Early Spring Advice

Butterfly and flower in Greenville, SC

Well, winter is finally here… or is it?  Seems like the weather can’t really make up it’s mind these days.  All-in-all it has been a pretty mild winter, we haven’t even had a real ground freeze yet, and it’s near the end of January.  Then, last week we got a quick reminder that is still is winter – an ice storm paired with freezing daytime temps was a bit of a reality check.  And, now it seems to be warming up again.

All this unpredictable weather normally won’t fool trees and shrubs in the landscape, they are used to fluctuations in temperature… to a certain degree.  However, some of our early spring favorites might get coaxed out of dormancy a little too early with these warm temps, leaving them susceptible to damage from frosts that are surely still to come.  If you notice plants in your garden that are starting to grow in February, don’t panic.  There are things you can do to help protect them.

For young trees and shrubs, pay attention to the moisture level in the soil – as the plants start to grow their need for water might increase.  Making sure your young trees and shrubs are properly watered can help prevent damage to new roots in the event of a deep freeze.  As always, take care not to overwater.  Also, having a good layer of mulch helps protect the root zone from temperature extremes, and helps moderate soil moisture.

Tender new growth that occurs after the buds open up is also especially sensitive to freezes.  Light frosts are probably ok, but if lower temps are expected you might consider putting a protective row cover over the plant.  If the size and location of the plant permit such an action, you can simply drape the “floating row cover” over the plant that needs protection.  (Don’t forget to take it off the during the day if the temperature is above freezing.)  A row cover is a lightweight, woven fabric used by farmers to protect crops from freezes, and extend the growing season.  They are widely available, but most lightweight fabrics can be used in a pinch – sheets, thin blankets, etc.  Take your time, so as not to damage the new growth while putting up, and taking down, the row cover.

One more thing to consider is the timing of fertilizer applications.  Make sure not to fertilize anything until all danger of frost is gone.  As soon as the plants start to grow you may be tempted to give them some food, but fertilizing too early can set them up for trouble down the line.  A dose of fertilizer will encourage a flush of new growth, and if a hard freeze comes along, the damage could be severe.  After the last frost in your area it is safe to go ahead and feed.

Finally, it’s important not to worry too much.  Remember, in the end your plants will probably be alright.  Trees and shrubs are extremely adaptable,  and as long as their basic cultural requirements are met, they should be able to withstand the rigors of our environment.