Has cold weather killed my plants?

Has cold weather killed my plants? Green Fingered Blog
Can you save a plant that's been frozen? It might look horrible now but it may not be too late. Here's how to check if your plants have survived a cold spell, and how to help them recover...

Has cold weather killed my plants?

As gardeners, we dread coming across any plant and finding it unexpectedly looking in poor health. Whilst we watch some plants die back every year in the knowledge that they will re grow the next, or that they were annuals grown for one season only, to come across a more permanent fixture in the garden in poor health can be a morale sapping experience.

This is particularly so when it results from a spell of severe cold weather, as we feel helpless. If pests and diseases attack our plants it usually develops over a period of time and we have a chance to tackle it. But if temperatures drop too low, all we can do is wrap plants in fleece (if they're not too big) or mulch them, and keep our fingers crossed.

Many times such precautions will see plants through cold conditions. But if the weather is exceptionally cold, even this might not be enough and our garden is vulnerable to the dangers of low temperatures. 

We might tame nature in our gardens but only up to a point. 

Most plants in my garden are hardy to -5C and we rarely get down that low. Whilst frosts are regular through the winter, in most years we get hardly any snow and the temperature rises above zero every day, falling back at night. 

I don't protect plants with fleece or anything else unless it's a late frost which threatens to do damage because the plant was developing in milder weather that preceded a cold snap.

This year we've had it much colder than normal. It's been close to -10C and it was like that for over a week, during which it rarely got above zero even in the day time. This was potentially damaging for plants even if I had protected them. In these instances there is nothing you can do except assess the damage afterwards.

A few plants look a bit worse for wear but this Escallonia looked in a particularly bad way. The leaves were brown and shrivelled and drooping. It looked very sorry for itself. My first thought was that it was dead - that the cold had penetrated the whole plant so badly that there was no life left in it and it would have to be taken out and replaced.

Escallonia with cold damage Has cold weather killed my plants? Green Fingered Blog
Escallonia with cold damage

How to tell if your plant is still alive

It can be difficult to tell when a plant is dead because it can often take a very long time for plants to recover from being damaged, whatever the cause. If the plant is a tender species then it's more likely to have perished. 

Even if it's a hardy variety, if it has been affected by especially harsh conditions, you may need to wait months or even a whole year for signs of recovery that offer some certainty.

However, if you do see such signs, at any stage, then you have hope for your plant and know to give it a chance rather than give up on it.

What you need to look for is fresh growth lower down the plant. The damaged leaves and stems higher up will need to be removed anyway. But once you start doing this, you may find signs of life further down, as I did on my Escallonia.

New growth on Escallonia Has cold weather killed my plants? Green Fingered Blog
New shoots lower down on the Escallonia
Once all that dead brown foliage was cut back, the fresh green shoots could be seen lower down the plant and I knew the Escallonia will have a chance to recover. 

Don't be discouraged if you don't see new shoots straight away. In some cases it can take a while before the plant recovers sufficiently to produce new shoots. Some will stay dormant (but alive) for a while before they pluck up the courage to get growing again.

It's up to you how long you want to wait.

You might decide to cut your losses and take it out if there are no signs of life yet. Or if it's a favourite plant, or an expensive one, you might be prepared to be more patient in case it comes back. It might depend how prominent a position it's in too. 

If it was a key feature you may replace it sooner to restore the overall effect. If it plays more of a supporting role you might wait longer, without it spoiling the overall view of the garden.

How to help plants recover from frost damage

If you are going to leave the plant for a while, you need to cut back the affected parts to prevent die back and avoid the rest of the plant becoming diseased. A lot of the damage may be superficial. 

Plants' instinctive reaction to adverse conditions is often to withdraw energy from their extremities to protect their core. They will sacrifice foliage in the short term to retain the ability to regrow later.

Always cut just above a fresh shoot, or a bud that looks like it will produce shoots.

You might find new growth at various points. Try and retain the original shape of the plant whilst reducing the size of it. 

If your plant hasn't produced new shoots or buds yet, cut away the dead parts and tidy up the shape. Then you'll just have to watch and wait to see if anything happens.

My Escallonia is now much smaller than it was. But there are plenty of new shoots and buds that I've cut back to. It should start growing from all these different points as the weather improves. By the end of summer it might look something like it did previously.

Escallonia after pruning Has cold weather killed my plants? Green Fingered Blog
Escallonia after pruning, all cold damaged parts removed

So if your garden suffered damage from severe winter weather, don't give up! Have a good look and see if things will recover. Give them a bit of time. Remove the dead bits and let them regrow if you can. Good luck!


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