The 2019/2020 winter might be the strangest in recent memory. The coldest temperatures were also the earliest cold temperatures on record, with an early hard freeze in November that damaged some plants. Then we had a spring-like couple of months, followed by periods of cold weather in February.
As your plants begin active growth, start to assess winter damage. Don’t be too quick to prune azaleas, camellias or other spring-blooming plants, as some damage may be superficial leaf burn, and flower buds may be intact. Allow them to bloom, or try to bloom, and prune spring-blooming plants after flowering. If flower buds were damaged, and all you get is new foliage, prune as needed.
Many gardeners have reported damage to bigleaf hydrangeas. Bigleaf hydrangeas set flower buds before going dormant in the fall. The largest blooms come from top buds they set on stems, which are the most sensitive to cold damage. If all your new growth is coming from the base of the plants and not old stems, you will have very few, if any, blooms this summer.
Reblooming hydrangeas (like Endless Summer or Blushing Bride) bloom from buds set before they go dormant on old wood, but also produce smaller flowers on new growth. So even if damaged, they will bloom this summer.
Prune out dead canes on hydrangeas as you find them. Improper pruning will usually not kill a plant, but it can interfere with flowering.
It is not too late to prune other summer blooming plants, such as roses, crape myrtles, althea and buddleia. Even if they have started growing, roses need annual pruning. Fertilize lightly as new growth begins on summer-flowering shrubs and after bloom for spring bloomers.
Fig trees might also be showing some signs of winter damage. Figs are usually pretty tough plants for central and southern Arkansas, and marginal up north, but a severely cold winter or an early hard freeze can burn them back a bit. As new growth begins, start pruning out damage. Unless they were frozen back to the ground, they should still produce figs, as they bear fruit on the new growth.
Evergreen shrubs that are non-blooming can be pruned and shaped as needed. Severe pruning of more than one-third of the plant needs to be done now through April to allow time for plant recovery.
Evergreen vines and groundcovers that were burned back can also be pruned. For vining groundcovers, use a lawnmower or hedge trimmers to get the damaged leaves off and give them a fresh look.
For liriope or other grass-like plants, check to see how tall the new growth is before cutting. You don’t want cut edges on all the new growth.
March is a transitional month in gardening. While most days may be sunny and warm, it is not unheard of to have a frost or two. Pay attention to the weather and protect plants as needed.
There is plenty to do, so grab your shovel and pruning shears and start gardening!
New growth coming only from the base of a hydrangea and not old stems, indicates that you will have very few, if any, blooms this summer.