Care for Cold Damaged Plants

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A couple of weekends ago we dealt with a winter chill with some low night temperatures. March is usually the time we see ups and downs with our weather. One day it feels like spring and then it’s back to winter. This roller coaster weather leaves plants confused and we gardeners frustrated. The early warm weather will cause many plants to begin flowering and leafing out causing young, tender growth to be vulnerable to future cold temperatures.

The big question after a cold spell is what to 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 is 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 if any fruit loss occurred. 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 probably would not have survived cold temperatures 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 past the average last spring frost date.

Covered Raised Bed

Cold protection coverings or row covers can provide protection to plants during unexpected cold temperatures in the spring season.

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 typically occur 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, agriculture supply stores, and garden centers. Having this on-hand will provide protection from cold damage in the future as reduce the worry when we have those late winter, early spring cold temperatures.

Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.

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