The Winter of Three Degrees Part I of III

Or, Exposure Exposure Exposure. . .And More

I can already hear our northern friends laughing. You can’t be wringing your hands over Three Degrees! Three posts devoted to a cold winter! You Southern Softies! Don’t expect us to feel sorry for you. Here in New England we are soldiers on the front lines of frigid.

All right, all right, give us some slack. We Zone 8A-ers expect, no deserve, mild winters, to make up for summer scorchers. It’s our God Given Southern Right to complain. Three degrees and wind, snow and rain are enough grist for days of garden gossip in our sheltered southern towns.

Days of sepia and lead, unless it was snowing. The beech will hold its leaves till spring

Full disclosure: At the risk of precipitating more gleeful chortles, the three degrees in discussion was recorded in our garden some time around what is traditionally the coldest part of the day, the wee hours before sunrise. The record was quickly wiped clean by sunshine on that day in February.

For a while we thought we’d dodged the bullet. Through it all, plants seemed — well — alive. Only we who were looking out the window were shivering with cabin fever.

They’re still looking pretty good in February, but another reality took over in March

In the past, our evergreens have remained perky during freezes. Smug and happy as a novice gardener, I used to think we’d won the frozen-in-time race. Imagine my disappointment when, as soon as the ice melted and the towel thrown off, my favorites would turn brown or go naked.

This year, no such thing happened. Ah hah, we (emphasis on “we”) are finally raising exceptionally strong, self-reliant plants.

We lived in la la land until early March. That was when plants stopped pretending and started dropping leaves.

Osmanthus fragrans dropped so many leaves we raked for days

We’ve often chafed at our native trees for being water hogs, nutrient hogs, and sun hogs. (Remember, trees always win in any tiff with shrubs.) Early spring, while we were mourning losses of some signature plants but relieved that the garden had survived, scattered reports of pervasive, withering, casualties dismayed us. Why the difference?

Would we ever want to lose our woods? For better or worse, no

Did those woods we maligned instead act as benign counterpane to protect our plants? Maybe it was time we thanked our perimeter of native trees for blocking winter sun and wind and moderating water in the soil and casting a crusty blanket of leaves over the landscape.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is about 40 miles north as the crow flies, subject to the same weather, or worse, though the influence of city concrete probably gives them an edge. Much of their landscaping is under scattered pines and hardwoods.

Camellias, azaleas, evergreens, flowering shrubs and hydrangeas seemed to survive the winter with little incident. Yet camellias in area gardens were so affected the Virginia Camellia Society had to cancel their show and sale. Had the woodlands in the botanical garden cast a benign canopy over most of their plantings?

Exception: A bank of old, exposed azaleas at the Gardens were sparse of leaves and flowers. How come theirs looked better than ours?

Even so, plants that face east can suffer. Bright winter sun that breaks the cold of night gives no quarter to stunned plants. Buds can be blasted and leaves burned.

One winter, our native, buxom magnolia Virginiana facing full into an eastern sunrise turned into a skeleton. We spent a lot of time discussing the take-down of this once handsome tree-now-turned eyesore. Fortunately, as can be the wont with gardeners, our frenzied debate lapsed into idle chatter. It took a year, but the tree eventually recovered.

Our gumpo azaleas exposed to bright morning sun

But exposure isn’t all. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, a plant endures a series of insults. Shuffles and shifts that we barely notice may in fact weaken a plant’s reserves. Signs of distress can be subtle. How many times have I missed or misinterpreted clues, picking up on them only after the consequences became dire! Humbles ya, doesn’t it!

Causes? Unless they’re obvious, we can only back-figure. Here’s a possible list of insults I’ve come across (or inflicted) in thirty years of gardening.

Over zealous pruning at the wrong time
Fertilizing at the wrong time
Changes in drainage
Changes in sun or shade

Dry seasons.
Wet seasons.
Damaged roots — from wayward shovels, imperfect drainage
Plants still potbound despite appropriate teasing

Competition from other plants
Fall clean-up that leaves soil surface raw.
Vented air from a heating/ac unit.
Loss of a buddy.

