What Is Wrong With My Shrub?

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Holly damaged by freeze

Freeze damage to Holly has been widely observed in our area so far this spring.

Around the area, many homeowners are seeing badly damaged shrubs in their landscape. Holly, Japanese maple, crape myrtle, and many different types of boxwood are just a few of the damaged shrubs that we have been receiving calls about. Many homeowners are just starting to observe the issues going on with these types of shrubs. Many are concerned that the rapid damage or dieback that is just being noticed is the result of a fungal or disease pathogen. The reality though is that many of these plants have fallen victim to winter damage that most likely occurred back in December when the temperatures dipped below 0 F, and wind chills were has low as -20 F.

What to Do to Address Winter Kill in Shrubs?

Many may wonder what to do. The best advice that I can give is to continue to wait. Much of the winter damage may not be seen even until later this summer. While some landscape shrubs may be so heavily damaged that they need to be replaced, in many cases you will not know until later in the year. In some instances, it may take years to for landscape shrubs to recover from heavy winter kill. Most winter damaged landscape shrubs should start to exhibit some regrowth and recovery going into summer. However, keep in mind that it may take years for your landscape shrubs to recover.

Resist the urge to fertilize your shrubs or winter damaged trees. Fertilization in the spring can actually make matters worse. That is because the roots were damaged by the freeze, and root growth will decrease as the shrubs begin to recover. Spring fertilization of shrubs may promote shoot or top growth initially, but the growth may turn out to be more than the plant roots can support when hot, dry weather stress comes in the next couple of months. Even under normal circumstances, fertilization of landscape shrubs is only recommended in the dormant period (November-December) when this practice encourages root growth. So, do not apply fertilizer to damaged shrubs this spring.

What about pruning?  Most of the time, pruning of woody landscape plants is of little value to the plants themselves and is done rather for aesthetics and human preference. For most small leaved evergreen shrubs that were damaged by the winter weather, the foliage is now dry and crispy. If left alone, the damaged leaves and twigs will eventually fall to the ground on their own. You can put two hands in among the damaged foliage and rub it gently. All of the dead foliage and many small twigs will fall harmlessly to the ground. For many spiny hollies, you may want to wear gloves to protect your hands as you do this. For those shrubs that have been sheared into a formal hedge, light sheering can be done now or later.

Here are a few other options if you can’t wait because you just can’t live with the sight of a damaged landscape shrub in your landscape.

  1. You may just consider replacing them if they were not the pride and joy of your landscape to begin with. Change them out with something that you like better.
  2. If your damaged tree or shrub is found in most other yards in your neighborhood, consider replanting them with something that is not as common. You may want to choose a newer variety and species of landscape plant that has greater resistance to common diseases or a unique growth habit. This will allow for greater species diversity which makes for healthier and greener communities. It helps minimize disease issues and can be more aesthetically pleasing.
  3. If the shape or structure is in jeopardy due to freeze damaged but you don’t necessarily want to replant, you can cut it back to the ground. Most shrubs will regrow rapidly. And if it doesn’t, you can always replace that plant with a different species next fall.

If you would like more information or assistance with issues in your landscape, reach out to the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Yancey County Center. You can contact the Yancey County Agriculture Extension Agent David Davis (david_davis@ncsu.edu) by email or by calling (828) 682-6186.