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Plants Looking Puny?

By Paul James

A lot of landscape plants are looking pretty sad right now. In fact, some of them look downright dead. The question is, will they bounce back this spring, or should I dig them up and start thinking about what to plant in their place?

Before I answer that two-part question, let me share with you what I’ve been witnessing on my walks lately. First and foremost, I’ve seen leaves still clinging to a number of deciduous trees, in particular Japanese maples, some oaks, and even roses, which is somewhat odd for this time of year. I’ve seen azaleas that looked great (and green, and in some cases in flower) early in December that now appear as though they’re on their last leg. I’ve seen the tips of boxwoods that look like somebody took a blowtorch to them. I’ve seen Taylor junipers that have gone from green to a weird, dull gray-purple. And Nandinas, well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many crinkly, crunchy leaves on them.

For the most part, these conditions are the result of abrupt weather changes, specifically warmer-than-usual December days followed by temperatures in the single digits. When that happens, plants don’t have the opportunity to smoothly transition physiologically from late fall to winter. And remember, we’ve had several relatively mild winters in a row, so it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced single-digit temps.

Getting back to the questions I posed earlier, let me tackle the second part first: Don’t dig anything up, at least not yet. Remember, the vast majority of plants common to landscapes in this area are dependably hardy. Many of them are able to tolerate temperatures of -20 degrees, and some can handle temps even lower. And a number of plants – crape myrtles for example – may die back to the ground because their top growth isn’t hardy enough, but they’re rootball is, in which case new growth will begin to appear in spring.

 And while I’m not a gardening psychic, nor do I have a crystal ball, I think just about every plant that grows – assuming it was hardy in the first place – will bounce back and be just fine come spring. Some may require a bit of cosmetic pruning to get rid of scorched leaves (wait another few weeks before doing that), but that’s a small price to pay. The exceptions would be those plants that didn’t have enough soil moisture (meaning you failed to water!) before the bottom fell out of the thermometer. If that’s the case, you won’t actually know the verdict until late spring or early summer when the plant starts growing (or at least tries to grow) rapidly.

Feel better now? 

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14 responses to “Plants Looking Puny?”

  1. Jean Eckert says:

    I do! Patience when we have such warm temperatures is difficult. Thanks, Paul. Jean from Dirt Friends.

  2. Susi Eastin says:

    What about those that were in pots? I have a half dozen shrubs in 5 gal pots I left out on the covered patio, and watered occasionally.

    • Paul James says:

      Plants in pots are generally less hardy than those planted in the ground. Time will tell. Cross your fingers!

  3. Tom Emmert says:

    My nandinas look really bad so good to hear they have a chance to rebound. First time ever I’ve had nandinas look this way. Appreciate your commentaries

  4. Paul James says:


    Best to wait until late February into early March, depending on weather. If you prune now and it warms up, plants made produce tender young growth that might then be damaged by a late freeze in April.

  5. Mike says:

    Paul..How about lots of leaves in the flower beds. Would you recommend getting them out of there and off the plants now or later in spring or not at all.

    Thanks Paul.

    • Paul James says:


      Make no mistake, leaves are my absolute favorite source of organic matter. But when left whole in flower beds they can form a fairly impenetrable mat, making it difficult for water to percolate into the root zone of plants. My advice is to remove the leaves, shred them if possible with a mulching mower or string trimmer, and let them rot for a few months somewhere out of sight. Once they’ve composted thoroughly, use them as a soil amendment on anything that grows. I’d also recommend that once you’ve removed the leaves, you top off your beds with a fresh layer of chipped or shredded bark mulch. And guess what? That’s exactly what I’ll be doing this weekend!

  6. Mike ORourke says:

    Thanks so much Paul.
    can I ask you one more ?
    I have 5-6 dogwood trees. Bought them all from you guys.
    They are all great but sometimes they bloom and other times not.
    Any Tips ?

    Thank you again

    • Paul James says:

      Oh, it’s the old dogwoods aren’t blooming question. Well, Mike, there are several things to consider. First, dogwoods will sometimes bloom in alternate years no matter what. They may not bloom but otherwise look beautiful if they’re in deep shade, or if they get too much nitrogen fertilizer (especially if they’re planted in a lawn that gets fertilized routinely). They not bloom much is your soil is alkaline (they prefer a pH of 6.2 or so). And of course they may not bloom if pruned too late in the year. So, ponder those possibilities and get back with me.

  7. mike says:

    nice..thanks so much Paul.
    love your nursery. Great people work there. They take ownership and very good with people

  8. mike says:

    Great advice…. Do you guys have any Taylor junipers in stock?