Winter Landscape Care: Q and A

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This week I would like to share some answers to some frequently asked questions that we have received related to winter weather in the home landscape. If you have a specific question not answered here, please contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center at 828-757-1290.

Question: Can I prune my shrubs now?

Answer: Pruning can be tricky because answers vary, but here are some highlights:

Evergreens such as hollies, boxwoods, cedars, juniper, and others should be pruned during the dormant season (mid-November to late February).

For flowering trees and shrubs, you should follow these guidelines: If the plant blooms before May (spring flowering), prune it after it blooms. Examples are azalea, dogwood, loropetalum, spirea, and forsythia. If the plant blooms after May (summer flowering), prune it before growth starts in the spring (February). Examples are crape myrtle, hibiscus, and hydrangea.

For large, mature trees, do not prune excessively during the dormant season. Do not remove a large number of branches that are larger than about 2 inches in diameter. This includes topping. Topping is never a recommended pruning practice. Keep pruning to a minimum.

Question: Can I fertilize my plants during this time?

Answer: Do not fertilize plants with a nitrogen fertilizer. Doing so can cause new growth and the new growth would be damaged by cold weather at this time.

Question: How can I protect my plants from winter damage?

Answer: There are a few precautions you can take with your plants in the landscape.

If you have evergreens in the landscape, protection can be offered by providing additional water during dry periods or prior to expected hard freezes. Since evergreens retain their leaves during winter months, they still transpire water through their leaves. In turn, evergreens continue to lose water during the winter and need moisture to be taken up by their plant roots. We’ve had a wet year this year, so additional waterings haven’t been needed.

mulch around shrubs

When mulching keep in mind, a 3-inch layer of an organic mulch is usually about the right amount to use around plants. Keep the mulch out at least an inch or two away from the base of a perennial and about 6 to 12 inches away from the trunk of a tree.

Mulch can also provide protection for plants in your landscape. Mulch reduces water loss and insulates soil from extreme temperature changes.

In a previous article, “Protecting Plants from Cold Damage”, Horticulture agent, Cindi Lauderdale, gives some advice when trying to reduce winter damage in the landscape:

1) Plant only varieties that are hardy to our area.

2) Locate less hardy plants in the highest part of the yard. Cold air settles to the lowest part of the yard.

3) Protect plants from cold wind. A fence or tall evergreen hedge of trees or shrubs gives good protection.

4) Shade your plants from direct winter sun, especially early morning sun. Plants that freeze slowly and thaw slowly will be the least damaged. The south side of the house with no shade is the worst place for tender plants.

5) Do not fertilize plants with nitrogen in late summer. Let them “harden off” before cold weather.

6) A covering of plastic can be used as protection. Build a frame over the plants, cover with plastic and seal plastic to the ground with soil. Shade plastic to keep the temperature from building up inside. Plastic traps moisture and warm air as it radiates from the soil. It also knocks off cold wind. Be certain not to allow the plastic to come in contact with plants or it will burn the foliage. Knowing how and when to offer first aid to ice, snow, or wind-damaged plants will often save the plant from future decay and possible loss.

For answers to your agricultural questions, call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center at 828-757-1290 or visit us online anytime.