After any winter, homeowners and professionals see some damaged evergreens. This year it is much worse than usual. Needle browning, needle drop, smashed tops, cracked branches and crowns or roots heaved out of the soil – all will be common discoveries as we inspect our landscapes.
In our culture of short attention spans and instant answers, many people expect quick solutions to plant problems. Unfortunately, as in human medicine, one must observe and describe accurately the symptoms in order to diagnose a problem. It doesn’t help to tell your landscaper: “It died” or “It suddenly turned brown.”
Instead, you and the plant professional need to methodically discuss the plant’s history and care – such as when and how it was planted, the watering routine, the site and exposure – as well as the stages of the problem developing. The idea that you bought “a bad arborvitae/rhododendron” is very unlikely. The odds are extremely good that the plant was placed in an imperfect site or in imperfect soil, that it was watered inadequately, that it was stressed by wind or other site conditions and that the past year – summer drought, severe winter, high winds – was horrendous.
Sad to say, most people don’t want to hear all that. The unpopular truth is that most plant problems (at least 95 percent) are “cultural” – to do with the site, growing conditions and care of the plant. Only a few plant problems are insect pests or diseases that can be sprayed or otherwise cured. Just as a weakened elderly person or infant is most vulnerable to a passing flu virus or bacterial infection, a weakened (stressed) plant in an imperfect site will also develop secondary or adventitious diseases and attract pests. This kind of systematic analysis is not popular; it takes patience, and there are no quick fixes.
Here are some examples of post-winter damage to evergreens, with common misunderstandings and the probable truth:
1. Planted last season; died over winter.
Homeowner (dead shrub in hand, needles trailing behind): “We paid good money for this and put it where the landscaper (or garden center person) advised, so it shouldn’t die, and if it did it’s not our fault.”
Reality: Any plant is at risk during its first year (or two or three) after planting. Even in good conditions, it is not easy for a plant to overcome transplant shock, grow new roots and prepare for a hard winter. Even with good care, there is danger from bad things: droughts, windstorms, heaving soil, drastic freezes.
Sometimes worse, the plant’s new life is managed by human beings. And we are imperfect – busy, with more to our lives than the landscape – and don’t do everything right. Frankly, when I have sited and planted a woody plant and it dies within a year or two, I take it philosophically, figuring I did something wrong – missed the moment to water deeply, didn’t allow for better drainage, whatever. I know what I’m doing, and yet I expect losses. So I am surprised that some people blame the plant or its source. Plants are not plastic.
After this particular winter, I expect we will see many evergreens that are brown on the windward side or the side exposed to salt. Tom Draves, a greatly respected instructor and certified arborist, told me he is seeing needle browning, desiccation or burn especially on Alberta spruces, arborvitae and oriental spruces, among others. Also many Douglas firs are showing damage, especially those also weakened by the Douglas fir disease, Rhabdocline needle cast.
Other plants will have died simply because we took a chance in their hardiness – and lost. Many of us try to grow plants that are marginally hardy. Who can resist trying a Cryptomeria, a rare Japanese maple or a new hardier Southern magnolia? But some years bring extreme weather and this was one of them – simply too cold for those roots or buds, or too many hard freezes after warm spells.
I have also heard several CNLPs (Certified Nursery and Landscape Professionals) opine: Last summer’s drought will have caused more plant death than usual this spring and summer. The plants went into winter already weak. Even expert gardeners or professionals had trouble providing adequate water for landscapes, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that people with less expertise didn’t even come close to watering deeply enough – even when they tried.
2. Shrubs smashed; branches broken.
With the massive ice dams that formed on some roofs, and the weight of snow that was dumped or blown onto shrubs, no doubt we will see many broken woody plants. Small shrubs such as birds’-nest spruces and junipers often have cracked branches and holes on top. Tall and pointy junipers and arborvitae – typically next to doors or front steps – frequently split in two or have top branches cracked off.
The mistake in these cases is not in our climate but in our plant placement. We should never place a plant under a roof line where sliding ice and snow can crash down on it. Put perennials there; they hide underground all winter. Look up before you plant. Move the foundation planting out farther from the building.
The other error is the plant selection in the first place. Even if it is beyond the ice dam’s reach, the arborvitae should probably not be placed close to a building. Most arborvitae (and most junipers and many others) will outgrow that location – arborvitae reaching 50 feet if permitted. When it’s too tall, some homeowners just cut the top off the plant. But topping is never good for a woody plant; it makes a real mess of the plant’s natural growth patterns that involve a leader and system of hormones. (Students: Look up “Apical dominance.”)
A better choice: A professional arborist would do gradual crown reduction, selectively removing overly tall branches while retaining the plant’s natural shape.
The bottom line: Good horticulture results in fewer plant losses after winter (or any time). Know your plants and their site requirements; tend them properly; hire the right professionals when it’s beyond your abilities or time. Then know that sometimes extreme weather or mistakes happen; plants are living things. Sometimes they die.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.