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Bushes Bear The Brunt Of Winter
By Nancy K. Crevier
Recent winter storms have been challenging, and shrubs and bushes in particular have taken a beating. Bowed down by heavy snow and coated in ice, branches have struggled to remain upright. In many instances, the burden has proved too great, as broken branches and split trunks can attest.
“At this point, there is not a lot you can do,” said Sandy Wilson, a master gardener with the UConn Extension Center. “But if you get heavy snow and it is bending the branches, lightly shake or brush it off with a broom. It’s important to get that snow off,” she said.
Smaller shrubs that have been buried in the drifts are probably doing fine, said Ms Wilson. “Being covered by snow is a good thing for them when we have really cold weather. Snow acts like an insulator and keeps the root area warm,” she said.
A coating of ice is also not something that needs tending. “With some plants, the buds may have evolved to have protective scales, and evergreens have needles that are thin and can tolerate the ice. It’s almost more dangerous,” said Ms Wilson, “to remove the ice and risk damaging the plant branches. Let it melt naturally.”
If a limb has broken or split off from the shrub, try to remove it, even in winter, Ms Wilson said. Large splits cannot really be fixed this time of year, though, and that portion of the plant may be a loss. “The only way to fix large limbs is done by a professional, and it’s called cabling. It’s not something you would do yourself,” she said.
One winter hazard that homeowners can address, though, is deflecting deer damage. A harsh winter means that the hungry animals will become bold enough to make a meal out of any unprotected bushes or shrubs not buried in the snow. “Don’t put out feed for the deer,” stressed Ms Wilson. “It will just attract them closer to your shrubs.” She suggested applying deer repellents all during the winter. “Check the labels for application directions. Some can only be applied at higher temperatures,” she said. The real trick, though, said Ms Wilson, is to keep changing the brand of deer repellent. “They become used to just one kind, so it works better if you use several varieties throughout the season,” she said.
Be careful, too, said Ms Wilson, when applying deicing pellets to walkways or driveways. Do not apply ice-melting agents near shrubs or trees. In the spring, if an area of plantings near the road has been sprayed by the plows, use a hose and thoroughly wash out the area to rid the soil of any salt. Many plants and trees are not salt tolerant, she said.
Prevention in the late summer and fall, of course, is what will best help a shrub through a bad winter. Sensitive shrubs or those in windy areas should have been wrapped in burlap, with the top left uncovered. Protect varieties of hydrangeas with fall-forming buds by wrapping the plant in chicken wire and filling it with dry leaves.
“Don’t fertilize or prune late in the season,” recommended Ms Wilson. “You don’t want to promote new growth at that time of year. There’s no time for the new growth to harden off.” A two- to three-inch layer of mulch, applied after the ground is frozen, will keep the roots protected during cold weather.
This year, plants went into the winter already stressed by the drought of the summer and fall, Ms Wilson said. “Hopefully, gardeners supplemented by watering until the ground was frozen,” she said.
One of the best methods to ensure healthy plants season after season, though, is by choosing plants that are hardy to this zone (5 and 6), said Ms Wilson. “Find out where the plants were grown, too. If they came from the South, that same variety will not be as hardy as one that was started here,” she said.
She gave one final caution for gardeners who aim to clean up as soon as winter is over.
“In the spring, if something looks dead, make sure it really is before you cut it off. With rhododendrons, for example, there are years where they lose a lot of water and there is some die-back. You’ll see big, brown sections in the spring, but if you scratch the branch, you’ll see that it is still living. Wait a bit to see if there are still green, viable buds.
“Most plants will get through this weather. Plants often rebound,” she said.