Spring is here — and there are many things we need to do to recover from December’s big freeze

Summer-blooming hydrangea paniculata sets flowers on its new growth, so if your plants need reshaping, prune ASAP. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Summer-blooming hydrangea paniculata sets flowers on its new growth, so if your plants need reshaping, prune ASAP. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

We have had one of the bleakest winter landscapes in recent memory. The December deep freeze turned our normally green world into a brown and burned one.

Blooms were greatly delayed on hellebores; most of our evergreen camellias lost foliage along with their blooms; and even our normally red nandinas defoliated. Most of our winter annuals were nipped back or killed. Some have gradually rebounded and might have a few blooms now.

Gardeners have been keeping their fingers crossed that the damage looked worse than it actually was/is.

While the weather is still fluctuating between winter and spring, we have had enough mild days, sunshine and rain to start waking up our gardens. Surprisingly, some of the hardest hit plants seem to be rebounding pretty well, while others do appear to be dead.

You can start to prune away some dead growth, but continue to be patient with other plants. Not all plants begin to grow immediately in the spring. Crape myrtles are notorious for being slow to grow, and some others may be as well.


Evergreen azaleas had various degrees of damage, based on variety and location in the garden. Some of the worst-looking were the Encore varieties. Almost all of the plants I have seen are putting on new growth at the top. Some may even have a bloom or two.

I encourage you to give azaleas a chance to bloom before pruning.

Some corrective pruning is going to be needed to get them to fill back in. Start pruning after the "flowering season" but no later than early June. Prune at least one-third to a half back to get rid of dead foliage and allow fully flushed new growth. Stagger the height of your pruning cuts to make the plants look more natural, versus shearing them at the same level as you would a hedge.

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Another group of plants we were all worried about are the hydrangeas. The big pink and blue Hydrangea macrophylla appear to be dead to the soil line. I have seen many plants in gardens across Central Arkansas, and all of the new growth is coming from the ground — the tops are totally dead.

In south Arkansas, they may be sprouting higher up, but from Central to northern Arkansas, we will have few blooms this year, unless you are growing the reblooming varieties. Cut the dead growth off and baby the new growth to encourage plant recovery — this means a light application of fertilizer, and watering when dry.

Most summer-blooming panicle and smooth hydrangeas are leafing out, as are the oak leaf hydrangeas. Oak leaf hydrangeas have flower buds set, but the panicle and smooth hydrangeas do bloom on new growth, so if they need some height restriction, prune soon.


Other plants which look bleak include loropetalum, rosemary, camellias, aucuba, fatsia, figs, gardenia and Indian hawthorn. A few gardeners have shared that some are beginning to sprout, but some could be dead. If they are living, all of them will require dead-wooding and some restructuring pruning.

Surprisingly enough, some of our less desirable plants also got damaged — everything from nandinas, red top photinias, privet and bamboo all looked pretty bad, but unfortunately, they are all leafing out and thriving. If you have some of these plants, and want to keep them, pruning out dead branches or thinning them to get fuller growth will help.


Most groundcover plants also were affected this winter. Everything from ajuga and monkey grass (liriope) to Asiatic jasmine, pachysandra — and even ivy — had burned foliage.

Many of these plants are beginning to green up, but to keep them looking their best, a light shearing to remove the old growth will give you better results. Try not to prune any of the new growth so you won't get that sheared look. Some plants may need to be replaced, but give them a haircut now and see what happens.


On a positive note, the spring-blooming deciduous magnolias have no damage and are blooming nicely, along with spring spirea and flowering quince. Forsythia and kerria are also blooming, but a little less than normal. After bloom, thin out at least one-third of the canes at the soil line.

Roses appear to have little damage, and if you haven't pruned them, do so ASAP. Roses really do benefit from annual pruning. You will get a more manageable bush, plus more blooms with annual pruning. This includes the Knock Out varieties as well.

Many viburnum varieties are leafing out, too, although a few have bit the dust.

There is no doubt that we do have dead plants in our gardens that will need to be replaced. We also have some that are resprouting from the base, or halfway down the stems. Prune to where you see new growth.

Whether to be patient and let large plants fill back in or replant with new plants is your decision. If you need to replace because the plants are goners, or you choose to replace damaged plants, think through what to replace them with. Indian hawthorn and loropetalum both took a hit two years ago, and again now. Gardeners can't predict whether this type of winter weather is going to become common or not, but you might want to try something new.

Walk your garden on a regular basis and see what is and what isn't growing. Start slowly to prune and replant.

A garden should be ever- changing, but perhaps we have more change this year than we would like. But look on the bright side, you now have some open space to try new things. Happy Gardening!

Janet Carson's blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.

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