Cleaning Up The Garden After Winter Damage

Our gardens have had a rough time this winter in Vancouver. Lower than normal temperatures and a succession of snow storms has given lots of plants a real battering. But before you rush to dig out plants and throw them in the compost bin, here’s a few tips on how to revive winter damaged plants.

  1. Do the scratch test

First of all, you need to know if your plant is dead or alive. The easiest way to do this is to scratch the bark with your thumbnail. If the stem is still green under the bark, the plant is still alive. If it is brown, it is most likely dead. You can also dig into the main trunk at the base of the trunk or roots of the plant. If the roots or main trunk are soft or rotting, the plant is most likely to be dead.

2. Be patient

If you are still not sure after doing to scratch test above, be patient and give the plant some time. Plants often look very rough (with scorched, browned or drooping leaves directly after harsh weather) but they will bounce back given the chance. Often the plant has dormant leave buds that will open when the temperature warms up and the hours of sunlight increase. So even if a plant has dropped a lot of leaves or just looks rough, give it a chance to bounce back before digging it out.

3. Prune out damaged branches

Once the winter weather has passed, get out and prune the damaged plant. Broken branches should be pruned back to just above an undamaged live bud (you will know a bud is alive by cutting into a branch/stem until the wood is green and not brown, just like the scratch test above). The best time to do this pruning is when the new growth starts to appear in spring (and when the last of the harsh weather has passed). Depending on the amount of damage, you may need to give the plant a really hard prune, removing one-third or even half of the damaged plant. The plant should always be pruned to below the point damaged or a large split on a branch.

Brown leaves may be caused by sun or wind damage. These leaves can be removed by hand or with pruners in mid spring (don’t remove them earlier as these older leaves may be protecting the new growth underneath; provide them with some protection until the temperatures have increased in spring).

Here’s a good video of a gardener pruning Boxwood after winter damage. 

4. Tie up trees/shrubs

Snow and ice can weigh down the branches of trees and shrubs , causing the plant to splay open. It is important to get out and tie or stake these branches before the plant comes out of dormancy. Once the sap starts flowing, you may cause more damage. As soon as the snow or ice has passed, get out and give the plant additional support with ties or stakes.

Here’s a short video of a cedar that is going to be tied after winter damage.

4. Replant exposed roots

Sometimes the weight of snow and ice on branches can cause a plant to topple over and leave some of its roots hanging out of the soil. If one third of the roots are still in the ground, replant the plant as soon as ground has thawed. Depending on the size of the plant, you may need to use three stakes to provide support. Remember that the roots are what anchors or hold a plant in the ground. If the roots on one or both sides of the plant are damaged, you will need to compensate by providing additional support on the side where the roots have been damaged. If less than a third of the roots on a large shrub or tree are still in the ground, it will need significant staking or it may be safer to remove it. If not sure of a tree’s safety, consult an arborist.

Sometimes small, shallow-rooted plants (typically small shrubs or perennials) can be pushed out of the ground by extended periods of frost. If this happens, dig a new hole and replant as soon as possible.

5. Give plants a helping hand

If a plant has had a rough time of it during the winter, give it the best chance to recuperate by applying a general purpose fertilizer when the ground has thawed. This will encourage strong regrowth on the plant.


Want to learn more?

Listen to Brian Minter talking about fixing winter damage to plants, on BC Almanac in February 2017.

Read some useful information on dealing with frost damage, from the Royal Horticultural Society

Watch this video of a gardener giving a frost damaged shrub a hard prune in spring. 


Want some help in your garden after the winter damage? Contact us at Growing in the Garden.





This entry was posted in Clean-up, Spring, Winter Gardening and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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