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Phyllis Both color for BNR

Phyllis Both

“Even though February is the shortest month of the year, sometimes it seems like the longest.” — J.D. Robb

A problem we may have in our gardens next spring may be exacerbated by our unusual winter weather. If evergreens were not watered enough last fall and we have no snow cover when we had bitter cold temperatures, evergreens, some zone 5 plants, and tender shrubs will have winter burn and die. Even if we get a substantial snow cover now the damage is already done.

All is not lost if you properly care for the plant in the spring. Assessment of the injury is the first project. Most damage does not show up until spring. It is tempting to prune dead twigs and branches at the time of injury but excessive pruning during the winter when the plant’s vigor is low can cause more harm than good. Sometimes time will prove that the damage was not too deep and the plant will recover with good care.

Look at all the plants that have winter damage and remind yourself to wrap them in burlap next winter. This protects from drying winds and extreme frosts. There are other reasons that can wreak havoc on our plants during the winter. Frozen soil prevents roots from taking up water. A mid-winter thaw can “fool” plants into breaking dormancy too early. The next cold snap may kill tender new growth. Freeze and thaw cycles can even heave plants out of the ground.

Bright winter sun heats up dark tree bark, which can freeze, and crack when temperatures drop quickly. This is one of the most common occurrences for which I get phone calls. Last, but not least, is the damage that deer, mice, rabbits and other animals do by gnawing on the bark of young trees. Although heavy, wet, snow can damage branches, never knock it off but shake them gently.

A few suggestions to help your plants survive next winter are to not prune shrubs, roses, or evergreens after mid-summer as pruning stimulates new growth and delays dormancy; stop fertilizing plants six weeks before the first hard frost in the fall, around Oct. 1-15; and water plants until the ground freezes and make sure the water penetrates 12-18 inches deep to reach the root zone.

Contact Phyllis Both by email at or by telephone on Monday mornings at the Sauk County University of Wisconsin-Extension office, 608-355-3253.