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Many winter-damaged garden plants, shrubs and trees have begun to leaf out, but ever so slowly

by Janet B. Carson May 20, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Mostly dormant when the winter event hit, Camellia japonicas came through largely unscathed. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

It has been five months since a winter cold snap took down so many of our landscape plants, and the questions continue to pour in about what to do with damaged ones. Horticulturists across the South have all been advising patience, waiting to see what might have survived.

While some gardeners started pruning out "dead" wood as early as January, many of us still have dead-looking plants in our gardens, but patience has been paying off.

It appears that most gardeners assumed that when spring officially arrived, everything would immediately start growing. While some plants did rebound quickly, and have seemingly fully recovered, others have been taking their sweet time; but surprisingly, each week we continue to see new buds beginning to sprout.


Most fig trees from Central Arkansas north were frozen to the ground. Some started sprouting a month ago, while others are just now putting up root suckers.

Marginally hardy shrubs like banana shrub (Magnolia figo) and Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) were also frozen to the ground, but they too have just started putting up new growth from the roots.

The same can be said of big leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla). All of the new growth is from the base, not the old wood.

For any plants in your garden that have sprouted a lot of new growth at the base and nothing on the tops, it is time to prune out the dead stalks to make way for the new growth. Be careful when pruning that you don't damage the tender new growth while taking out the old dead wood.

Monitor the new growth this season, especially on trees or larger shrubs. You don't need too many trunks or stalks, and midseason thinning could be needed to retrain the plant into the form you want.


Many gardeners already pruned out or removed dead-looking gardenia and tea olive bushes, but most have started putting on loads of new leaves all along the old stems. Some have new leaves on the stems, along with root suckers. There is some dead wood in the plants and on the tips of branches, but let the new foliage grow a bit.

Remember, green leaves use the sunlight through photosynthesis to manufacture food to feed the rest of the plant. Let them grow and see how much foliage comes on before shaping them. Who knows, we may even be surprised by some late blooms.


Most azaleas and loropetalum have put on new foliage — and many even bloomed this spring — but some pruning is needed to encourage more fullness. Much of the new growth on azaleas is at the tops, with little foliage on the interior. While normally you have until mid-June to finish pruning, I am encouraging earlier pruning this year to allow more time for plant recovery.

Broad leaf plants have dormant buds all along the stems. When the tops of the stems are removed, it encourages dormant buds to sprout, which will give you foliage up and down the stems. Stagger the height of the pruning cuts to encourage even more fullness and better flowering next spring. Remember, spring blooming plants set their flower buds in late August through September.

Lightly fertilize all your shrubs now, and water when dry.


Crape myrtles and vitex have been slower to leaf out, and some have experienced more winter damage than others. Hollies and boxwoods took more of a hit in the northern tier of our state, but they, too, are bouncing back.

As you are shaping and pruning all shrubs, look for splits or cracks in the stems, which means the stems froze and split. Prune out any split stems.


While it is true that more and more plants are growing this season than we had thought possible, there still are some casualties. Most rosemary bushes have died, along with a large percentage of lavender.

[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/520grow]

 Gallery: Winter recovery 2023


I am pretty certain that we have lost some camellia bushes, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that I get a root sucker. I have pruned out the dead tops of Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica.

Surprisingly, we have way more damage and loss in sasanqua camellias than we do on japonicas, and traditionally, japonicas are less hardy than sasanquas. Why? The only theory that makes sense to me is that the japonica types were more dormant when the temperatures dropped, while sasanquas were in their prime bloom period and actively growing. We went from mild conditions to the deep freeze in hours, and then freezing conditions lingered for days.

In the 40 plus years I have been working with plants, I have seen hardly any damage on the foliage or branches of sasanquas, and this year I have seen many that I assume are dead or severely damaged. I am still waiting, but I don't have much hope.

The japonica forms have some dead tips, but they are putting on new foliage along the stems and tips of many branches and will recover. This was definitely a freak winter episode, and I will replace my camellias if they don't grow back.


The size of the plants in our gardens has greatly changed this season as many of us are patiently allowing the winter-damaged plants to resprout and grow. There are definitely holes in our gardens, and they can be filled by new shrubs or temporary additions of tropical plants, houseplants or annuals.

This growing season, our gardens do need a little extra TLC. Water when dry, and now is the time to lightly fertilize your plantings— once. "Lightly" is the operative word. Don't be heavy handed and overfertilize or you will burn your plants.

Everywhere I go, I am asked about winter-damaged plants, and the likelihood that this type of weather is in our future every season. I wish I had a crystal ball and could predict with any accuracy, but I don't. Let's hope it was a once-in-a-lifetime freeze and our gardens can slowly recover and get back to normal.

Janet Carson's blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.

Print Headline: In their own time


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