I’ll never forget how a thriving native male American holly fretted for years after it lost its loblolly-pine neighbor. Finally it learned to cope with the double whammy of too much water at its roots and too much sun on its leaves.

Despite having its block knocked off by a tornado years ago, this tulip tree is a lusty grower, snatching resources from smaller plants

Old age can be a cause, but that is relative. Digs that are too rich can grow a plant to death. The opposite can kill a plant, too. Goldilocks conditions probably extend life, but who knows what they are in our individual gardens.

And then there is the X factor — X because we don’t know enough about what goes on under the ground or, for that matter, above the ground — that can influence survival or failure. However thoughtful we may be in figuring a plant’s needs — cracking the books, studying the site — it’s the doggonedest perplexingest puzzle, but a cosseted plant can languish, while another plant that gets short shrift survives.

How in the world did this seedling crabapple ever make it with no care and all that competition?

Sometimes it is just an old plant’s time. The plant is weary of hauling sap up and down its pipes, weary of sending out negative vibes to bugs, weary of accommodating the weather (though it may still put on a show of bloom). If you look, you can see the signs, especially in old, tall trees, but mostly we are not looking.

When you put it all together, plants are environmentally challenged pretty much all year, from winter freezes to summer’s dry heat, with brief respites in spring and fall. Though, on the whole, plants are probably more weather-resilient than we are.

Given half a chance plants come back year after year with treats for us and the birds — native blueberries and red cedar

Curiously, small new plants, the ones you hover over, expecting the worst, can survive insults happily. Last fall I set out stripling shrubs. What the rabbits did to them behind my back was downright criminal. Apparently there is no Hercule Poirot to ferret out garden malefactors, or, for that matter, foxes.

Unlabeled, down to nubbins, they became unrecognizable until healthy new growth in spring provided leaf-labels that refreshed my memory. Could it be that rabbits’ untutored pruning helps plants survive?

Gardener’s truism: Favorite Plants Fall First. Here are some examples from our garden. Caveat: Dead plants are not photogenic.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’

Slow to establish, but a giant now with hundreds of blooms each year. After Hurricane Irene felled its buddy, a stunning crabapple in its prime, ‘Yuletide’ has been in full sun. Our attempts at air layering have been unsuccessful. Last year we shaped it, limbed it up to expose its handsome trunks and planted shade-lovers beneath. Any connections here? How does one reckon with an instant twelve-foot-wide void in the garden? Like all good gardeners, we’re procrastinating — in denial, and hoping.

Dancing with blooms

Just as lovely close-up

Lovely bones

Little green here except for Southern Indica azalea leaves, hellebore, and epimedium

Camellia sasanqua ‘Sho a no sakae’

Our very first camellia, the only camellia survivor of Hurricane Isabel, has been standing in a pool of water off and on for most of the past year and a half. It is fully exposed to the western summer sun but protected on the east. Last fall its bloom was spectacular. Today, half of it is dead and the only green growth we see is from a vagrant crossvine that could survive Noah’s flood.

It’s survived hurricanes and flooding where others failed, a real favorite of ours

Covered in blooms in November and December

Looking pretty good here. We celebrated our good luck in February. Too soon

A skeleton today

Dwarf Pittosporum

Tidy and dependable, an undulating three-foot-high river of green during hot summers, they were a shapely segue to our side garden, a floating grace note that we took for granted. Not today. Brittle limbs, crumbled and broken from snow load, have left dark dead patches punctuating (precious few) flowing mounds of foliage. When the plants bloomed, which was rare for us, we’d smell a heavenly scent before we’d find the small, creamy, tucked-in flowers. At its northern limit here, it’s been down before but has usually recovered in a year or so. Not so sure this year.

Mounded on either side, in the distance, leading us into the side garden

Mounds crushed under snow that lasted and lasted caused breakage of brittle limbs

Where do we go from here? Maybe the plants will tell us


Another southern beauty at its northern limit that we grow as signature plants in our decked and protected courtyard. The catch: the deck covers a quagmire. After a heavy rain you can see water between the planks. Since the drowning of a wax myrtle to the east and the axing of an aggressive, uninvited water oak to the west, they are targets for winter and summer sun. Untidy, worn-out feather dusters now.

