The Bad News

DSC_9332Every warmer day, there are new signs of the damage sustained in the landscape from our once in better than a lifetime winter.  The news is discouraging.  Any gardener who has zone 5 or 6 plants in their landscape is feeling the side effects of a zone 3 or 4 winter. I do not know the cultivar of pine in this neighborhood garden, but I am quite sure these trees are bone dead.  I was a long ways away, but a close inspection was unnecessary.  That saturated orange brown color on every needle but for the very bottom branches-very bad news.

DSC_9403Our past winter was a once in 130 year event.  Record cold. Record snow. The ice on the Great Lakes-3 feet thick.  The ice on the Great Lakes are still 40% covered with ice.  Some say it will be well into June before all that ice melts.  Chilly is the prediction for our immediate future.   This specialty and marginally hardy spruce grew and prospered in this client’s garden, for going on thirty years.  This past winter proved too be too cold.  Just too cold.  No one could have foreseen a winter like this, nor could this spruce have been protected.  Unless you are older than 130 years, this is this first time you have seen a winter this fierce.

bamboo.jpgLike other stands of mature bamboo I have seen this spring, the culms and leaves are dead.  It is impossible to predict yet if the roots survived.  Time will tell.  We have had a very long period of mild winters.  That length of time was long enough to tempt gardeners to push the limits.  My magnolia stellata bloomed today.  The flowers are small, and look like wet kleenex.  Not that I am complaining.  I am shocked it is blooming at all.  Planting magnolias in a northern zone is a leap of faith.  A story about hope. Our winter was very rough, and every gardener in my zone is being educated daily about how that winter is intruding on our spring.

alberta-spruce.jpgI have not seen a single Alberta spruce untouched by the winter.  Every neighborhood I have visited has alberta spruce burned on the south side.  Some very exposed locations show burn all around.  Fierce burn.

winter-burn.jpgMany landscapes show damage which is hard to understand.  Some plants are untouched.  Others are burned all over.  Others are burned in specific spots.  Some have been killed outright.  Do I have a simple and swift explanation-not really.  Some species of plants that are marginally hardy in our area-many of these are in the killed outright list. Do I have zone 5 and 6 plants in my landscape-yes.  A once in 130 year winter cycle would not prevent any gardener from testing the limits.  The fact is, my 20 year old  garden is but a short intermission in the bigger scheme of things.  This spring is making me realize that nature bats both first and last.  There is no negotiating once a winter tests the limits of cold hardiness..  Too cold is simply too cold.  No zone 6 specialty conifer could not have fared well this past winter.  I have no easy and simple answers.

winter-damage-on-boxwood.jpgI love boxwood as much as the next gardener.  Every Green Velvet boxwood in my garden at home is unscathed by this past winter.  They are green and good to go.  This boxwood hedge in a neighborhood garden south of me did not fare so well.  The cause of the damage?  Salt spray generated by cars driving by at a brisk speed is a toxic bath that can damage boxwood.  Extremely low temperatures can test boxwood cultivars intended for warmer zones.  Exposed plantings of boxwood were bleached by sun reflected off of deep snow.  A boxwood that went into the winter dry can be severely damaged by cold winter winds. Evergreens need to be well watered in the fall.  They cannot absorb water from the roots once the ground freezes.  Water evaporates quickly from evergreen leaves given cold temperatures, wind and sun.  The damage on this hedge is hard to pinpoint. How that damage should be handled-it is too early to tell.

winter-burn-on-boxwood.jpgBoxwood is a broad leaved evergreen.  It needs to be well watered and juicy before winter.  Once the soil freezes, no boxwood can access the water it needs to keep the leaves juicy and green.  The water available at the root is turned off.  Strong winter winds makes the water in the leaves evaporate at an alarming rate.  An evergreen cannot replace the water it looses by evaporation over the winter.  What that leaf has to sustain it in November will have to do for the rest of the winter.  An evaporation rate that exceeds the store of moisture means leaves will dry out and die.

damaged-boxwood.jpgThe boxwood leaves on the interior of the shrub, protected from salt winter wind and sun scald may survive the toughest winter.  The damage I see on the boxwood at the shop makes me want to rush out there with my pruners. Notwithstanding my instinct to remove any sign of damage, I will wait.  Viable branches that have lost their leaves will releaf, given some time. Boxwood damaged by repeated soaking in road salt may not recover. Marginally hardy varieties of boxwood may be dead from the cold.  Hicks yews are not so wonderfully hardy.  Yews pruned after August show striking signs of damage.   I am inclined to wait and see how all of my plants will respond.  Plants have a will to live.  I would advise giving them the room they need to recover.

boxwood-damage.jpgA sick and challenged plant needs time to sort out the insult and injury on their own.  This is my opinion.  This spring following a once in a century winter-what do I know what will be?  I do know this section of boxwood has been struggling with fungus for 4 years.  An extraordinarily bad winter may have done them in.

winter-kill.jpgI have a plan to grieve privately about the damage to my beloved boxwood hedge, and wait.  I know I need to wait for the plants to respond.  Once they respond to warmer weather, I will know what to do.  It is not clear yet what is lost, and what is burned, and needs pruning.  Having never experienced a winter like this before, the last thing I want to do is interfere with the natural order of things.  If you are as passionate a gardener as I am, the waiting will be horticultural hell.  But all of us would go to hell and back for a garden, wouldn’t we?

