The Gardener's Apprentice

Spring Interrupted

The snow is finally melting in my part of the world, after an intensely hyped “blizzard” ten days ago.  Gardeners are emerging from their lairs and approaching their beds, borders and overwintered containers with low expectations.  After an “open” winter, with fairly reasonable temperatures and almost no snow, we were hit with a series of March surprises that included freezing winds, snow, sleet and all manner of “wintery mix”.  That fusillade of stormy weather roared in and subdued shrubs that had broken dormancy at the end of February, daffodils that were up and waiting to open and hellebores in full bloom.

There is only one word for the appearance of gardens in my neighborhood right now—“sad”.  Horticulturally-minded people have put down their garden catalogs and put on their garden clogs, muttering, “What next?”

The best thing to do if you have been hit by wild, late winter/early spring weather is to take a little tour of your home landscape.  If the thought of that makes you depressed, wait for the first sunny day.  You and your plants will both perk up.  You are likely to discover the following:


Early spring bloomers—The key word here is “resilience”.  Daffodils and their fellow travelers, like crocus, snowdrops and even hellebores, are about as delicate as a herd of oxen.  Plants that were already blooming when the snows hit may look a little the worse for wear, but most of the blooms will perk up when the weather clears.  Hellebores will hold onto their petals for several more weeks at the very least.  Daffodils may be droopy, but will raise their golden heads when they sense the reappearance of sunlight and more seasonal temperatures.  In short, you don’t have to worry about the earliest plants.  They are hard-wired to take wintery surprises.

Late spring flowers—Tulips, late daffodils and perennials, like bleeding heart, that appear in their company, may be a little delayed, but will most likely show up in all their glory.  If the delay means that the scenery in your garden is a bit sparse, fill in with purchased pansies.  Your local garden center, which was also hit hard by the cold snap, will be grateful for your business.

Flowering Shrubs—If you have old-fashioned “mophead” type hydrangeas—Hydrangea macrophylla—you may have to get through another summer without flowers.  The buds were already beginning to swell in my neighborhood, when the cold, stormy weather came down upon us.  On older hydrangea varieties like ‘Nikko Blue’, those buds would have given rise to this year’s flowers.  Instead they probably froze.

Other shrubs’ progress may depend on where they are located in your property, how hardy the flower buds are and whether the individual species and variety blooms on old wood, new wood or both.  My flowering quince is huge and I had high hopes for a bumper crop of pinky-white blossoms.  My post-storm garden inspection tour revealed that the buds, which are normally greenish pink right now, have turned brown.  This does not bode well.

I take comfort in the fact that my summer blooming butterfly bushes—Buddleia davidii—will be just fine.  They are in need of pruning, which I can do now, cutting them back to about 18 inches tall.  They won’t replace the lost hydrangeas, but will encourage me, the butterflies and hummingbirds when the time comes.

Roses: My roses had broken dormancy and were beginning to leaf out when the bad weather struck.  Now, those young leaves are curled and brown.  Fortunately, roses are masters of regeneration.  I will prune back the canes by one third to stimulate regrowth and take extra care to mulch and fertilize.  The first flowers may well be late this year, but the roses will recover.

Flowering Trees: The national news has been full of dire tidings about Washington D.C.’s fabled cherry blossoms and the fact that the winter storms may have killed the flower buds.  Flowering cherries and other species in the Northeast generally lag about a month behind those in D.C. and may bloom well this year.  I have high hopes that my little Carolina silverbell tree, which has produced an abundance of white “bells” every year, will come through once again.  For some species, it is simply too early to tell.

So what can you do, besides muttering darkly about weather?  Go about your garden clean-up, watch the changes in your plants day to day and prepare to prune shrubs and trees more thoroughly than usual.  Wind, ice and heavy snow wreak havoc with branches, causing a lot of weather-related dieback.

Don’t be too quick to remove shrubs and plants that appear to be doing nothing.  Some plants just take their time after a bout of bad weather.  A little patience is better for the garden and your back than a lot of plant removal.

If this is the year when your shrubs and perennials turn in lackluster performances due to the ravages of early spring, maybe it is also the year to invest in lots of annuals to brighten up the planting scheme.  The great gardeners, like English maven Gertrude Jekyll, have always been adept at filling “holes” in the landscape with pots of annuals that can be changed out when the flowers fade.  You can also compensate for Nature’s heavy blows by trying something new.  One of the modern everblooming hydrangeas might be just the thing to restore your spirits and your garden.