Will Your Garden Recover from Winter? Yes—Here’s What to Do about Your Sad-Looking Plants

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Winter can be hard on everyone, including your garden. Record snow totals, subzero temperatures and even unseasonably warm days can take a toll on your plants. When the weather finally warms up, you may discover things aren’t looking so great: Perennials look iffy, shrubs have been flattened by heavy snow,and tree limbs are dangling. It’s semi-depressing when what you’re really craving is the beauty of spring bulbs and flowering shrubs.

But don’t give up hope. Plants are resilient, and it’s not always as bad as it looks. “Many plants will recover in time, but you also have to be realistic. We do what we can to protect our gardens from winter, but sometimes nature has its own ideas,” says Sam Schmitz, display garden horticulturalist with Ball Horticultural. “And you actually can learn a lot when something fails.”

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Ahead, the most common winter damage in your garden and what you can do about it:

1. Frost Heave

What It Looks Like: Perennials, shrubs or young trees are pushed up and out of the ground

What’s Going On: Freeze/thaw cycles push the plants up because the water in the ground expands and contracts. Shallow-rooted plants such as heuchera, Shasta daisies and small shrubs often are affected. It also occurs with plants that that were planted too late in the fall to establish sturdy root systems.

Solution: If the plant still feels partially rooted (it’s clinging to some earth when you try to pull it up), you can try to push the plant back down into the ground to replant it, says Schmitz. It’s definitely worth a shot. But if the top, or crown, of the plant pulls away from the roots, it’s probably toast.

2. Winter Burn

What It Looks Like: Brown foliage on tips or entire branches of broadleaf and needled evergreens

What’s Going On: In winter, evergreens lose water through transpiration (the release of moisture through their foliage on sunny days), but they can’t take up water from the frozen soil. So plants exposed to afternoon sun and windy conditions get hit extra hard because water is leaving the plant faster than it can be absorbed. Winter burn affects all types of evergreens including rhododendron, yew, holly and boxwood.

Solution: Wait it out. New growth may push out dead tips by late spring in trees such as pines and spruces. For other evergreens, such as boxwood, trim off the dead bits and see what happens. Fast-growing shrubs often recover and look fine within a season or two. If the whole plant (or most of the plant) is crispy and brown, however, it’s time to say goodbye to it, says Schmitz.

3. Salt injury

What It Looks Like: Similar appearance to winter burn but the damage is seen on the side of the plant facing a roadway where salt is used for clearing snow and ice; plant foliage also may appear bleached

What’s Going On: Salt spray that is deposited by passing cars on woody plants and evergreens desiccates the plant. Foliage damage may appear brown or bleached, but you also may see bud damage, delayed blooms, reduced or distorted leaf or stem growth, and fewer leaves than normal.

Solution: There’s not much that can be done after the fact. Some plants can recover from light damage, but heavily affected plants may need to be replaced with a more salt-tolerant variety, says Schmitz. Your local coop extension service (find yours here) can offer guidance on what salt-tolerant plants will thrive in your area.

4. Flattened shrubs

What It Looks Like: Shrubs that were smashed by heavy snow and ice

What’s Going On: As you’d imagine, most plants can only take so much weight on top. With heavy snow and ice storms, some shrubs collapse, especially with repeated rounds of heavy snows in one winter. Round shrubs, such as some types of arborvitae, are especially prone to this issue. Frost cracks caused by the weight of snow and ice are a hidden cause for plant injury that doesn’t appear until spring or summer, says Schmitz.

Solution: Most of the time, many shrubs such as lilacs, paniculata hydrangeas and ninebark will rebound and perk up by summer. But if you have large sections in the center of shrubs, such as evergreens, that are broken and must be removed, they may not fill in.  While everyone has different tolerance levels for how long you’re willing to wait it out, if large chunks are missing, you may want to replace your shrubs if they’re in a prominent location, such as right in front of your house, say Schmitz.

5. Broken branches

What It Looks Like: Dangling branch from a tree

What’s Going On: Tree branches get brittle in the cold of winter, and the weight of snow and ice can weigh them down and cause them to snap, though they may not break off completely.

Solution: Prune dangling branches with a pole saw so soon as possible. “It’s often still connected, so the weight of the branch can continue to pull down and peel off more bark, making a larger wound,” says Schmitz. Even if you can’t do a perfect job now, cut the branch to remove it and worry about trimming it up neatly later. You also don’t want it falling unexpectedly on a drive or patio.

6. Deer damage

What It Looks Like: Deer have no upper teeth, so they bite and tear off branches or buds, leaving frayed-looking ends with damage occurring up to 6 feet off the ground

What’s Going On: Obviously, they’re hungry! Deer will eat almost anything if it’s been a particularly tough winter, if the population is large, or if they’ve established a pathway through your garden. Many shrubs will recover in a season or two, but evergreens with most of the bottom branches eaten will take forever (if ever!) to look good again, says Schmitz. If you need to replace them, choose plants that are less tasty to Bambi and friends.

purewow author

Freelance Gardening Editor

Arricca Elin SanSone is a gardener with more than 15 years of experience. In addition to PureWow, she writes for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, The Spruce and many other...