Question: My pruners are yearning to get to work. All my plants look awful. Is it time to just slash everything back?
A: Whoa, whoa, take a moment to cool off. It is true that our past winter has caused lots of damage. It is also true that this spring has been a very complicated weather situation for our plants.
But please, don't give up yet on all your shrubs. This is only the beginning of April and we may still have some weather surprises awaiting us.
Instead of assuming that every damaged plant needs to be savagely cut back, take a stroll around the garden and evaluate. This is what gardeners have been reporting to me: There's lots of dead wood from branches broken by ice or snow. If the leaves are dead and the branches split, you can use your pruners. Cut back to any lively looking bud or stem and wait to see what develops. You may have to prune again later but your plant may recover and prosper.
Many perennials have pushed out of the soil and appear to be damaged. Don't give up. Gently replant them with your shovel, cut back dead areas, and see if they return. Often roots are not completely dead and the plant may be smaller but it will survive.
The hydrangeas that so many local gardeners have planted in recent years have sustained considerable damage. Check all the bare stems for fat buds. Leave those branches alone. Tall dry branches with fat leaves emerging at ground level can be cut back. You will have achieved a thinning and growth control pruning. The new foliage at ground level will mature and produce flowers next year.
Dry, scarred leaves on evergreens like hollies and rhododendrons, even azaleas, can be gently trimmed off to clean up the plant. New spring growth will cover the bare spots.
After you have appraised all the damage and cleaned it up, you may want to do an early spring fertilization. When all danger of frost is past apply a gentle timed-release fertilizer (like Osmocote) to your perennials. You can use cottonseed meal or other timed-release fertilizers for shrubs and trees.
Please go slowly and wait until your plants have a chance to show you what life remains.
Contact Pat Lea at firstname.lastname@example.org.