of answering every question with 'compost'.)

Q. An especially harsh winter storm damaged many trees on our property, and a wild cherry limb completely crushed my well-established blueberry bushes. They were four to five feet tall, have been on the property for over 30 years, still produce well and require little care. Can these bushes be saved? The limb, about 12 inches in diameter, is not completely detached from the tree; but with so many other trees affected, this one is not a priority to remove, especially while we still have so much snow and ice on the ground. We do most of our own tree work. Once we can get the limb off, what is the next step? Do we prune the bushes now to cut out the damaged branches? Do we just wait and see what happens in the spring? Will spring ever come???

---Jennifer in Malvern, PA

A: Absolutely! Spring will arrive on the 20th of March this year, no matter what. It may be snowing, sleeting, icing and still trying to kill us on that date, but it will arrive.

Now, damaged tree branches should always be removed as quickly as possible, for the health of the remaining tree. So if you've got as much damage as it sounds, this may be a situation where some hired help is necessary—especially if it insures repairing damage to savable trees while we're still in the dormant period, when trees can handle the most severe pruning. And if I had great old blueberry bushes that had a huge branch crushing them, I'd make it a super #1 priority to carve it up and get it out of there before I did anything else—again to seize the benefit of dormancy, which the blueberries are also in.

But no immediate pruning of the actual blueberries; just get that big limb off and leave the poor things alone until they start to green up in the Spring. Plants that big and old are going to have a lot of inherent energy in their root systems and I suspect that none of them are really most sincerely dead. Start to prune away all of the dead and severely damaged parts after what's still alive has made itself obvious. Then give them a good inch of milled peat moss to reacidify their soil, and then cover the peat moss with an inch of compost to give them a gentle feeding. (And to keep my streak alive.)

The damaged bushes might not be able to put on much fruit this summer, but they may well produce more than average in the years to come from this accidental 'rejuvenation hard pruning'.

And finally, here's someone searching for a Silver Lining:

Q: Does this stretch of zero temps and heavy snow cover mean fewer insect pests this summer?

----Joe in Hagerstown, MD

A: I expect so, Joe. Mosquitoes, for instance, overwinter in the adult stage and do best in warm winters; this miserable one should cut their numbers severely. (Especially if people set out traps for the few that do survive; just treat standing water with BTI granules instead of dumping it. That way, the few female mosquitoes that do make it will lay their eggs in water that won't allow new adults to emerge.)

And the wooly adelgid—the white, furry aphid that's been decimating hemlocks—requires warm winters to thrive. That makes our otherwise-wretched weather DOUBLE good news for the hemlocks, as they suffer when winter doesn't get cold enough, and were on their last legs in many parts of the country following this recent stretch of warm ones. The weather that has made us so miserable may well have given this entire species a second chance.

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