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What are these prolonged extreme cold temps doing to my plants?

Recently, I’ve had a few people who are concerned about their plants reach out to me.  Will the plants die since we are having near and below 0-degree temperatures?  Will my plants have damage that they can overcome?

The answer of course is never an easy yes or no.   We are dealing with Mother Nature after all, and I don’t know of any experts that have all the answers when She does her thing.

The fact that we have a good layer of snow on the ground is a blessing when we have these cold temps.  The snow acts as a blanket and insulates the ground from the extreme cold.  Without the snow the frost gets driven deeper into the ground. 

Plant selection is critical when talking about these cold spells.  If you install plants that are not correctly selected for our potential weather, hot or cold, you run a bigger risk of failure of a plant, or damage to a plant.  When selecting a plant for your home, pay attention to the zone that is on the tag.  Not all plants will grow over long periods of time in our area.  While tropical plants can be used for pots and accents, don’t plan on having them survive the winter months in Michigan or other cold areas.  You can bring these plants inside and keep them over the winter, but that of course depends on whether or not you have the space.  If your designer is well educated in the plant world, they may be able to recommend some plants that look like tropical plants and still are suited for our area.   In SE Michigan we are typically zone 6A. With a little education on plants and their needs, you can sometimes get a plant that is borderline appropriate for our area, to grow and do well.  Microclimates are areas where the conditions can be a bit different and allow these plants to do well.  Just know your plant and what the area offers prior to planting.

Even a plant correctly selected for our zone can end up having damage, especially by winter weather.  The plant also needs to be planted in the correct soil, and sun conditions to survive.  Water conditions are also a huge factor.  I’ve of course seen plants thriving in areas that all my training says is not the place to plant.  I have also seen plants that have perfect conditions fail.  This of course is Mother Nature!

Even when you do all the correct things with a plant you can have issues.  If a plant goes into winter months without having enough water, the root system may dry out and the plant dies or goes into the next season overly stressed and unable to handle whatever good old Mother Nature dishes up.  Even broad leaf evergreens that are completely able to adapt to our area and conditions can really suffer in these temps.  If they are planted in areas that get the warmer afternoon sun, the vascular system warms up and moisture starts to move in the leaves.  Once the temperature drops rapidly in the evening, that moisture freezes and can kill or damage those leaves.  Rhododendrons, Boxwoods, and other evergreens can have issues with this.  Usually, the plant will not die but suffer damage.  When this happens over several years, the plant can be in such bad shape that it’s not worth keeping.  If this happens to your plant, don’t panic.  It may just need a little special pruning in the spring.  If you are not sure how to handle this type of pruning, hiring a garden coach or consultant/teacher can help you do this the correct way.  Many “landscapers” will say they know how to do this type of pruning, and really, they just come in and hedge the dead portions off.  Again, it may not kill the plant, but it will not be the ideal solution.  At times the combination of hedging and some technical pruning is a good solution.  Hand pruning in a technical manor is the best solution for overall plant health. 

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