Hard winter woes

DSCN1283Now that the snow has melted, much of our suburban landscape consists of flattened, brown, dried-up-looking lawns and winter-burned shrubs. The evergreen Euonymus shrubs that so many people use (various clones of E. fortunei, E. japonicus, or E. kiautschovicus) are especially hard hit by winter burn: the combination of cold temperatures and dryness meant that the shrubs couldn’t move water to their leaves. As a result, the plants sacrificed many of their outer leaves. The result is dried-up, brown foliage. The shrub is still alive, but those brown leaves are not. They won’t turn green again.

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What should you do? You’re probably tempted to apply lots of fertilizer to the lawn and to whip out your pruning tools. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already realize that I’m going to tell you to do nothing at all, at least right now.

Fertilizer is exactly what the plants don’t need. They are just waking up, and they can’t use it. What they do need is sunlight, warmth, and water. Nature will give them the first two very soon, and the soil is already quite wet from the snow melt. So resist the temptation to resort to quick chemical fixes. And now is the wrong time to prune.

You know I’m not a big fan of lawns, because I think they use up way more resources than they deserve. In general, I advocate no feeding at all, or perhaps one organic feeding per year, in fall. So I suggest doing nothing: Give the lawn time to photosynthesize, and it will turn green. Really, it will. That’s what plants do when exposed to sunlight–they can’t help it. The grass has been covered with snow for months, all sunlight has been blocked, and it could not make food for itself all winter. As the sunlight gets stronger and the weather warms up, the lawn will begin to grow vigorously (unless there’s some other underlying problem, such as shade or very wet soil). Just try to be a little bit patient. If the weather turns dry, you might water a bit, but no other help is needed.

As for the shrubs, winter burn is mostly affecting broadleaf evergreens, Euonymus in particular. I know it looks terrible, but once again, resist the temptation to take drastic action. Until the shrub is growing actively, you can’t tell which branches, if any, are dead, so you may prune either too much or not enough. Wait until the shrub shows new growth, and then prune back to that point. The correct time to prune broadleaf evergreens is always mid-spring, when they’re putting out new growth. Wait until then, prune back to healthy new growth, and the shrub will respond with lots of vigorous new shoots, although it make take it several years to regain its previous size.

As always, it’s best to rely on nature rather than on quick fixes.


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