Dealing with Winter Kill

Eric Chamberlain of Chamberlain Landscaping was the speaker at the Feb. meeting. His subject was getting your plants through the winter and doing repair work on damaged trees and shrubs in the spring.  For those who missed the meeting he made the point that the major consideration for successfully overwintering plants is to choose the right plant for the right spot. Plants that are marginally hardy for an area may make it through the winter but they will limp along, perhaps recovering somewhat in the summer, but will eventually succumb to the damage incurred in the colder winters. This can go on for years until they finally give up or the gardener, tired of constantly coddling them, digs them out.

The same is true of the proper placement of plants. Putting plants that require good drainage in heavy soil or areas where water tends to stand will eventually cause severe winter root damage. Again, these may survive for several winters but eventually they will encounter a winter where the ground doesn’t freeze or freezes and thaws and they will not reappear in the spring.

The proper use of fertilizer is also important. Plants going into dormancy should never be fertilized. Slow release fertilizers are fine in the spring, as they are used up by fall. As the season progresses switching to fast release fertilizers will protect plants going into winter. Always make sure that the fertilizer goes on the ground and not on the plant. This will prevent burning. Remember that excess fertilizer will burn a plant especially when it is young.

If plants are winter burned all of the dead wood should be pruned out in the spring. This will encourage new growth. If this means taking bushes down to ground level it is generally safe to do so. The bush will grow back, although in some cases blooming will not occur if the plant forms flower buds in the fall. Weak and upright growing limbs should be removed from trees so that winter snow or abundant fruit crops will not cause splitting. Branches that cross should be removed as the rubbing that ensues when the branches move in the wind will cause damage to the bark and a subsequent entry for disease organisms. Follow the 3 D’s in pruning. Remove all dead, damaged or diseased wood and then proceed to shape the tree for structural strength. Once the 3 D’s have been accomplished there is ordinarily little pruning to be done.

If snow load tends to be heavy in your area tying up plants may help to keep them from being crushed. Mulching is helpful with some plants, but it is to be remembered that the purpose of mulch is to keep the ground frozen rather than to keep it warm. All mulching should be done after the ground freezes. If plants tend to become desiccated from drying winds covering them with burlap or other winter protectors may help. Remember that the right plant for the right place will eliminate most problems with winter kill.