Evaluating winter damage on your trees and shrubs

This weekend might be one of your first opportunities to evaluate the plants in your yard. It was a long cold winter and many plants sustained damage and some even died. I have noticed evergreen trees and shrubs particularly hard hit by the cold.

Normally, if you plant evergreens in the fall they make it through the winter unharmed. This year, arborvitae that were fall planted sustained damage or succumbed entirely to the cold. Hollies and rhododendron also took quite a beating.

Before you replace your plants, be sure they are actually dead. I have some hollies which look brown and horrible, but they are not dead and will likely flush out new growth later this spring and summer. You can tell if a plant is dead by scratching a bit of the bark on a branch. If you notice it’s green beneath the outer bark, it’s likely going to eventually recover.


Another way to check the health of plant is to snap a small branch off the plant. If the twig breaks easily and is brittle, its likely dead. If you notice the branch bends without snapping it likely is alive.

One of the reasons for the winter dieback is our plants haven’t been exposed to such cold for over a decade. Many plants that have been put in the landscape the past 10 years haven’t been grown around this region. When you get plants from a local nursery, they are often grown in warmer climates often in parts of Ohio or the Carolinas. While the variety of plant might tell you its hardy, the plant itself could have trouble acclimating to our weather.

If you want to be on the safe side, I recommend only growing plants half a zone colder than your plant zone. I am in zone 6A/6B and in order to be safe, I should stick with zone 5B plants. Of course, this isn’t as much fun for me and I am willing to take the risk.

One last tip about winter damaged plants. Sometimes, the plant will begin growing back from the ground. If your plant was grafted on top of a hardier root the new plant will likely be different than what you bought. Many ornamental plants are grafted onto hardier rootstock. When the roots live, the new plant isn’t the same cultivar as what you bought. I have a great red leafed mimosa tree that sustained a lot of damage. I am noticing new growth from the root stock that is green. I might have lost the red leafed part of the plant, but I could choose to keep the new green one. At least I know it’s winter hardy.


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