Yes, You Can Cut Back Dead Plants Too Early

– Posted in: Garden chores, Hellebores, Mud Season, Weather

I advised in my March newsletter that it was time to cut back hellebores, especially the ones that would be blooming soon. I followed my own advice, too. But I wrote that newsletter toward the end of February. How was I to know we’d get our coldest days of the winter in March?

budding hellebore with last year's leaves intact.

Here’s one hellebore before it was cut back.

To my eye, the old leaves have flopped over and aren’t providing much protection to the emerging buds. The bigger leaves that appear to be providing protection are from another hellebore–which I also cut back.
hellebore after leaves had been cut back.

I cut these hellebores back around February 23. The high that day was 62°F (17°C).

I could easily believe we would get more cold weather and snow, but after such mild weather I didn’t think we’d see colder weather than we had had all winter.

On March 5, it got down to -9°F(-23°C) before the sun rose that day

My hellebores took it pretty badly.

hellebore damaged by cold

There might be a few buds worth saving in the back.

hellebore damaged by cold

This one looks like a total loss.

hellebore damaged by cold

This one definitely looks like it has some buds worth saving.

Tonight we are “only” supposed to get down to 9°F(-13°C), but since we were “only” supposed to get down to 2°F(-16°C) on the morning we got down to -9°, I expect it to get colder than they predict.
hellebores covered with pots to protect from frigid cold.

So I covered those poor hellebores.

It’s supposed to get even colder tomorrow (6°F/-14°C) and then 8°F(-13°C) the following day, so I will probably just leave those upended pots in place for the next three days. There won’t be much sun to speak of and plenty of cold, and I’m not going to feel like taking them off every morning and putting them back on as the temperature drops.

Lesson learned, I think

I probably won’t cut back dead hellebore foliage in February ever again. But I really don’t know if leaving it on would have helped it endure sub-zero temps with no snow cover. But maybe it would have helped if the air hadn’t been quite so cold. Some of my snowdrops look kind of droopy, and one clump of winter aconites looks like mush, though the rest are fine. I didn’t do anything to protect them or to make them more vulnerable, and they pulled through as best they could. You can make yourself nuts trying to protect your plants from every freak weather event that comes along, and I don’t plan to start. But I guess I feel a little guilty about the hellebores, because I could have left them with their old leaves for a little bit longer, and I didn’t.

How about you? Having crazy weather? Doing anything different because of it?

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

robert March 20, 2017, 7:58 am

If you leave the old leaves around the bulbs the frost will not penetrate the ground..i think the previous foliage must be kept and not taken away.

Terry March 14, 2017, 9:15 am

I cut the foliage off my hellebores too. One of them was in full bloom and I got a few great pictures. The cold has done a number on it. I know it’s probably going to look bad all spring but will the plant die or will it recover, grow new leaves and bloom next year?

Kathy Purdy March 14, 2017, 9:22 am

Hi, Terry. My guess is the cold won’t kill it. But it won’t be as resilient as it might otherwise be, so it will be more vulnerable to drought and heat in summer. Keep an eye on it and baby it during hot spells.

Kathy March 12, 2017, 9:40 am

This is why I love that I’m not there! I would have done the exact same. But if I’m not there, I can’t meddle in things. I can’t believe these temperature swings I’m hearing about. I hope a few of my plants have lived. It amazes me how anything could live through such extremes. Wishing the best for your hellebores!

Mary Jane March 12, 2017, 12:28 am

What a crazy winter eh? I do not have any hellebores yet, but they are on my list for planting this upcoming year. This article was very helpful…I have made a note not to cut them back in February! We still do have a thick blanket of snow here though (very unseasonal for this area). I am glad it looks like you still have some buds worth saving! Thanks so much for this warning and info! Cheers, Mary Jane

Kathy Purdy March 12, 2017, 7:30 am

Yes, Mary Jane, a crazy winter. You can check out more of my posts talking about hellebores by clicking the hellebore tag down at the bottom of the post, which will take you here. The best hellebores are a bit on the expensive side and don’t bulk up as fast as some plants, but they are well worth the wait. Look for the ones that bloom in late winter or early spring. Those with H. niger in their parentage may even bloom in November or December.

Frank March 11, 2017, 10:02 pm

I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself, before this last batch of snow came down I was checking the garden for the latest damage and noticed that the worst looking hellebores were actually ones which I hadn’t yet cut back. Maybe that means nothing, and maybe it would have been even worse had I trimmed but you can never be sure. Also I know a very successful grower who trims his back in the fall even before winter hits. Someday I may start that, but can never get past the idea of trimming off absolutely healthy leaves.

Carol March 11, 2017, 8:22 am

I cut back the foliage too because I often don’t get to this task soon enough and then it becomes a laborious project. But I did use the cut foliage as mulch over the new growth. I think emerging bulb foliage should be OK but then I didn’t get 9 below temps like you.

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2017, 11:06 am

Yes, I took the cut foliage away. I did leave all the oak leaves in place around the base of each plant.

Susanne Lipari March 11, 2017, 7:45 am

I think it’s not necessarily the old foliage OVER the emerging booms that protects them, but the old foliage keeps the frost from penetrating the ground around the buds, giving them a little “hot water bottle” to draw from counteracting the frost from above. Also, when you remove the old foliage from the ground on a fairly warm day, it warms up the ground faster than the covered areas, giving the plants an additional push to grow, when they should stay as close to dormant as possible until the weather is more solidly warm. You might be right, this is pretty extreme cold following extremely warm weather. Those eager little hellebore buds might have gotten killed anyway. I’ll see if those I didn’t get to will do better.

Kathy Purdy March 11, 2017, 11:05 am

I have a few I didn’t cut, too, but they weren’t as far along, either. You’ve certainly given me food for thought about the value of last year’s vegetation giving protection. That’s what gardening’s all about–learning from experiments, successes and failures.

Chris March 10, 2017, 9:23 pm

My species tulips have come up and I’m hoping they survive the child. I’m taking your approach of live and let live. I think of it as relaxed gardening. Sorry about your hellebores.