50 Shades of Brown
GARDENERS ARE TALKING to each other about that cold blast that we experienced around the Christmas holidays. Our weather had been so mild that our plants were not feeling dormant at all. I was seeing plants with soft, relaxed growth even putting on new buds. My semi-tropical plants like Cuban Gold duranta were still gold and beautiful, we had decided not to cut that back until after our visitors at Christmas had seen the yard. Our geraniums in giant pots had even passed the test, they are always good for a background of a picture.
Usually by this time of year we’ve had enough cold weather to cause most everything to go dormant for winter. The combination of the soft, warm growth on the plants, the 50 degree drop in temperatures overnight and the lack of frozen precipitation on the leaves to insulate from the bitter cold is a recipe for disaster. We’ve had some long, cold temperatures in Jackson but rarely without snow or ice. We get damage from those ice events but not as far reaching as this blister.
I’m seeing plants turning browner every day that I would have thought would never show signs of burning from cold. The day that the intense cold released its grip and we could walk around the yard I really had myself believing that we may have come out alright. Driving around town looking for damage things looked ok at first. The next day I began to notice a different hue in what would normally be dark green on my sasanquas, Confederate jasmine, ligustrums, distyliums and some other traditionally tough plants were turning a dull green. The next day they had all turned a little more golden brown and some other plants like my bamboos had changed into a wheat brown, My evergreen wisteria is now "ever brown" wisteria and our sunshine ligustrums are now sunset ligustrums.
I have never seen our 20 year old azaleas get affected by cold weather. They are now a new brown color that reminds me of coffee. The tops of my yews are singed, luckily they are mostly unaffected. I would imagine that the azalea buds that were beginning to fatten up are probably not going to fare very well. Some varieties of azaleas that bloom later than others will probably still get to show their blooms.
A lot of the long term effects of this past cold blast will depend on a lot of things like placement in the yard, having something between the plant and north like another plant or a wall or a courtyard, how much new growth the plant had on it at that time and how much sunlight the plant gets during the thaw. I don’t know what anyone could do to protect such a wide range of plants that got damaged. We just picked and chose a few things that we really cared about and thought even stood a chance.
We dolluped a few of our favorite potted plants into the garage but it felt just as cold in there as it did outside. We tried to cover up some freshly planted bedding plants at Mimi's mom's house. Once the wind picked up so fast that night that it dropped so fast we realized there wasn’t much hope the cotton sheets would stay. I have done more harm than good trying to cover plants just from the wind whipping the material on the plants so hard. Frost cloth is the very best way to cover things, bed sheets are the next best thing. Plastic is the worst way to cover plants because the plastic sheets get so cold on both sides and plastic can do some real damage when the wind is whipping.
I know what it feels like to get caught with your pants down when you realize too late that the cold front is upon us, even though the weather man has been trying to warn us for days prior. I’ve used anything on hand to do the best I could to protect things just so Mimi wouldn’t know how unprepared I was, that’s kind of my job around here. To cut down on stink eye moments I went ahead and invested in rolls and rolls of frost cloth and have put them around the yard in strategic places so they can be whooped out when the time comes then I store them in the barn for next winter. We decided this time to let nature take its course and see what happens.
NORMALLY A PLANT would ease into winter by now they would have drawn more water into their roots and increased the concentration of sugars in the leaves which act as antifreeze for evergreens, this helps to keep ice crystals from forming inside of plant cells. Since our plants didn’t have time to react the water in the plants cells froze and caused ice crystals. Ice crystals are pointed and sharp and since water expands as it freezes they push outward and puncture the cell walls as they go. Enough cell damage brings tissue damage which leads to plant damage or even death. Usually just the leaves show damage but in a drop like the one we got the damage might be visible in the stems. It may take months until we really see the extent of the damage.
I believe that patience is going to be our best friend right now. I’m not going to prune anything just yet, remember we likely have some more serious cold coming so we sure don’t want to promote any new growth and I have always used the damage on the plants as the plants own cover for the next freeze. It’s not pretty but sitting
tight is best right now.
If you had some perennials you were holding back on pruning it’s definitely ok to go ahead and clean them up but the woody stuff I’m going to wait. Some of the deciduous trees, especially thin barked ones like crepe myrtles and maples may not show their damage until much later in spring and sometimes not until a year from now. I really believe that most all of these brown hues are going to fall off, looking terrible, then I think most woodies are going to leaf back out late in spring, like in May so don’t get down about your brown yard just yet.
Mimi and I are trying to look at this as a learning moment. The plants will either leaf back out or we will have some replacing to do which will give us an opportunity to freshen up some soil and redesign some areas where need be. Some years I don’t cut my liriope back, some years I don’t cut my evergreen wisteria back. This year the decisions like that have been made for me. I think it will be a nice, clean start to the spring time but we are going to wait until the last minute to do all that.
The regular winter pruning date of February 5th remains the same. Roses, crepe myrtles and all the regulars will still get their big cut backs. I’m just going to stay away from all those other plants that don’t normally get pruned until spring. I’m going to leave my azaleas alone until deep into May so I can see what we got.
Many a sad poems have been written about the weather woes of gardeners. We like to put things right out there in Mother Nature's playground. We shouldn’t get too surprised when she decides to shake things up a little bit. This is just another part of gardening that reminds us who’s really in charge here as much as we like to think it’s us. For now the color of the day is brown, take some pictures so you can look back on your yard in June and realize that sometimes we worry too much about things that usually work themselves out in the end.