We had a pretty mild winter in the Philadelphia area this year. No measurable snow fell, and temperatures were tolerable most of the time. Except for one little flash freeze in December. A flash freeze occurs when temperatures drop drastically in a short period of time. On December 23, 2022, the temperature in the Philadelphia area dropped 40 degrees in a 24-hour period giving plants (and people) no time to adjust.
According to the Grumpy Gardener, when broadleaf evergreens are subjected to a flash freeze, they don’t have enough time to withdraw water from their leaves. Ice crystals form inside the leaves, burst the cells, and kill the foliage. In my own garden I noticed significant die-back on Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) and Skip Laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Schipkaensis’). I’ve also seen more dead wood in Hydrangeas than in past years with lots of dried-up buds. My friends and co-workers will tell you that I’m a bit impatient in the garden. I want things to look good all the time. When I asked nursery professionals what I should do to address the damage I was witnessing, I was advised to ‘wait and see.’
What? Wait? Do nothing? That’s not me. But I tried to take the advice of professionals and in some cases I succeeded. I did nothing to my Skip Laurels. I decided they will recover. And even if they don’t, I know that it’s possible to cut a Skip Laurel to the ground and have it regrow from the base. I learned this the hard way when storm damage caused me to take this approach.
I was tempted to take action right away with suffering plants but instead I waited. I looked for other signs of life in the garden. I enjoyed seeing many other plants burst into bloom like Epimediums and Veronica Georgia Blue. But after distracting myself long enough, I started doing some tests to determine if my plants had survived. I scratched the branches of any dead-looking plants to see if I uncovered green. If I saw green, I knew the plant had life in it. If I saw brown instead, I knew the branch was dead. Another test I tried was to bend a stem. If it was pliable, I knew it was alive and likely to survive.
After doing my scratch and bend tests, I started my official cleanup. I cut brown Sarcococca stems to the ground hoping for a flush of new growth at the base. They may not look great this year, but my fingers are crossed that by next year they will fully recover. At least they look better to me. I’m not looking at dead foliage – just gaps in foliage, which I find tolerable and more in keeping with my ‘neat and tidy’ aesthetic. I took a similar approach with my Hydrangeas, pruning branches back to the first set of leaves and cutting out the dead wood.
You might be more patient than I am. Maybe you are comfortable waiting a long time to see what happens. Or maybe once you’ve inspected your plants, you immediately develop a plan of attack. I recommend you do whatever works best for you. Scratch, bend, prune or just wait and see.