Worried for your plants with this weather?

– Posted in: FAQ, Plant info, Weather

My bulbs are poking through the ground, and it’s only December! What shall I do?

As the supposedly winter weather has alternated between abnormally frigid, seasonably snowy, and unseasonably warm, many cold climate gardeners have been asking themselves this question.

snowdrops blooming through snow
Snowdrops are called pierce neige in French, which means snow piercer. No worries about snow or cold with them.

Flowering bulbs are the least of your worries. Alternating freezes and thaws happen quite often in spring, and spring-blooming bulbs know how to deal with them–even if those freeze/thaw cycles come in winter. A heat wave is more likely to ruin their flowers than a polar vortex, but even then they will still survive and bloom in subsequent years.

crocuses in snow
Crocuses are used to the cold.

Lack of snow cover is never a good thing, but if your plants are rated hardy for your zone, they usually can deal with it. The real killer in my experience is a long stretch of mild weather that lures plants out of dormancy, and then a sudden, drastic drop in temperature. That’s what happened in 2016, when we had several weeks of abnormally warm weather in February, and then a sudden sharp drop in temperature:

  • February 3: 51°F (10.5°C)
  • February 14: -24°F (-31°C)
  • February 20: 61°F (16°C)

We had another mild spell in March, followed by -3°F (-19°C).

Worry about your woodies, if you’ve got to worry

The four yews planted along the foundation by the previous owners succumbed to one of those drastic temperature drops. These shrubs are normally hardy to -30°F(-34°C), but they were tricked into thinking it was spring, and then got socked with the coldest temperature of the season.

winter-killed yew evergreen shrub
More than a week of spring-like weather in February, followed by severely subzero temperatures, did these hardy shrubs in.
The Japanese maple’s bark cracked from the drastic changes in temperature.

The Japanese maple, also planted by the previous owners, died as well. Rather, the grafted part died. You can see some leaves from the rootstock at the base of the trunk.

The solution is . . .

Yes, your woody plants are in more danger than your spring bulbs, but what can you do about that? Unless they’re tiny saplings or smallish shrubs, not much. That same February roller coaster killed the flower buds on many of my spring-blooming shrubs: forsythias, redbuds, magnolias, lilacs, and the ‘Olga Mezitt’ rhododendrons. But all of them lived and bloomed in subsequent years.

If you haven’t indulged in much zone denial, most of your plants should be just fine. The biggest exception would be trees and shrubs just getting established, but again, it’s really hard to protect a tree. You can wrap a shrub in burlap to slow down the wind and prevent the shrub drying out, but it really won’t help against the evil combination of a long warm spell (that is, temperatures considered normal two months later) followed by a 70-degree drop in temperature.

If you suspect erratic weather has harmed your plants, the best thing you can do is research a better replacement. When spring comes and it’s time to assess the damage, give those plants a little extra time to leaf out. You may discover only a few branches were harmed, and a little pruning will remedy that.

daffodils in snow
Daffodils may get a little droopy in severe cold, but they usually bounce back.

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.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Linda Brazill January 6, 2020, 8:23 pm

Grabbed a couple of Christmas trees and cut off boughs to lay over newly planted perennials that have not made it through a winter yet. This appears to be our third weird winter in a row. Ugh.

Lisa at Greenbow January 5, 2020, 5:07 am

I think this year I will be worrying a little. This weather and I don’t remember the wind being such a factor here before. December half of the days had 20mph winds and higher. The saving grace was that it hasn’t been too cold…yet. Your article is very encouraging. Thanks.

Dee Nash January 4, 2020, 6:37 pm

Excellent post Kathy! This is the story of late winter and early spring (sometimes even late spring here.) I have learned to just turn my head and try not to worry too much. Que sera sera.~~Dee