This winter Mother Nature packed a wallop, sending us into spasms over polar vortexes, a term most of us probably had never heard of previously. The resultant temperatures of eight degrees sent us into panic mode, causing us to fret about our prized plants, and making us feel useless as we were unable to provide them with parkas.
However, early spring has arrived and this is truly the time we need to be vigilant because our plants are slowing awakening, leaving them far more defenseless than they were in winter. Recently, we have been stretching our gardening zone a bit—7a seemingly became 7b while 7b widened into zone 8 so we planted accordingly—and we were rewarded.
Plants that wouldn’t have survived winter twenty years ago not only came back but they thrived. Elephant’s Ear ‘Portadora’ (Allocasia ‘Portadora’), once a plant I treated as an annual, has returned four years in a row for me. My Mediterranean fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, a zone 8 palm, almost succumbed to a late fall freeze two years ago but now looks spectacular. However, Mother Nature has a way of preaching humility in even the most arrogant gardener and this year she did just that.
My word of advice is this: don’t despair and don’t panic. I have had plants that were seemingly dead rise again from their roots. Last year my tangerine succumbed when temperatures suddenly fell to a balmy 18 degrees in late February. Through sheer inertia, I left it alone in the planter until May when I suddenly noticed the roots had regenerated new growth. I subsequently planted it in the ground, figuring it had a better chance of survival there than in a planter. An early November freeze caused freezer burn on its top so I covered it every time temperatures fell to 24 degrees. However, by December there were other things to think about and I left it alone. The result was that it survived those two horrid nights when temperatures fell to eight degrees. The tangerine was in total dormancy for the more drastic freeze whereas it simply wasn’t quite ready for the earlier one.
Because I have found that late fall and early spring freezes can be more damaging than winter freezes, I am particularly vigilant in protecting my plants during these periods. This year I shall trim off the winter kill a bit later than usual precisely because spring can be such a cruel season: how many times have we been lulled into thinking that we have experienced our final frost only to have the mercury plunge, reminding us that it really isn’t nice to fool Mother Nature?
Therefore, go easy on the pruning of tender perennials until you are confident that the weather will behave. Do not be in a rush to take seemingly dead plants out as some might come back. A drought ruined my prized Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) several years ago: in one week it dropped all its leaves. We chopped it down, leaving the roots in place, and, sure enough, the roots regenerated new growth.
However, some plants will die—all gardeners know this. Heat, drought, and cold take their toll. Accepting this is being a gardener. Just realize that we can provide help. We can mulch roots in the fall and in the spring. We can cover our zone 8 plants, protecting them from early spring and late fall frosts.
It’s fun to stretch our garden zone. However, you might want to refrain from filling your garden with zone 8 plants should you live firmly in zone 7. By all means throw in some zone 8 plants but concentrate more on plants suitable for your gardening zone. And rejoice that the polar vortex swept down in December rather than in early November or late March. Those are the times to really worry and fret.
A serious gardener for the past twenty years, Kit Flynn resides in Chapel Hill. She is also a Durham Master Gardener.