Another day in paradise


Another day, another ice storm. Or snow. And if we’re fortunate the day will bring only a cold, miserable rain. This winter has gone on far too long already with ice and snow, and too much shivering cold. The snow has been mostly benign, but the December ice storm kick started one garden trauma after another, and this is unlikely to end well. As I wander about the garden on any afternoon with the slightest warmth, too many broadleaf evergreens are brown along the edges, and a few have turned too brown for me to hold onto much hope they will survive.Brown leaves on a gardenia in February

I try to remain optimistic, but I’ve seen this before. Not recently. Two gardens ago. The garden where I planted a magnificent copper leafed beech (Fagus sylvatica, below) that was chopped out within a month of selling the home when our family moved a few miles up the road. I almost cried. Tragically, the gargantuan sycamore on the far side of the property was kept, while the lovely beyond words beech was cut up and hauled away. A shame, but that is the homeowners’ prerogative, and never mind that I would have loved to dig the tree up and take it with me to our new home.

Purple leaf beech

In any case, it was in this garden that the worst winter in my memory (with temperatures far below zero) decimated any plant that was not perfectly sturdy and cold hardy several zones to the north. I was spared the great expense of replacing too much of a garden because I had not yet been completely infected by the bug, and the garden was much more sparse than its successors.

But, back to today’s garden. This winter’s cold is not so severe, and though it has been oh so miserable, I remain mostly convinced (with moments of doubt) that little will come of this. The temperatures have been colder and more prolonged than in a long while, but it is only a few degrees off of the norm, and there should be no reason to expect a catastrophe. But, this is not a simple equation, and the winter’s cold alone does not determine a plant’s failure to survive.

The southern border of the rear garden remained too damp for too long a period from mid-summer on, so that there was a noticeable decline in hollies and witch hazels planted at the margins of the dampness. Hydrangeas and butterfly bushes that managed well for years wilted in the moist soil, and now I fear that all will be further troubled by winter’s continued dampness, and of course the cold.

I am typically more concerned when the garden is dry going into winter, but extremes of dampness or dryness result in stressed plants that are more vulnerable to winter’s cold. There is, of course, nothing to do but wait until the warmth of spring spurs plants to green up and grow. Or not.Shooting Star gardenia in early July

The supposedly cold hardy gardenias (Gardenia augusta, above) are my main concern. I was excited in recent years that there was a reasonable expectation that these fragrantly flowered evergreens could successfully be planted in my northwestern Virginia garden, but now the foliage has turned from brown to black. Though the stems show some sign of green, I am expecting the worst. I fear that marketing trumped science in determining the cold hardiness of the gardenias, and certainly it will be a disappointment if these fail to survive the winter.

And, finally the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have broken ground, though my son who lives only a half hour away says his are several inches tall and ready to bloom. Mine are planted along the shaded front walk where snow melts days later than the rest of the neighborhood, so in any year when I remark that the snowdrops are flowering, others nearby are likely to be past bloom. Yes, they’ll be late, but they’re alive, and in this winter that’s a blessing.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    Dave….like you, this recent cold spell has done some things to our broadleafs I’ve not seen in quite a few years. Our boxwoods have brown fringes around the small leaves in most areas; the nandinas have some severe browning; the rainbow leucote (sp?) also has some browning. I’d planned to give a light shaping/pruning to the boxwoods after the really cold threats had passed. I’d thought about carefully pruning out the more damaged twigs and limbs on the other two plants. Any thoughts or guidance?

    1. Dave says:

      I will not prune any dead wood until I’m certain that it’s dead. Nandinas are prone to winter defoliation, and almost always they send new growth right to the tips. I believe that’s what we’ll see for most evergreens, so there’s no reason to prune until you’re able to confirm it’s dead. This will mean that some evergreens are unsightly for awhile in the spring, but I hate to chop a third of a plant if I don’t have to.

  2. Jenny says:

    From College Park, MD: Several of my smaller azaleas, planted in the last year or two, look very brown, so I’m not sure whether they will recover. And usually by this time the points of daffodil leaves are poking up, but not a one has. This has been some winter, and it’s not over yet. But won’t we appreciate spring when it finally comes!

    1. Dave says:

      Evergreens planted in the past year are vulnerable to problems through their first winter, but azaleas are tough. Some might drop all but a few leaves and still recover in the spring. At least we know that even if the daffodils are late, they’ll bloom sooner or later. With snow forecast for tomorrow, spring seems even further off. Unfortunately, I’m figuring that I’ll be out in the garden Thursday morning taking photos of evergreens straining under the weight of snow.

      1. Jenny says:

        Thanks for the azalea pep talk…I’ll try to be optimistic. Good luck with your evergreens in the snow.

  3. Cary says:

    Did the Mongolia survive? I live in southern Maryland and just noticed that my Mongolia looks like yours. It was fine until the last snow/ice storm. Now the leaves look burnt up or something. I just planted it last year, so it’s not very big. I’m sad because it bloomed last year and smelled so good!

    1. Dave says:

      A year ago two Southern magnolias did not survive and two made it through with hardly a problem. It’s likely that the problem with your magnolia was the recent planting. Evergreens are much more susceptible to problems in winter in their first year, before their roots have become established. In a few cases you’ll see brown leaves, but branches are alive, so it is best to scratch the bark for live wood before discarding the tree.

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