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After winter storms and cold spells strike, we head out to look at the garden to assess what has survived and determine how to go about recovering from potential damage.

Ice storms and snowstorms are becoming increasingly common and have left Pacific Northwest gardeners shaking our heads in dismay as cold temperatures jeopardize tender new plantings and delicate blossoms. So far, a message from a customer put it best when she asked if she should “lop, prop, or chop” her storm-damaged plants.

While only time will tell whether the cold weather has done enough damage to impact this year’s flowering or fruit production, there are a few things that can be done for now as the snow melts and we return to normal temperatures.

Assessing Plants in Containers

If you moved potted plants indoors or to protected areas before the storm, they can be moved back to their normal locations as temperatures warm up to normal ranges. If they have been indoors for more than a week, they may be thirsty—be sure to water them after you return them to their positions.

If you did not protect your containers from freezing, you may find damaged plants or even a cracked pot. If roots of plants are exposed, protect what remains by repotting plants in a temporary container, or stop into our garden centers for a new outdoor pot.

If your containers are intact, make sure they are still able to drain. Pot feet or risers that keep the drain hole off the ground can help with drainage and may also prevent a container from cracking during extreme cold temperatures. In the future, purchase outdoor containers with extra thick walls, as they are most frost resistant.

Caring for Covered Plants

As the snow or ice melts, remove protective sheets and blankets so plants are exposed to sunlight. Look for any damaged or broken branches that need pruning and give them a clean cut right above a bud or leaf node.

Surveying Landscape Trees & Shrubs for Damage

As you begin your garden cleanup, keep an eye out for early spring bird nests and pollinator habitats—avoid disturbing these areas when found.

With the combined weight of snow and ice, plus pressure from the wind, trees and large shrubs often sustain the most winter damage. Do not try to repair all the damage yourself—if it requires a chainsaw and a ladder, it’s probably best left to the professionals.

Our skilled Residential Maintenance Crews are available to make targeted visits to your property for storm damage cleanup. If you find the need for an arborist for tall tree work, we recommend Collier Arbor Care, Halstead’s Arboriculture, or ArborPro Tree Experts.

If a limb or branch is broken or damaged and easy for you to handle, it should be pruned to a lateral branch or back to a healthy bud—use a folding saw or loppers if the branch diameter is larger than one half inch. Wound dressings and tree sealants are not recommended as they interfere with the natural healing process.

Resist the urge to prune more than what is obviously damaged now—when growth begins in spring, it will help you determine whether further pruning down to healthy new growth is needed.

If shrub or tree limbs are bent but not broken, the plant is best left alone—light pruning can be done later to correct the shape. If your bent plant is columnar like a sky pencil and the branches have all fallen away, they can be staked and tied to reestablish the correct shape once temperatures return to normal. If an arborvitae is bent completely in half, it may require professional pruning and tying to salvage the plant.

If trees and shrubs have fallen over without breaking, they can be replanted and staked, but this should be done within about three days of the original damage. The plant should be staked for temporary support and treated as a new planting.

When to Consider a Plant “Dead”

If you think a tree or part of a tree might be dead, scratch off a thin strip of bark with your fingernail. If it is light tan or green under the bark layer, it is still alive, but if it is dark brown or gray, that branch is most likely dead.

It is wise to wait until after our last average frost date (April 15th) to determine if a plant is likely to recover from a harsh winter. Some plants are still dormant and look pretty lifeless at this time, so waiting to see if they begin growing in spring is the easiest way to tell if they are still alive.

Caring for Plants After a Storm

One thing is certain—after such a roller-coaster of a winter, most of our plants will be extra hungry when they wake this Spring, so remember to fertilize as part of the recovery plan. All-purpose, organic fertilizers with beneficial microorganisms help energize plants with nutrients to sustain vigorous, new Spring growth. Adding a fresh layer of compost to your landscape beds now can help protect the soil along with perennial plants as they start to wake up in the Spring.

A favorite garden plant, the Hardy Fuchsia, is notoriously late to emerge in the Spring and often sustains some winter damage, but always grows new sprouts from its roots, recovering by mid-May. It is best to wait until the Fuchsia shows signs of growth to tell how far back to cut it each Spring. Another “late sleeper” is the Crepe Myrtle, often not leafing out until May. As more of us fall in love with this late-season tree/shrub, it is crucial that we understand how it grows… be sure to give it time this year—they are quite cold hardy!

The fate of many tender perennials (those hardy to Zones 8 and above)… well, let’s call those new vacancies in your garden “opportunities”. Perhaps you’ve had your eye on something that you wanted to try, but didn’t have room for, such as a winter-blooming Camellia, a Black Lace Elderberry, or a sunny bed of Dahlias for summer bouquets.

We Can Always Help

As you are managing storm recovery, remember that our garden center staff is here to answer questions. We will try our best to help you solve any problems and would love to make recommendations for replacements.

If your garden is feeling like an overwhelming mess from winter weather, reach out to us for expert advice and guidance, take advantage of our retail gardening services, or contact our Landscape Maintenance Team if you need assistance with debris removal and storm cleanup.

Winter may still be upon us, but we can all help each other weather the storms!

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