Care for Cold Damaged Plants

— Written By

No doubt it has been a strange winter season. We saw warm spring like weather in February only to get a winter blast in March. This weather has left plants and gardeners confused and frustrated. The early warm weather caused many plants to flower and leaf out much earlier leaving young, tender growth vulnerable to cold damage.

So what does this weather mean for the health of your plants? Plants were at a very susceptible stage with temperatures below freezing, especially those with flowers. Late freezes like last week after a warm spell can cause plant damage.

Plants that were already flowering and putting on new growth were the ones most susceptible and where we will probably see the most damage. Fruiting plants that were flowering and unprotected, such as blueberries, fruit trees and strawberries, are likely to have damage and could have reduced fruiting this year. Some lawns that had begun to green up with the warm temperatures will have a burnt appearance from last week’s frosts and freezing temperatures.

So, the big question is what do gardeners do now for plants with cold damage? It will usually take a few weeks to see damage from cold temperatures. It is best to wait, give the plants time to recover before assessing the damage. Even though you may see damage early, do not prune anything for a few weeks. It will take some time for all the damage to be apparent. After a few weeks, damaged or dead growth can be removed. Pruning is optional and will not help the plant deal with damage. It is generally better to delay hard pruning of trees and shrubs until new growth begins so you can more accurately determine which parts survived. If you do prune, make sure branches are dead before removing. You can determine if branches are dead by scratching the bark with your thumbnail. If tissue underneath is green, it’s still alive. If plant tissue is tan or brown, the plant material is dead. When pruning damaged branches, start at the top and work your way down to see how far back plant was killed. Don’t be too quick to give up or get discouraged with cold damaged plants. Even with plant material that was frozen, many will recover by putting out new growth in the spring and summer. It may take longer for new growth to emerge as it takes time for the plant to recover.

For fruiting plants, such as blueberries, strawberries and fruit trees, it will be a wait and see game to determine fruit loss. It is likely with the cold temperatures we had that fruit loss did occur this year. Many fruiting plants see damage when temperatures are at 30 to upper 20’s. However, blueberries and strawberries do not open all their blossoms at once, so you may lose some flowers (and potential fruit) but more flowers could open in coming weeks. Fruit trees see a very limited crop when temperatures dip down to 25 degrees. Temperatures in upper 20s cause some blossom loss and could actually be helpful to trees that set many more fruits than they can support, by naturally thinning the fruit.

If you got excited with the warm weather and planted summer annual vegetables (such as tomatoes and peppers) and flowers outside too early, they would not have survived last week’s cold snap without any protection. If these types of plants were not protected, they will need to be removed and replanted. Wait to plant these summer vegetables and flowers until at least after April 15th, which is the average last spring frost date.

Lastly, let this be an opportunity for home gardeners to go ahead and plan for next year. Having a late spring freeze or early warm temperatures in late winter does occur on occasion in Eastern North Carolina. We often wait until the last minute and scrabble to find ways to protect our plants. Instead, start now in preparing and storing what you would need to protect plants for future late freeze events. Row covers or cold protection covers can be found through gardening supply companies online and in our area. Having this on-hand will provide protection from cold damage in the future.

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Upcoming Wayne County Extension Gardening Programs

  • Mark you calendars! Garden Festival & Plant Sale – April 22nd
    • Doors open at 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Wayne Center. A large variety of plants will be for sale along with Master Gardener Volunteers being on hand to answer gardening questions. There will be displays on plant propagation, selecting fertilizers and lawn care. Beekeepers of the Neuse will have honey for sale. Wayne 4-H will have children activities along with food demonstrations. Extension gardening publications and soil sample kits will be available.

Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County. Horticulture program information can be found at Forward any questions you would like answered from this week’s column to