(Written by Keith Mickler, County Coordinator and agriculture agent for The University of Georgia/Floyd County Cooperative Extension):
What do I do with my plants after a hard freeze? 1st is to drop the pruners.
Just a few days before Christmas, Thursday to be exact, my wife and I went for dinner at the restaurant The Creag at McLemore located way up in Rising Fawn because I wanted to go somewhere we had not been before, plus I saw it on Facebook. We arrived just after dark and thankfully before the thickest fog I have ever seen in my life rolled in. I take that back, it didn’t roll in, it busted down the door. This fog was so thick it made pea soup look thin.
When it finally came time to head back to Rome, the fog seemed to have become even thicker. So thick we couldn’t see the front of the car. I didn’t think we were going to get off the mountain alive, I took a verbal beating from my wife while trying to get us off the mountain. Keith, she screamed, you are running off the road, Keith, you are driving on the wrong side of the road. In my defense, at least driving on the wrong side I could see the edge of the road much better than driving on the right side. It took us almost two and a half hours to get home, but it took just a little over an hour to get there.
I know you are wondering what the heck does this have to do with pruning and a hard freeze. This thick fog was the precursor (cold front) to what quickly followed early Friday morning the 23rd when temperatures went from 48 degrees at 12:15 am to 9 degrees by 7 am. That is a 39 degree drop in less than seven hours. Talk about a real kick to the leaves, the plants took a direct sucker punch from mother nature and she was not done. The plants continued to take this brutal beating on into Christmas eve with a high of 26 and a low that morning of 7. Mother nature kept pounding and didn’t back off until sometime on Christmas day when the temperatures outside finally rose above freezing for the first time in almost 48 hours. Christmas day started with a low of 12 but thank goodness temperatures rose to almost 36 giving the thoughts of better days to come.
This type of sudden and hard freeze can make our landscapes look bad quickly. My landscape, well it looks like death warmed over. The best advice I can give is the “just wait and see approach” before making any pruning decisions. Give the plants time to recover, say until spring. No good will be done from pruning out what we think is dead, it just may be alive. Now, if you are 100% sure it is dead, then have at it.
However, I want you to first make sure you are caring for your plants by examining a few critical needs; starting with soil moisture. Yes, I know it has rained a lot but still make sure the plants are not drying out.
Plants need water after a freeze because on a sunny day following a freeze (which is exactly what happened), the foliage is transpiring (losing water) yet the water in the soil is frozen. Apply water to thaw the soil, thus providing available water to your beloved plants. Remember this for next time, yes there will be a next time.
Don’t overdo the water, apply no more than 1 inch of water per watering to your landscape plants. To get that one inch of water, apply just a little over a half gallon of water to your plants for every square foot of area underneath the branches and out to the drip line, known as the edge.
For example, you measure the area underneath an azalea to be 3 feet x 4 feet, which mathematically equals 12 square feet. This would require applying a little over 6 gallons of water evenly over the roots of that azalea.
Quick fact, water also gives off heat which can protect plants from freezing, especially borderline-sensitive plants. Damp soil retains heat better than dry soil, protecting roots and warming the air underneath the plant.
You should consider delaying any severe pruning until new growth starts (in the spring) to make sure you don’t remove live wood. Leave the loppers, shears, and chainsaws where they are for now.
Dead, unsightly leaves can be removed as soon as they turn brown after a freeze if a high level of maintenance is desired.
Another reason not to prune just yet, new growth could still be possible from below the affected areas. Even though branch tips may be damaged or even dead, older wood just might be injury free.
Pruning away dead wood can expose buds that may still be alive to the harsh cold weather. Setting up surviving plants to be wiped out with another hard freeze.
Like I said, keep the cutting utensils in the garage and let the dead portions of your plants protect what’s below. It may be mid-spring before we see any new growth. Patience is key here before you pick up the pruners.
Keith Mickler is the County Coordinator and agriculture agent for The University of Georgia/Floyd County Cooperative Extension. Located at 12 East 4th Ave, Rome, GA 30161 (706) 295-6210. Office hours are Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension – Learning for Life. Agriculture and Natural Resources, Family and Consumer Sciences, 4-H Youth. An Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Institution. To obtain extension publications please visit our website www.ugaextension.com or contact your county Cooperative Extension office.