A Rude Awakening

February 11, 2014 (18)Our winter, which shows not one sign of abating, has been our snowiest and coldest for 20 years.  My landscape has rarely been subject to temperatures below zero – never the extreme below zero numbers that have been routine this winter.  A worst case winter like this is bound to have consequences.  I fear the spring may not only be an awakening, but could well be a rude awakening.  Have I planted marginally hardy species in my garden?  Yes.  Magnolias and dogwoods are somewhat marginal here.  Other trees common to my area, as in redbuds, London Plane trees, sweet gums (liquidambar), and even tulip trees are very sensitive to extreme cold.  Many specialty evergreens that thrive in the Pacific northwest that have been planted in my zone may not fare so well.  I have already seen many Alberta spruce with substantial cold burn. I know of several long established sweet gums who routinely have crown dieback in a middling cold winter. What will happen to them this year?  Furthermore, years of reasonable winter temperatures have encouraged me to try plants that are on the edge of my hardiness zone.  This has worked for many years.  This year, I may be in for a little course correction.

snowy landscapeI am not a worst case alarmist. It could entirely be that I will see little damage.  But professional growers I have known for years are concerned about what our spring will bring.   I have magnolias which are definitely a zone 5, and maybe a zone 6. For 18 years, those trees have done better than survive.  But weather cycles are much longer than my gardening lifetime, and the lifetime so far of my landscape.  I am quite sure there is not a single plant in my yard which is 100 years old or better.  Bob Schutski, professor of horticulture at Michigan State and well known lecturer in landscape practices, predicts we will have no magnolia flowers this spring.  Ouch.  I hear of peach growers in Michigan talking about total crop loss.  My gardening friend Michael whose barn is pictures above-his mountains of snow may be the least of his worries.  He has trees and mature shrubs missing their bark above the snow line.

mature quinceThis picture from his garden is from a mature quince.  Every branch which above his current snow line has no bark.  The 6 feet of snow we have had so far this winter means that there is little winter food for wildlife.  This damage is most certainly the result of gnawing from hungry rabbits.  Though the extreme cold will take its toll, the deep snow meant the bark of this quince would become rabbit food. A shrub or tree stripped of its bark can no longer sustain the life of that limb.

girdled treeThe damage to the landscape may not be apparent until the snow has melted, revealing disaster like what is pictured above.  Deep snow means wildlife are struggling to find food.   Deep snow can be damaging in other ways.  When the sun moves higher in the sky, the light reflecting off of the snow can thaw evergreen branches.  An evergreen branch brought out of dormancy by the reflected light and heat of the winter sun can burn, or die, once temperatures drop dramatically at night.  Tree bark that warms during a sunny day, and then refreezes at a rapid rate may produce sunscald.  Most frequent on the south side of a tree, sun scald can kill the inner bark.  Winter burn, sun scald, frost cracks-these are all conditions brought on by an extraordinary confluence of  extreme cold, extreme snow and sun. Rabbit damage copy.previewFrost cracks, or vertical splits in tree bark from extremely low temperatures, can damage a tree.  These splits, though they may heal, are an ideal point of entry for disease and insects. No gardener has any control over any of this.  A friend in Chicago has written that she sees frost cracks on London Plane trees now.  Circumstances beyond one’s control are never easy to take, but some understanding can help relieve the shock.  I have been thinking when spring comes, all will be well in my world.  In fact, five weeks hence, I may have issues in my landscape that are not to my liking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt least I have no deer.  My very populated urban area is not a habitat of choice.  Were I to walk to my rose garden once the snow had melted, the sight of my arborvitae denuded by hungry deer might make me black out. This gardener whose plants are pictured above-I cannot imagine their anguish.  I have had severe damage to my arborvitaes from ice and wind that weighed down and splayed out long branches.  Though they have all been professionally staked by an arborist, they have not completely grown out of the damage which dates back six years.

winter light 4Our winter is not even close to a close.  Am I beat down to the ground by the incredibly cold temperatures and relentless snow-yes.  So far today we have had high winds, hail, and freezing rain.  Though there is nothing I could have done to protect my plants from exposure to any of this, as usual, I have hope.