A hard freeze can make our landscapes look really bad and we are tempted to prune plants to reshape them. The best advice for now, however, is the “wait and see” approach.
Give your plants time to recover. Wait until spring before pruning shrubs. There is no advantage to pruning away branches that you think are dead – they may still be alive.
First, make sure you are taking care of your landscape plants by examining a few critical needs. Start with soil moisture.
Plants need water, and these water needs should be checked after a freeze. On a sunny day after a freeze, the foliage could be transpiring (or losing) water while the water in the soil is still frozen. Apply water to thaw the soil and provide available water to your beloved plants.
Don’t overdo the water, however. Apply no more than 1 inch of water to landscape plants. To get that inch of water, apply just a little over a half gallon of water for every square foot of area underneath a plant out to the edge of foliage, or drip line.
For example, for an azalea plant that covers 3 feet by 4 feet, the area is equal to 12 square feet. Gardeners should apply about 6 gallons of water evenly over those 12 square feet.
Water also gives off heat that can protect plants, especially borderline sensitive plants, from freezing. Damp soil retains heat better than dry soil, protecting the roots and warming the air near the soil.
Severe pruning should be delayed until new growth appears in the spring. Waiting ensures live wood is not removed. Put those loppers, shears and chainsaws away for now.
If a high level of maintenance is desired, dead, unsightly leaves can be removed after a freeze as soon as they turn brown. Check evergreen plants such as camellias, hollies, ligustrum and nandinas for severely damaged or dead foliage.
Here’s another reason not to prune: Even if plants in your garden are blackened and wilted, new growth could still be possible from below the affected area. Even though new growth and young branch tips may be damaged or even dead, older wood might be injury-free.
Pruning away dead wood can expose buds, which may still be alive, to harsh elements. Another hard freeze just might wipe out any survivors.
So keep the cutting utensils in the garage and let the dead portions of your plants protect what might be growing below. It may take until mid-spring before we see any new growth, but be patient and don’t pick up the pruners.
For more information on caring for landscape plants after freezing weather, see UGA publication “Winter Protection of Ornamental Plants” at www.caes.uga.edu/publications.