Wait until spring to prune winter-damaged plants Home and garden
With the recent freezing temperatures across Louisiana and a dose of ice, sleet and even snow in some places, all of our gardens may have suffered some damage. It’s tempting to rush outside to trim off unsightly damaged parts or even uproot entire plants, but you’ll get better results in the long run if you just wait.
Give the plants time to recover. What seems dead now may show new signs of life later. Also remember that winter is not over yet. We could still get more freezes – and more freeze damage.
Spring will be here soon enough. This would be the best time to prune plants that need a little help and remove those that didn’t make it.
In the meantime, you can begin to assess the extent of the damage in your landscape. Start thinking about what will need attention in the spring and come up with ideas for potential alternatives. Also note plants that have demonstrated their ability to withstand freezing. You may want to incorporate more of these hardy plants into your garden to boost their overall strength.
Much of the freeze damage you’re seeing now is likely on what we call tender plants — those that die in freezing winter temperatures. In mild winters, as is often the case in Louisiana, these plants are often able to survive. But because the severity of our winters can vary — as we’ve seen recently — they are at risk in other years. Herbaceous, tropical and subtropical plants fall into this category.
Hardy plants are those that can survive typical winter temperatures without needing protection. Most trees, shrubs and other woody plants are hardy in freezing temperatures and typically do not suffer from freezing temperatures. Most perennials are root hardy, meaning they will die but will come back from their roots, crown, or other underground parts such as bulbs or tubers.
Use the USDA Hardiness Zone Maps to help you determine which plants will work best in your landscape. A plant is considered hardy if it can tolerate temperatures lower than those your area typically tolerates.
It’s not a bad idea to choose plants that are hardy in at least one area north of your garden. This way, if an unusually cold winter occurs, your plants can survive it. So, when choosing plants that are hardy for your zone 9 landscape, make sure they are hardy to zone 8. If you live in zone 8, choose plants that are hardy to zone 7.
Growing plants that are not well suited to your area’s climate can sometimes be possible if you take advantage of the concept of microclimates. Microclimate refers to a specific area on a property where the climate deviates from the general climate of that property. For example, a location adjacent to the south-facing wall of a house will be warmer than other areas of the yard. Using this knowledge, you can successfully grow a plant in that specific microclimate even if it is considered somewhat delicate for the region.
Now, let’s get back to what we should – and shouldn’t – do in our gardens during the remainder of the winter.
Make sure your plants are well hydrated. Water the dry soil to provide essential moisture, which also helps insulate the roots. However, avoid over-watering. Waterlogged soil can lead to root rot. Many plants are dormant or slow-growing in the winter months and do not need as much water.
If you can’t stand the sight of damaged and dead foliage and branches, be sure to prune them with sharp, clean pruning shears. Again, we recommend waiting until spring to cut back healthy, living tissue. Why? Pruning will encourage the plant to redirect resources to its viable parts and stimulate new growth. The tender new growth will be sensitive to the lower temperatures that come this winter, leaving your plant vulnerable to further damage.
Stop fertilizing too. Wait until the growing season resumes and signs of recovery appear. Early fertilization can stress the plant, hindering its ability to bounce back.
Ice on tree branches.
Frozen ice on willow oak. Woody plants do not suffer much from ice or freezing temperatures. Photo by Heather Kirk Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Green plant with snow on it.
Sensitive plants such as tropical plants will suffer from freezing temperatures. Wait to prune until spring when all danger of freezing has passed. Photo by Heather Kirk Ballard/LSU AgCenter