Sitting on my back deck each evening, I ponder the amount of brown in my garden. Are my yews ever going to green up or am I going to have to take a hedge trimmer to the front half of the entire row? And how could my supposedly invincible Rugosa roses be half dead?
I know fellow gardeners are lamenting the same look: Everywhere I drive, the evergreens are brown, and woody plants like roses and spiraea just twigs.
Kathy Zuzek, a horticulture extension educator with the University of Minnesota, explained that the long, cold winter sucked the moisture out of evergreen needles to the point that roots couldn’t replace it. “Winter burn turned them crispy,” she says. Add in plant stress caused by last year’s drought, and we have one of the worst years for brown in our gardens.
By now, Kathy says, anything that hasn’t budded or leafed out is probably dead. But before you get the shovel out, scratch the stem: If you see green or white, there is hope; brown, there is none—dig it up.
Our evergreens are showing a lot of winter burn. “Usually, we see it on the south or west sides of plants, but this year entire plants up and died,” she says. Check yours. “If only the needles are affected, the stems and buds on the stems will sprout and cover up the damage,” Kathy says. “If the stems and buds are dead, prune out the winter injury back to just above the first live bud or side branch.” Those should grow and fill in the damaged section.
The only solution to the damaged roses and other woody plants is shears. “Prune winter-injured stems back to the first live side branch or bud. If the entire canopy has died (as some roses did this winter), remove all branches to the ground and, if the plant was not entirely killed, new canes will grow from the crown,” she says.
To make sure your garden buds green next spring, follow Kathy’s suggestions:
- Plant cultivars and species hardy in your Zone.
- Water, water, water—right up until the ground freezes.
- Protect woody plants by wrapping them in burlap or shielding them from the sun and wind with a board or something similar.
- Maintain 3 to 4 inches of mulch to help retain soil moisture throughout the growing season. As this mulch breaks down, it will also improve your soil's moisture holding capacity.
- Skip fall pruning to avoid promoting growth that doesn’t have time to harden.
- Avoid planting evergreens on the south or southwest sides of buildings or in any site with high exposure to winter sun and wind.
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