Plants And The Variable Winter Weather

Plants And The Variable Winter Weather

Many of us remember the winters in our youth when the snow arrived in December or early January and stayed until spring. Ponds froze early in those days and people could walk across a lake or skate on the ice for three or more months. Winter isn’t like that anymore. One thing we know about climate change is that our weather is more variable, and swings in extreme temperatures more likely.

Just in the past four weeks we’ve had a heavy snowfall, single digit temperatures, and highs approaching sixty degrees. Some of us never know if we should grab a down coat or a sweatshirt when we go out the door. Gloves and hats or a light jacket?

For plants these swings are not good news. Most plants do better in winter when the temperatures slowly go down and stay low. They also fare better if they are covered with a blanket of insulating snow, especially when the temperatures fall into single numbers or below zero.

Many people worry when they see plants responding to a warm January with spring-like growth. Some things, such as daffodils or other spring bulbs, can put up shoots in the winter time and then pause their growth with no harm to the leaves and flowers. In fact, these shoots photosynthesize on warmer days, creating sugars that are used for sustaining life and future growth.

But breaking dormancy too early can be a problem for other plants. I see some blue Hydrangea varieties that have large, green buds that look like normal April or May growth. If the temperatures suddenly fall into the single digits for a long period these buds that contain the germ of next summer’s flower can get zapped by the cold. If this happens, we will be facing another summer with few blue Hydrangea flowers.

So what’s a homeowner or landscaper to do? When it comes to perennials and bulbs that are showing growth, it’s not necessary to take any action. Unless a mulch is light and airy, like salt-marsh hay, pine branches or snow, it can do more harm than good to cover these green shoots up.

If you see green buds on your Hydrangeas right now, you can try protecting them with a burlap wrapping, or spraying with Wilt-pruf, but neither of these are a sure thing. Last winter many saw that the burlap wrapping and anti-transpirants fail, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t help at all. Because we don’t know what the weather will be like in the next two months, these attempts at protection fall into the “it can’t hurt…” category.

There are times when we have to admit that Nature has the controlling interest in our yards and gardens. We do what we can, and then just hope for the best.

I’m hoping for an early spring…

These buds on the Big Daddy Hydrangea next door look as if the shrub thinks it's May.

These buds on the Big Daddy Hydrangea next door look as if the shrub thinks it’s May.


Daffodils often stick up shoots in December and they do not seem to be harmed by cold winter temperatures.

Daffodils often stick up shoots in December and they do not seem to be harmed by cold winter temperatures.

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  1. Ann Potter on January 26, 2017 at 7:17 am

    When should we trim back grasses since it has been so warm?

    Still late winter into March?

    I have ruby reds(suggested by you a few years back) and “dwarf” zebra grass

    • CLFornari on February 1, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      You can trim them any time now – who knows…we might have an early spring since it’s been so warm! Glad you like the Ruby Ribbons – it’s a hard one to find these days.

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