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Winter can take a heavy toll on your outdoor plants. Freezing temperatures, heavy snow, ice storms, and desiccating winds often leave many plants damaged or dead.
With some time and TLC, it’s often possible to nurse plants back to health after winter ravages them.
Read on to learn pro tips for saving your garden and recovering plants from winter damage.
Main Challenges Winter Poses to Plants
Most plants cannot survive prolonged freezing temperatures. The cold causes damage to plant cells and tissues. Evergreen trees and shrubs are adapted to survive cold winters, but most other plants will die back to the ground or die completely unless protected.
Lack of light
The short days and overcast skies of winter mean less sunlight reaches plants. Reduced sunlight slows or halts photosynthesis, the process plants use to create energy and growth. Less sunlight can starve plants of the energy they need to survive.
The dry, cold winds of winter pull moisture from plant leaves and stems. Without available water in frozen soil, plants lose water faster than they can be replaced, leading to desiccation, browning, and death of leaves and shoots.
The cold temperatures, lack of light, and limited water all combine to greatly slow or stop plant growth in winter. Perennial plants essentially go dormant until warmer spring temperatures arrive. Delayed growth puts plants at risk if winter lasts longer than expected.
Ice, snow, and winter winds can physically damage plants. The weight of snow and ice on branches can cause them to break. Dried-out plants are also more brittle and prone to breakage by winter winds. The outer layers of bark on trees and shrubs can crack or split due to winter desiccation as well.
Plants must cope with freezing but non-lethal temperatures, much less daylight, dried-out air and soils, lack of growth, and risk of physical damage over winter. Adaptations like dropping leaves, going dormant, changes in cell biology, and structural protections help plants survive until spring.
Why it’s Important to Save Cold-damaged Plants
Save money – Replacing dead plants and starting over from scratch can be expensive. Salvaging damaged plants saves the cost of purchasing new ones.
Preserve mature plants – Established, mature plants often can’t be easily replaced. Salvaging them preserves their size, form, and ornamental or productive value.
Maintain consistency – Keeping the same plants helps maintain a cohesive, well-designed landscape. Replacing individuals piecemeal can ruin the intended design.
Retain plant adaptations – Plants that have survived in a location are already adapted to the site’s soil, sunlight, climate, pests, etc. Replacing them means starting the adaptation process over.
Encourage vigorous regrowth – Many plants will resprout vigorously after winter damage. This regrowth can be channeled into renewed strength.
Save time – Pruning back damaged parts is faster than replacing entire plants. This leaves more time for other important gardening tasks.
Sustain pollinators – Salvaged flowering plants continue providing essential food for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators in spring.
So salvaging and rehabilitating plants damaged but not killed by winter stresses can save time, money, and effort while helping sustain a visually appealing, healthy, vibrant garden.
Winter Plant Rescue Strategies
Check plants regularly. Look for signs of stress like wilting, discolored leaves, or shriveled growth. Act quickly to diagnose and address the issue.
Improve light conditions. Many plants decline in winter due to inadequate light. Supplement with grow lights or move indoor plants to the brightest spot in your home.
Boost humidity. Dry winter air can sap moisture from plants. Use a humidifier, place plants on pebble trays with water, or group plants together to raise humidity.
Adjust watering. Don’t over or under water. Check soil regularly and water when the top few inches become dry. Be careful not to overwater during periods of low growth.
Insulate roots. Wrap pots in bubble wrap or place them in a dry peat moss mixture to insulate plant roots from cold drafts.
Provide support. Give leggy or weak plants some extra support with stakes or trellises.
Prune back dead growth. This conserves the plant’s energy and helps prevent disease.
Relocate struggling plants. Move them to a warmer, more humid location if possible. A sunny windowsill or greenhouse may help.
Propagate to save genetics. Take cuttings or divisions of valued plants in case the original dies. This preserves that plant’s genetics.
Be patient. Many plants naturally rest during winter but rebound in spring. Give them time to recover before taking drastic action.
The keys are adjusting care to account for winter conditions, closely monitoring plants, and taking action at the first signs of trouble. With a little TLC, most plants can make it through the winter months.
Expert Advice on Salvading Frost-Damaged Plants
Before planting outdoors, check the new USDA plant hardiness zone map released in November 2023. This ensures you select varieties suited for winter survival in your area’s growth zone.
Don’t prune immediately – dead foliage helps insulate plants from more damage. In spring, check the bark for the extent of injury. Black or brown under bark indicates cold damage.
For best pruning guidance, wait until new growth emerges. If cold kills herbaceous plants like impatiens and begonias, cut down and remove dead plants to prevent fungal or bacterial spread as they decay.
Provide protective mulch. A 2-4 inch layer of bark, leaves, or straw insulates plant roots and prevents frost heave.
Repot root-bound or damaged plants. Check roots and repot plants into fresh, appropriate potting mix if needed.
Control pests like overwintering insects. Treat with horticultural oils or insecticidal soap if pests are damaging weakened plants.
Resist fertilizing too early to speed recovery – this risks cold damage to new growth. Wait until after the frost danger has passed in spring, then apply fertilizer to aid recovery.
Improve drainage. Regrade soil if needed to prevent waterlogging. Add organic matter to improve moisture retention.
Stake and support damaged stems. Use stakes and plant ties to support weak, floppy growth until the plant recovers.
Insulate with row covers. Burlap, fabric row covers, cloches, or cold frames help protect from cold damage.
Whitewash trunks. In sunny areas, apply white, water-based paint to prevent winter sunscald on thin-barked trees.
Water thoroughly before the ground freezes. This prevents desiccation damage to roots during winter dormancy.
Transplant only when fully dormant. If relocating damaged plants, do so before growth starts in late winter/early spring.
The best protection for plants in winter is bringing them indoors. When it comes to small potted plants, prevention of cold damage is better than trying to cure it. Indoor conditions prevent exposure to frosty temperatures and harsh winds. Relocating plants before winter hits avoids the need for recovery later.