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Don’t panic over plants damaged by freezing temps

By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I received a pot of paper-white narcissus in bloom as a present. What should I do with it now that the flowers are looking brown and bad?

    A. This is a common question at this time of year. Some people simply pitch the plant, pot and all. Another solution would be to treat the paper-whites as a houseplant through the winter, with regular watering to keep the stems green. Come spring, take the entire plant out of the pot and set the root ball, kept intact, outside in your flower bed. The bulbs should settle down and eventually rebloom.

The first weekend after the coldest weather in years leaves many of us wandering around the landscape looking for damage.

The signs would be obvious: browned areas on the leaves of evergreens such as camellias or gardenias. This indicates dead tissue in the leaf caused by the significant deep freeze. Another piece of evidence: blooms of camellias that turned from pink or red to beige and, thus, are shot.

Looking at the ground, we may see roots of pansies or new perennials partially rising out of the ground, the soil around them sunken.

Plants may be damaged by deep freezes when moisture inside the leaves turns solid and hurts the surrounding tissue. Or it may be desiccated by sunlight hitting the foliage while the leaf is frozen. That is why the conventional wisdom has been to plant broad-leaves where they are protected from morning sun. But that is something many of us have not followed for many years.

It may take a few days for this damage to appear. Even when it does, you probably should live with it for a time. That is because, since it is merely mid-January, another significant deep freeze could still occur and this outer layer of foliage, though damaged, will serve as cover and protection for leaves below. Some damaged leaves will fall off eventually; others can be removed with late-winter pruning. Avoid pruning the stems of gardenias because you are likely to cut off the wood that will produce this spring’s flowers.

Rhododendrons, you may have noticed, have their own method of self-protection, rolling up their leaves in very cold weather to prevent desiccation.

If there is anything good to say about this week’s weather, at least it had the decency to arrive in midwinter, when shrubs are fully dormant.

A similar occurrence in early March or early December, when plants are less dormant, would be far more damaging.

The damage to open camellia flowers is a loss. However, the buds are safe and should open naturally.

Cut off the dead and damaged flowers that you can reach now so the plant looks better, and you won’t feel so bad about what happened to them. Those who have experienced this loss were probably outside cutting open blooms Sunday and Monday. But just because camellia flowers sometimes get hurt by a deep freeze is no reason to give up on this valuable landscape plant. The successes far outweigh the failures.

As you walk around, look over the bedding plants such as pansies set out last fall. Do not panic if you see the roots suddenly above the ground. This is called “frost heaving.” It is damaging to the plant only if you do nothing. Take the time to reset the plants with a trowel and put on a layer of mulch, which will help prevent frozen ground and further heaving this winter. This problem may also show up on newly planted perennials that haven’t got their roots firmly established. You may also see freeze damage to some pansy blooms; simply cut them off and wait for the plants to produce new ones.

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