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.
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.
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.
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.