A view of the courtyard in May

And today

Viburnum tinus

Good, that one’s gone. Its lumpiness was a drag on garden real estate, and its pretty blooms turn to mush during spring freezes. (PS: It likes Mediterranean climates without the freezes.) I’ll replace it with a reliable azalea. Oh dear, now that the trunks are cut down and the blob is removed, I can see new growth at the base. Too much work to dig up; we’ll have to keep it whacked back if I’m to fit that azalea in. Sigh. . .more work down the road.

Viburnum tinus in bloom. Not my photo, mine never looked that good.Photo by Hope Grove Nurseries, UK. Bet they don’t get down to 3 degrees over there

The Lump yesterday, cut away today


Shabby spikes, whether growing in sun or shade they are today. All of them, including ‘Kleim’s hardy.’ which apparently isn’t all that hardy. They look as though they will probably come back, but they are not in any hurry to put out new growth. ‘Frost Proof,’ is the one exception, looking good and covered with budding flower buds, the best I’ve seen. Maybe ‘Frost Proof’ likes cold winters.

In better days

The worst looking gardenia happens to be at the front of the house, the healthy hedge is dwarf yaupon holly, the stringy hydrangea has filled out and has flower buds

‘Frost Proof’ came through the winter unphased, Florida anise, variegated Solomon’s seal, and fuschia azalea

Our ‘Pink Ruffles’ Azalea Hedge

Rutherford hybrids that we’ve nicknamed Bubble Gum Pink, they’ve been brightening our driveway for a long time. The nickname usually comes to mind first. They were originally planted among pines for high shade, while a neglected, tangled, but healthy mass of periwinkle and wild creepers took care of excess water below.

Like teeth, both the uppers and lowers were extracted, the former by hurricane, the latter by us after ground hornets took up residence. Then we blitzed-pruned them two summers ago. O boy! They’ve had a rough road.

A portion of the hedge about five years ago

Normally fully evergreen, blighted by eastern winter sun

Coming along far beyond expectations after this winter. Next year they may be a hedge!

See what I mean about Exposure Exposure Exposure . . . and More?

No time for fretting. Onward, to the pruners, to the loppers, to the axes, to the saws!

On the other hand, maybe we will wait and see. . .

Meanwhile, let’s enjoy spring. And what a spring it is! Brown twigs are no longer focal points. The green covers them, sorta. And spring colors distract us from remnants of winter dirge. Copious rainfall has egged on lush growth – maybe too exuberantly — and blooms. Even garden idlers that I annually threaten with extinction (with no follow-through) are coming round this year. Maybe three degrees wasn’t so bad after all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This entry was posted in spring bloom, Spring shrubs, Uncategorized, Winter damage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Winter of Three Degrees Part I of III

  1. tonytomeo says:

    That climate would be a good reason to relocate. I have never experienced harsh weather, but I sometimes think I do not want to.

  2. PM2 says:

    Sorry to see how much loss you experienced in your garden this year. I’ve just started getting concerned for a few plants that should be appearing already, but nothing anywhere near what you lost. And I agree, if you have to tolerate scorching summers, the least you can have is a mild winter! In my garden, I hate losing plants from winter cold, so I’ve tried to select plants that are one or more seasons hardier than my zone. I’m in zone 6a so I try to make sure it is always a zone 5 at the very least and I’ve looked at lists of zone 2 plants, just to see what I can use that is going to be that hardy. I hope some of your damaged shrubs will surprise you and recover! Your garden looks beautiful.

    • A gal after my own heart with respect to plant zones. We rarely lose plants to winter weather but do lose them to summer stress. I choose plants that are at least one zone higher than our 8a and am wary of any zone 5 plant that is supposed to be heat tolerant. Good luck with your garden this year.

  3. Linda says:

    Yikes! Let’s not have another winter like this. 😕.

  4. BetteLou says:

    Oh,my! My eyes have seen the beauty of your gardens and I shall treasure the memories of the way it was and whatever way it goes forth!

    • Thanks to you and everyone else for your kind concern. I hadn’t realized the extent of loss until I put the “after” pictures together with their “befores.” Suspect I was lulled into denial by all the wonderful sping greenery. Such is life in a garden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s