If your garden looks like ours, it’s not a pleasing sight with which to welcome in 2021! The freeze that dipped coastal temperatures down below freezing overnight for 8-10 hours in late December has left a good portion of our landscape appearing brown, mushy and with a distinctly dead odor. Is there anything that needs to be done now to remedy the situation? Should the plants be pruned back to ground level? Should they be removed?
When asked, I have mentioned that one shouldn’t rush to any decisions or judgements until a bit of time has passed. Dead leaves and even dead stems don’t necessarily mean that the plant is completely dead or that it won’t recover as temperatures warm. Plants can surprise you. A lot depends on where you live and the conditions of the site and the health of the plant. Do you live inland or on a barrier island? Is the planting site in open area, under tree canopy cover or in a walled garden? Was the plant healthy and well-watered before the freeze? In what hardiness zone has the plant been placed? Our cold hardiness zone is 9A. Any plant designated for our zone and those colder (Zones 7 or 8) should survive.
Problems arise when we get too comfortable with mild winters. Landscapers and homeowners purchase many plants labelled for Zones 9-11, and these don’t always come back following a harsh winter. When the Sea Island Co. hired my husband as their resort grounds manager in 1985, he had to replace many plants lost in the very cold winter of 1983-1984. The list was long – some that come to mind are ligustrum, pittosporum, oleander, Confederate jasmine, cycads such as sago palm, palms of various sorts (Canary Island and Washingtonia), bottlebrush, fig, gardenia, camphor and olive trees. Having been trained in landscape horticulture at The Ohio State University, he was knowledgeable in replacement plants that would prove more winter hardy in future years. What he didn’t have to replace were the native plants of the Georgia coast.
Our landscape is a mixture of plants with hardiness ranges from Zones 5-10. We cannot claim ignorance of the risk of any of our choices that thrive best in Zones 9b-10. The periphery of our yard consisting of indigenous maritime forest plants that include live, water and laurel oak, sweet gum, sawtooth palmetto, beautyberry, cherry laurel, sparkleberry, gallberry and yaupon holly remain uninjured. Hardier landscape plants of lacebark elm, sweet olive, camellia, muhly grass and flax lily show no damage either. However, the foliage of the ground covers of various ferns, perennial salvia, Blue Daze evolvulus, and purple secretia is severely damaged above ground. The taller perennials of Princess Caroline purple fountain grass, variegated ginger, and stromanthe and the large perennial shrub, firebush, also have burned foliage and all will need to be pruned back before spring. It’s the timing that is important. My experience of 35 years living on a barrier island has taught me that “winter” is usually late December, January and early February. The first two weeks of January are predicted to be mild. Being patient is hard. The most prudent step would be to cut back the worst of the damage on the ground covers and wait on all the other plants until February (which is the traditional month of pruning). Any plant that doesn’t show any new growth by mid-February will require replacing. The rest that do show new growth can then be safely pruned as necessary to remove all damaged and dead growth. I must admit our front landscape is going to look quite bare in the interim. Most likely, I’ll put a few new bales of pine straw out on the beds so at the landscape will look maintained. Container plants which add a lot of interest to our small landscape were brought in or covered during those very cold hours and are now back out on the front porch and back patio to welcome any visitors. We have had very few folks over during these COVID months. My husband and I both fall in the “increased risk” category and like many folks, we are being careful.
As I reflect on the areas of freeze damage, I admit to relying on a bit too many of climatic Zone 10 plants along the front walk. Perhaps it is time to reassess where I plant the more tender perennials or try to intermingle more hardy plants in 2021. With January now here, it’s the best time to browse plant catalogs and make changes for this coming spring. It will arrive in no time. Happy gardening!